Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Returned heads reminders of a brutal past

In an article about 16 Maori heads being returned to New Zealand from France the following appears:

Some Maori heads, with intricate tattoos, were traditionally kept as trophies from tribal warfare. But once Westerners began offering prized goods in exchange for them, men were in danger of being killed simply for their tattoos, French museum officials have said.

But that is only part of the story. Slaves were deliberately tattooed and beheaded when carved faces became a commodity. I can think of nothing more terrifying and barbaric. Undergoing the extreme pain of having one's face chiselled for reasons of rank and pride is one thing. Imagine experiencing the same agonising process in the knowledge that it is preceding your death. That is always my first thought when I hear about heads being repatriated. I struggle to understand why anyone wants a reminder of this brutal, exploitive practice.

One of the best things about the Treaty is that it effectively abolished slavery in Maoridom. The history of NZ Maori is a savage one. Peaceful tribes were obliterated or enslaved by stronger, more violent and acquisitive tribes. A recipe for a harsh, short-life society. The spiritualistic ceremonies that accompany the return of the remainders and reminders of such times are misplaced.

Maori, the island nation's indigenous people, believe their ancestors' remains should be respected in their home area without being disturbed.

Ironic as they weren't respected in life. Perhaps there is a healing and closure; an apologistic aspect to the process that evades me.


Kiwiwit said...

Great blog. Yes, it is galling that Maori and their apologists demand respect and deference for a culture that, with the exception of some fine primitive art, had no redeeming features.

Bez said...

Lindsay, it gets much better than that actually. Early in the 20th century a NZ scholar wrote a PhD thesis in economics (I can't remember whether it was Oxford or Cambridge), which was later published as a book. In it he (amongst other things) conclusively argues that pre-colonization Maori economy was unsustainable without the practice of slavery. I don't have to mention of course that pointing this out to Maori is not the PC thing to do.

Lucia Maria said...

I get the feeling that a number of Maori beliefs and practices are being invented for today. It's turning into a new age religion.

Anonymous said...

Here is an interesting academic paper (from America) on the commercialization of tattooed Maori heads


Amongst other things it says that heads were a valuable trade item in the arms race as tribes strove to acquire muskets.

Once the 'supply' of warriors with moko began to decline, as the article notes, some Maori "tattooed slaves and the heads
created for commercial purposes were done carelessly and without attention to detail and
the tattoos that resulted were a “jumble of meaningless motifs” "

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Anon, That link isn't working for me.

Anonymous said...

I have checked the link and it worked for me.
The title of the article is

Here is a link to publications by the organisation that published this piece - hope this works


Anonymous said...

Part of the present drive to have these artefacts returned to NZ has much to do with the large amount of money and resources at the disposal of maori elite who get to travel the world on their quest and at our expense


Bez said...

While we're working through references, this is the book I was talking about: R. Firth (1959). Economics of the New Zealand Maori. Wellington: Shearer.

(Maybe hard to get)

Anonymous said...

Easier to pickup a couple of tattooed heads.


Lindsay Mitchell said...

Ha, ha. Wrong Dirk. I have it on my bookshelf Bez. First edition was 1929. I was just thumbing through it the other day.

Anon, link working now. Vagaries of my laptop. Interesting and well-written to boot. There is reference to the practice of tattooing the baptismal name down the upper arm as a mark of conversion to Christianity. I recently did a pastel from a photo which had exactly that - "Ratima" down the upper arm of a young Maori woman. It's at my artist blog.

Anonymous said...

Good to see one Maori tradition is being upheld...the tradition of selling something and then claiming it back years later as the original sale was somehow invalid. I don't see the Maori returning the money to the French that they paid for the heads. Same with their land.

Anonymous said...

Now here's a good rabble rousing post.

James said...

Truth an issue for you is it Anon...?

Anonymous said...

No James, the truth isn't an issue for me though I thought in the interests of fairness Lindsay might have had a few words on the sort or people who visited museums to gawk at this sort of exhibit.