27 Jan 2018

Ancestral skulls returned to Rapa Nui

9:29 pm on 27 January 2018

Two ancestral skulls have been officially returned to representatives of the Pacific island of Rapa Nui at a ceremony near Christchurch.

The skulls have been in the possession of the Canterbury and Otago museums for more than 70 years.

A delegation from Rapa Nui, including elders, researchers and Chilean government officials, received the skulls after a pōwhiri at Tuahiwi Marae this afternoon.

There was also a ceremony at Canterbury Museum this morning, where one of the two skulls has been on display for decades.

Museum director Anthony Wright said it was important to return the skulls to their rightful home, and he hoped this was the start of a new relationship between New Zealand and Rapa Nui.

"I sincerely hope so. Certainly the gifts they have given us are hugely appreciated and they are hugely appreciative of the fact that we are repatriating the tipuna.

"Having made the decision, and the right decision, everybody has come together and worked unbelievably co-operatively."

He said many international institutions had returned Māori ancestral remains in the past, and it was only right New Zealand responded to similar requests in the same spirit.

Mario Tuki, from the Rapa Nui Repatriation Program, said it was a special and emotional day for his people.

"I think this is significant for all of Polynesia," he said.

Mr Tuki said today was a big step towards an ultimate goal of bringing home all of the Rapa Nui tipuna scattered across the world.

"We have a vision for repatriating our tipuna back from all over the world," he said. "It is going to be enhanced by this kind of act...we are deeply thankful."

One of the skulls was bought by the New Zealand government about 70 years ago, as part of a collection of 3,184 Māori and Pacific artefacts from British collector William Oldman.

The second was bought to Otago Museum in 1935 by Frederick Dustin, the fuel engineer on Richard Byrd's second expedition to Antarctica in the 1930s.

On returning to Rapa Nui at the end of January, the tipuna will receive an official welcome, and be placed in a hare tapu at the Rapa Nui Museum prior to reburial.