Rapa Nui Ancestors Returning Home

Saturday 27 January 2018

Canterbury Museum, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) and Otago Museum will repatriate two ancestral skulls to their homeland in the first repatriation ever to Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

The Rapa Nui delegation and other visitors are called onto Tuahiwi Marae

The Rapa Nui delegation and other visitors are called onto Tuahiwi Marae

This is only the fourth time that New Zealand has repatriated ancestral remains to another country.

The tīpuna (ancestors) will be returned to a delegation from Rapa Nui on 27 January 2018 and farewelled by Canterbury Museum, Ngāi Tūāhuriri, Te Papa and Otago Museum in a ceremony at Tuahiwi Marae, North Canterbury.

Canterbury Museum has cared for the first of the tipuna for almost 70 years since the New Zealand Government purchased 3,184 Māori and Pacific taonga from British collector William Oldman on 13 August 1948. The Oldman Collection was distributed among New Zealand museums but is held collectively in trust with Te Papa as the national museum on behalf of the New Zealand Government. Canterbury Museum taonga relate to the Cook Islands, Hawai’i, the New Hebrides and Rapa Nui, including the skull of the Rapa Nui ancestor.

The second tipuna was brought to Otago Museum in March 1935, along with other taonga from Rapa Nui, by Frederick G Dustin, the fuel engineer on Richard E Byrd’s second expedition to Antarctica (1933–35). One of the two ships on the expedition called at Rapa Nui before reaching New Zealand in December 1933. Dunedin was the expedition’s last port of call on the way to Antarctica and the first on the way back.

Rapa Nui
A small delegation from Rapa Nui consisting of kaumātua (elders), repatriation researchers, and government officials have made the long journey of nearly 7,000 kms from the eastern Pacific to Aotearoa to uplift their tīpuna.

“Our Ariki Hotu Matu’a sent out seven messengers toward the rising sun to find the land for our people, Te Pito O Te Henua. We, the sons and daughters of Ariki Hotu Matu’a, and our Māori siblings have come together today to bring our ancestor back home. We are deeply thankful to our Māori siblings for responding to our call across Te Moana A Kiva and welcome us on our journey to reunite with our tupuna after so many years,” says Piru Huke, Koro Oroŋo/Advisory Panel to the Rapa Nui Repatriation Program.

“We are very thankful to the whānau of Ngāi Tūāhuriri for welcoming us to their homeland and supporting us on our efforts for bringing our tupuna to rest at home. We are also very grateful to the whānau of Ngāti Toa Rangatira for hosting us on our way to Christchurch,” says Nizo Tuki, Koro Oroŋo/Advisory Panel to the Rapa Nui Repatriation Program.

“We thank to the tupuna for giving us a place on the great Polynesian family. We thank the Māori whanau for acknowledging our common root and respectfully answering to our repatriation request with an open heart. We deeply thank Marae Hongoeka and Marae Tuahiwi families for embracing and feeding us, allowing us to dive deeper into Maori tikanga. We very especially thank Te Papa Museum, Ōhākī o Ngā Tīpuna, Canterbury Museum, and Otago Museum for agreeing to these repatriations. Tena koutou katoa,” says Mario Tuki, Motuha Hokiīŋa/Repatriation Team, Rapa Nui Repatriation Program.

Canterbury Museum
The Rapa Nui Ka Haka Hoki Mai Te Mana Tupuna Repatriation Program requested the return of the tipuna from Canterbury Museum in February 2014.

Canterbury Museum Director Anthony Wright says “We’re so pleased that we have been able to work collaboratively with Rapa Nui, Te Papa and the governments of New Zealand and Chile since then to return the tipuna home. We’re very appreciative of the support we have received from Ngāi Tūāhuriri and grateful for them hosting this internationally significant occasion. We hope that in highlighting this repatriation, we will encourage others to consider returning ancestral remains to their homelands.”

