The Return – part 1

I can’t believe it – it really happened. Almost exactly 70 years after Wairau Bar was “excavated” and the bones of the people that lived there seven centuries ago were removed, they are now safe back where they belong. It really happened.


I re-entered the story about three months after I left Wairau Bar and the blog went into hibernation for a while!! On a sunny morning I strolled across Christchurch for the beginning of the end – the first stage of a multi-phase journey to take the ancestors back to their home on Wairau Bar. It was April 14th, 2009 – for Rangitane destined to be forever a historic date. Right now a couple of bus loads of them were heading this way from Blenheim – coming en masse to reclaim the bones of their tupuna from Canterbury Museum for immediate return and reburial at Wairau Bar. They had kindly invited me along, both as a guest and so I could finish the story on the blog. I didn’t really know what to expect, to be honest. I knew it would be emotional, but…

Everybody seemed tense long before it even began. This was a huge day for everybody concerned – Rangitane, Canterbury Museum, Ngai Tahu, who would welcome Rangitane onto their territory, Government Ministers and many many VIPs from around the country. And a blogger, trying to be inconspicuous!

The buses are late – rumours fly that one broke down somewhere near Kaiapoi (ironically a location of much strife – see here and here). There’s a lot of pacing and looking at watches. The media are here in force – film crews and newspaper reporters and photographers – poised and ready and no doubt worrying about deadlines. Suddenly and miraculously, the long-awaited convoy appears, and things really take off. A hundred-strong party of Rangitane have come like a storm –  warriors wielding taiha and wearing angry bands of red pigment across their eyes leap off the bus to confront the crowd outside the museum, including many bewildered tourists who struggle to comprehend what they are seeing. Led by Kiley Nepeia, the warriors execute a lethal mau rakau, or weaponry ritual, to keep the group safe. Off the bus they pour – kids and oldies and in between, many from Blenheim but others from further afield in the Rangitane universe – Levin, Nelson, even Auckland. After a quick catch-up with my old friend Richard Bradley (“Stick with us cuz – we’re going in as a group”), we sweep through the Museum entrance and into a wall of emotion.

The women of Rangitane are all dressed in  black, with traditional mourning wreaths of koromiko twigs, and when they begin to wail I feel like someone has tipped an ice-cube down the back of the my shirt – it’s the most eerily beautiful sound you could imagine – almost unearthly, but grounded in very real grief. It’s impossible not to feel a tight knot form in my throat.


The warriors address their ancestors, declaring they are here to return them home :

museum2Honestly, there was thunder and lightening in the air – I’ve never experienced such an intense emotional atmosphere. There are many tears – even from some of the news crews. The Rangitane women and warriors surround the four rimu caskets that hold the remains of 53 of their ancient ones. They clearly mean business – it has taken 70 years and three generations to get to this moment.


tupuna-casketsjudith-respect2There is a special link between Judith and “Aunty” – the second person found at Wairau Bar by Jim Eyles way back in 1939. Only her skull was removed, and she has been honoured with her own carved wakatu papaku (carved wooden funeral box). If you look closely Judith is wearing an identical replica of the taonga found with Aunty’s grave – an enormous four-piece whale and porpoise bone necklace that is considered one of the most remarkable examples of early Polynesian art ever found.


The crowd bulges forward to hear Rangitane, Canterbury Museum  and Kai Tahu representitives speak, and my adrenaline is pumping. I wish I could understand Maori, I really do, but I’m afraid I don’t and so I’m sure I missed much of the finer detail of what was said by the various speakers. However, everyone’s emotion was so raw, and so projected, that I found I could at least follow the general tone of what was going on – a complex hurricane of anger, pride, sorrow, resolution and apology. Tears were shed and sticks waved. Fingers pointed and voices raised. But at the end of it, once these feelings had been vented and we were all mingling out the back over tea and sausage rolls,  there was great joy and excitement – after so many decades of conflict and controversy over these people, everyone had come together and agreed that they were going home…


You can see the TV1 news story about the Canterbury Museum ceremony HERE

And newspaper stories:

MALBOROUGH EXPRESS (also  this one) and reporter Claire Connell’s blog HERE)





3 Responses to “The Return – part 1”

  1. 1 Clive Copeman
    April 22, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Good stuff Quinn, I’ve been waiting on a wrap or an update on this story for months!

  2. April 25, 2009 at 12:08 am

    Tena ano koe taku hoa; it was good to see the blog back in action again covering “Wairau Bar Tupuna – The return”. The visit to the Museum last week would make a good Tarantino script in many ways. I have been involved in many different projects and escapades and this one without a doubt has given me the most personal satisfaction as an individual and as a member of the Rangitane Iwi. Like many events Rangitane become embroiled in, this journey has not been without its share of controversy. Despite the best endeavours of Canterbury Museum, Ngai Tahu and Rangitane to restore the human dignity of these early people by repatriation, there have been contrary opinions in favour of keeping them imprisoned in the crypt. Its been my experience that exhortations for further analysis are really only invitations for paralysis. Case in point being that after the repatriation was finally completed at the Wairau Bar I was approached by the sons of the late Roger Duff who shared with me that had their father not died prematurely he would have carried out the same action as Rangitane. The daughters of Jim Eyles who also attended the repatriation ceremony informed me that their father had similar views regarding the eventual repatriation of the tupuna to Wairau Bar.
    So the repatriation of the Tupuna ended the sense of loss felt by Rangitane and actually identified a unity of purpose for ourselves and the descendants of Duff,Eyles (and the Peranos. Now thats chiefly behaviour – on both sides. Keep the episodes coming….

  3. 3 wairau
    April 28, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Kia ora Richard!

    I totally agree with the “unity of purpose” observation – for those of us lucky enough to attend the ceremony and especially stay on the marae and live as a group for four days, it was certainly a bonding experience, no matter what our backgrounds. Rangitane really did themselves proud – I felt so welcomed and included in everything, and even though it was technically a tangi there was a lot of joy, positive energy, enormous amounts of kai and lots of interesting conversations long into the night. Huge thanks to all my Rangitane friends and everyone who was there when history was made – as we joked afterwards “people will be reading about this for the next hundred years!!”. Q.

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