The remains of dozens of Indigenous Maori and Moriori people were officially received at New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington on Sunday, completing a repatriation process from Austria, where the bones have resided for more than 130 years.
The repatriation “powhiri”, or welcoming ceremony, in bitterly cold, wet conditions at Te Papa concluded when the remains of about 64 Maori and Moriori—the Indigenous people of mainland New Zealand and the Chatham Islands—were taken to the museum’s Rongomaraeroa Marae, a sacred resting place.
The event completed a six-day journey for the remains, which left from the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
Records show that most of the bones, including skulls, were collected by Austrian taxidermist and grave robber Andreas Reischek, who spent 12 years in New Zealand until 1889.
The remains were housed for decades in Austria’s capital after being “stolen with no regard” from New Zealand’s “iwi” (tribes), officials from the two countries agreed.
Reischek’s diaries outlined how he looted graves without permission from several locations, including the Chatham Islands.
William “Pou” Temara, chairman of Te Papa’s Repatriation Advisory Panel, said the repatriation—the largest from Austria to New Zealand—was significant.
“It is always a spiritual relief and privilege to welcome back our ancestors who have been victims of such wrongdoing. Culturally we know that they are weeping with joy now that they have returned to Aotearoa (New Zealand) where at last they will rest in peace.”
Te Papa’s acting head of repatriation Te Arikirangi Mamaku-Ironside praised the assistance of colleagues in Austria in concluding 77 years of negotiations between the countries.
“The Natural History Museum, Vienna has made a profound commitment to right the wrongs of the past, and approached this work with a spirit of openness and reconciliation,” said Temara, before adding that a government-funded repatriation programme has numerous ongoing projects to pursue.
“While we’ve seen an increase in conversations about repatriating human remains, there is still a lot of work to do to bring all our ancestors home.”
The remains will reside at Te Papa while iwi are consulted to determine a final resting place.