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Te Papa’s Kaihautū (Māori Co-leader) Dr Arapata Hakiwai says the museum was delighted to support the repatriation request.
“We are pleased to support the repatriation request, and return the tipuna to their homeland with dignity and respect. Over the years many international institutions have generously supported our requests to repatriate Māori and Moriori ancestral remains. I am pleased we are able to respond in the same spirit.”

Otago Museum
Otago Museum Director Ian Griffin says “The news that Canterbury Museum and Te Papa were returning a tipuna to Rapa Nui encouraged us to check our own collection. When we discovered we did hold a tipuna we passed this information to the Rapa Nui Repatriation Programme and subsequently received a repatriation request. We are honoured to be part of this important occasion.”
Matapura Ellison, Otago Museum Māori Advisory Committee Chair says “As manawhenua associated with Otago Museum we commend the museum for this step to repatriate these human remains to their people of origin - the Rapa Nui people. We think this response from Otago and Canterbury Museums to the request for repatriation is indicative of an improving relationship between museological organisations and indigenous peoples.”

Ngāi Tūāhuriri
The handover ceremony acknowledging the return of the tīpuna to their community, will be hosted at Tuahiwi Marae. The local hapū, Ngāi Tūāhuriri will ceremonially welcome the Rapa Nui representatives and their tīpuna onto Tuahiwi Marae. A small delegation of Ngāi Tūāhuriri kaitiaki (guardians) will accompany the tīpuna to Rapa Nui to complete the handover.

“The whānau of Ngāi Tūāhuriri are honoured to be able to provide a place for Canterbury Museum, Te Papa, Otago Museum, the iwi and the people of Rapa Nui to gather to farewell these ancestors,” says Ngāi Tūāhuriri Upoko Dr Te Maire Tau. “Our practice here has always been ‘kia atawhai ki te iwi, to care for the people,’ and that’s what we are doing today. This is an important occasion and I’d like to acknowledge Canterbury Museum and Otago Museum for doing the right thing by returning these ancestors to their home.”

On returning to Rapa Nui on 31 January the tīpuna will receive an official welcome home, and be placed in a haretapu (sacred repository) at the Rapa Nui Museum prior to reburial.


  • The trade of ancestral remains was common around the world from the eighteenth century through to the late nineteenth century. Many tīpuna made their way into museum collections over the years as subjects of study, however, research also indicates many indigenous ancestral remains were taken from their resting places without consent or permission from their respective communities.
  • William Oldman was a British collector who began assembling his collection in the late nineteenth century, purchasing objects from museums, auction houses and other collectors. He purchased the Rapa Nui tipuna from Sotheby’s auction house on 16 February 1939. It was formerly from the collection of Senor Carlos Cruz Eyzaguirre of Santiago, Chile (a well-known Chilean architect). It may have previously belonged to his father, Carlos Cruz Montt.
  • Over the years, Canterbury Museum has undertaken and published a significant amount of research relating to the kōiwi tangata (human remains) in its care. For example, prior to the repatriation of ancestral remains from Wairau Bar to Rangitane iwi in 2009, a major scientific research project investigated aspects of those tīpuna. This internationally ground-breaking research into the first arrivals of Māori in Aotearoa revealed amazing details about these tīpuna, right down to details that could allow facial reconstruction.
  • The tipuna from the Otago Museum came into its care in March 1935 along with other items from Rapa Nui, as part of an exchange of objects with Frederick G Dustin, a fuel engineer on the 2nd Byrd expedition to Antarctica (1933–1935).
  • In New Zealand, ancestral remains were mainly taken off display in museums from the 1970s.
  • In 2003, the New Zealand Government with the support of Māori and Moriori resourced Te Papa to establish the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, and has repatriated over 450 Māori and Moriori ancestral remains back to New Zealand.
  • Auckland War Memorial Museum has previously repatriated ancestral remains out of New Zealand to Tasmania (1996), Niue (2007) and the Solomon Islands (2008).

List image: The delegation from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) outside Tuahiwi Marae in North Canterbury. The tīpuna from Otago and Canterbury Museums are carried by Joaquin Tuki Tepano (left) and Ida Huke Atan (right).


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