Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mike Butler: Preserving heads debated

Maori are debating whether to revive the practice of preserving human heads, the New Zealand Herald reported. Waikato University professor Pou Temara, who is the chairman of Karanga Aotearoa, Te Papa Museum's repatriation programme, which received 20 toi moko, or preserved tattooed heads, from French institutions said artists have replicated the old methods by experimenting on piglets. Professor Temara said:
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.


Anonymous said...

Are Maori the only culture in the world that's all about looking backwards? I guess it's hard to look forward with a culture that ended in the stone age.

So who gets the grissly job of decapitator? I just got a nice new hacksaw... just sayin'.

Ray S said...

Don't laugh, many maori look forward to stepping back to the stone age. And why not, we are paying now for stuff that happened back then.

Sarah T said...

HaHa. As a young girl I used to be transfixed by the "smoked" head on display in the Napier museum - a pity younger generations have been deprived of exposure to an unsantitised version of pre-European Maori culture. The following is a description of the preserving process from HG Robley's book Moko. "When the head has been cut off the shoulders, the brains are immediately taken out through a perforation behind, and the skull carefully cleaned inside from all mucilaginous and fleshy matter. The eyes are then scooped out, and the head thrown into boiling water...then placed in a native oven..when sufficiently steamed, it is placed on a stick to dry... the flesh, which easily slips off the bones, is then taken away and ...(stuffed with) flax or bark to preserve the features... the nostrils are carefully stuffed with a piece of fern root, and the lips generally sewn together. It is finished by hanging it for a few days to dry in the sun.

Yes - I can really see this catching on : )

Logo said...

And all, no doubt, at the expense of the general taxpayer! I am sure the recent heads return from France was paid for by the taxpayer, so maybe we now have a grievance claim against Maori tribes who murdered captives and sold their heads. Should we not pursue a claim on behalf of the defeated tribe from which the captives were taken?
This is just as logical as most Maori claims!