In the era before toi moko were traded with Pakeha, they were venerated and mourned. Kawe mate ceremonies, where Maori take photographs of deceased whanau members onto marae to mourn them after a tangi, echo the older practices associated with heads.
OK, who’s going to cut off Mum’s head and process it so it can be carried around at funerals? Photos are a bit more user-friendly, don’t you think? You can use photos of what Mum looked like when she was young and beautiful rather than a shrivelled old, ghastly looking death mask. I remember seeing a couple of dried Maori heads when they were on display in the Napier museum – a ghoulish, fascinating sight.Professor Temara said:
The return of the 20 heads, the largest single repatriation, would increase informal "cup-of-tea" conversations already under way about mourning practices, and whether Maori should resurrect the practice . . . A couple of Maori artists have already gone through the process of tattooing little piglets and then rendering them dead. They've then preserved them by methods they think were used by our people to preserve the tattooed heads.
What is the SPCA going to say about that? I notice Professor Temara was a bit squeamish about saying the tattoo artists killed the little piglets; instead they were “rendered dead”.
A Maori academic can get away with such musings because, I guess, we have come to expect this sort of stuff. How does the good professor reconcile cutting off Mum’s head with the abject veneration of wahi tapu sites where ancient bones have been found? I still don’t know whether to take the story seriously or whether it is a wind-up from a mischievous academic practical joker. But then, the story would have come out on April Fools Day.
Professor Temara was not alone in eccentric musings. After gale-force winds delayed the arrival of the heads to Te Papa, the museum's Maori leader Michelle Hippolite said she believed the heads were making absolutely certain that their new home was the right place to land, according to the Dominion Post newspaper, January 30.
There is a whiff of hypocrisy in the fawning veneration that surrounds the returning heads, which were originally sold by Maori forebears who had slaves tattooed and killed, their heads dried and preserved, and sold as merchandise.
See Maori looking at preserving heads again, says academic, New Zealand Herald, January 25, 2012. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10780942