Friday, June 8, 2012

Mike Butler: Dried heads were not sacred

Glad to see that historian Paul Moon is pricking the balloon of sanctimony that surrounds the repatriation of preserved Maori heads, known as “toi moko”. ONE News reported that Moon “uncovered new evidence” which shows the trade in preserved Maori heads was little more than a profitable industry for 18th and 19th century Maori. "One captain for example pointed out he could order a head on demand, turn up at a community, they would find someone, kill a person ... and sell it to them," Moon said.

Moon would have had to claim new evidence to get historically challenged mainstream media reporters to show any interest in the story. Anybody familiar with New Zealand’s brief history would know that preserved Maori heads quickly became a valuable item of trade as 19th century European ethnographers revelled in the discovery of the real live Stone Age Maori culture, and were keen to acquire specimens.

Interesting to see cultural expert Pou Temara quoted in this story, making a great show of piety, by asking: "What about the relatives of people whose heads were taken and sold? What about their feelings? The head is the most sacred part of the human anatomy. If that was true then, it's still true now."

Fair enough, one may say, but readers of my blog of January 29, 2012, entitled “Preserving heads debated”, may recall that Temara was reported as saying Maori were debating whether to revive the practice of preserving human heads. Temara said artists have replicated the old methods by experimenting on piglets.

The Government has given Te Papa $4.5-million since 2003 specifically for its repatriation programme. While Moon does not want that spending be reviewed, he does ask that repatriation ceremonies recognise these were not deeply sacred treasures at the time.


Anonymous said...


Any crap about "cultural insensitivity" ignores the question of who cut the heads off and who sold them in the first place.

There is evidence that when traders admired a particular moko design, the chiefs would have a slave tattooed to order, then slain and his cured head onsold as a curio.

I'm so sick of the way Europeans have been taught by academic Marxists to see their own culture as inherently "oppressive" and to genuflect reflexively and mindlessly to any minority group and its claims of "victimhood."

Barry said...

We still have "real live Stone- Age" part-maori [non]culture in NZ