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Now that Vienna has fallen...

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Lachy Paterson
06 December, 2022

You may recall in the news recently accounts of kōiwi (bones) and tūpāpaku (bodies) being repatriated from Austria.  The processes for their return was long and arduous, with the first formal request, a petition, emerging as the war was coming to an end in 1945. This was just one of many Māori petitions.  For many years, petitions to parliament had been an important way for Māori of righting wrongs, seeking redress, and pursuing claims whether for personal reasons, iwi claims, and political issues, and these continued through the war and after.  Petition 66/1945 was just one of these.


Between 1877 and 1889, an Austrian ornithologist, Andreas Reischek worked in New Zealand, collecting and preserving native bird specimens for scientific study.  In 1881, King Tāwhiao had reached out to the government after the 17 years of isolation following the Waikato War. Reischek exploited this desire for friendship by gaining the trust of the Māori King and other chiefs, and receiving permission to enter Kīngitanga territory to look for birds.  However, Reischek was also interested in collecting other items, such as Māori human remains, such as bones and “mummies”,[1] and may have been encouraged in these endeavours by Ferdinand von Hockstetter, a former scientific visitor to New Zealand and from 1876 the head of the Imperial Natural History Museum at Vienna.[2]


In his book, Yesterdays in Maoriland, Reischek boasted of his exploits, describing how he robbed graves, taking two bodies from caves at Kāwhia under the cover of darkness and hiding them until he could convey them to Auckland. “But even then I kept them cautiously hidden from sight right up to the time of my departure from New Zealand. Now both these ancestors of the Maori adorn the ethnographical collection of the Imperial Natural History Museum at Vienna.”[3]


One of the bodies stolen was most likely Tūpāhau, a Tainui rangatira of the seventeenth century.[4]  While Māori soon discovered the theft, it does not appear that they suspected Reischek.[5]  Indeed, it may not have been until the 1930s, after Reischek’s book had been translated into English, and details of the Viennese Māori collections were published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society,[6] that his crimes were fully known.


Austria had been incorporated within Germany in 1938 and its people were part of the Nazi war effort. In 1945, with the war in Europe ending, Lieutenant Colonel Arapeta Awatere, commanding officer of the 28thMāori Battalion then stationed in Northern Italy, contemplated a mission to Vienna to seize the human remains collected by Reischek. However, his men were disinclined to handle the bones, and he was dissuaded by his seniors.[7]  


Later that year, Paneta Maniapoto Ōtene and others petitioned parliament.   They wrote:


Now that Vienna has fallen we your humble petitioners humbly pray that your honourable house will take steps to have restitution made on behalf of the Maori people by taking steps to have the whole of the Collection herein referred to returned to the Dominion of New Zealand.


Their petition also explained that Reischek had befriended important Tainui and Ngāti Maniapoto chiefs who had given him free access in the King Country.  They saw his actions as “a ghoulish act” that “was a serious betrayal of trust . . . which caused deep grievance to the late Maori King, Chiefs and the Maori people”.  The petition also noted that the museum possessed “37 Maori skulls and a number of mummified Maori bodies”.[8]


The petition bounced around several government departments and parliament’s Maori Affairs Committee for about a year. Although some officials and politicians showed some sympathy, the government did not act as rigorously as it might have.  In October 1945, James Thorn, the Under-Secretary to the Prime Minister’s Department had recommended that, if the museum objected, “no further action be taken seeing that scientific interests might be served”.  In June 1946, the Prime Minister’s Department reported that the British government was discouraging the government from including any references to Māori remains in any peace treaty since “this is not a matter arising out of the recent war with Germany”.  In July 1946, a Native Department memorandum informed External Affairs that “no good purpose would be served by taking any further action”.[9]


The July 1946 memorandum had also stated that the petitioners could “hardly be said to be representative of the people concerned, nor has any move been made by the leaders of the either the Waikato or Maniapoto tribes”.  The implication was that they were not important enough to warrant government assistance.  The file in Archives New Zealand lists the signatories, and someone (perhaps an official) has added in their iwi.  The first name and likely the petition initiator, Paneta Maniapoto Ōtene, is listed as Tūwharetoa, nine are listed as Ngāti Haua Rukumoana, and just one as Maniapoto. However the file also contains a handwritten whakapapa for Paneta Maniapoto Ōtene, the son of Pae Ōtene and Pareawa Maniapoto, with the note “The marriage between Pae Otene and Pareawa Maniapoto was arranged by the Tribe of Ngati Maniapoto-Tuwharetoa and Hawke Bay Tribe Kahungunu to avoid any future friction between the two Tribes.” A newspaper clipping enclosed in the file announcing the death of his mother, Pareawa Maniapoto Ōtene, also points to her high birth.[10]  It is clear that at least one official knew that the petition’s first signatory was thus someone of note within Ngāti Maniapoto.


In 1946 a second petition (38/1946) was submitted, by Raureti Te Huia and 23 others of the King Country, very similar to Ōtene’s petition.[11]  Te Huia possessed illustrious whakapapa within Ngāti Maniapoto, and became a member of the Tainui Trust Board.[12]  The petition noted its support for the Ōtene one, and purported to contain the signatures of “23 chiefs of the Waikato tribes”.[13]  This move was perhaps to indicate more clearly “representative” iwi support.


To questions from the Prime Minister’s Office, a memorandum from the Clerk of the Maori Affairs Committee confirmed in September 1946 that Reischek’s actions were a “betrayal … of the trusting kindness and bountiful hospitality of his hosts”, that Māori had not tried to get the human remains removed before because they were unaware where they were; and the return of the “relics” would be of great significance to Māori due to their tapu nature.  However, the memorandum conceded that the Committee’s support for the two petitions was “only half-hearted”, but because “a ‘no recommendation’ report might have offended on such a touchy subject”, they recommended the government consider them.[14] Despite this ambivalence, the government did ask the British government several times to push for the return of the Kāwhia bodies.

In 1928 Reischek’s collection had been divided between two museums, one for natural history and the other (where the Kāwhia bodies lay) for ethnography. However, the museums’ collections also included preserved heads that Māori had traded for muskets.  Because ethnological advice suggested that Māori did not practice “mummification”, and the advice did not differentiate between the Kāwhia bodies and the other remains, the British government did not consider there was a strong claim for repatriation.[15]


Further requests followed in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was not until the following decade that more fruitful negotiations began.  Formal requests, initiated by the Māori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, and the New Zealand government in the 1970s saw the return of a Tainui tupuna, most likely Tūpāhau, from Austria in 1985.[16]   The Weltmuseum Wien returned another Tainui ancestor in 2015, but it was in 2022, that a much more extensive repatriation, of Māori and Moriori remains, was made by Vienna’s Natural History Museum.[17]


Reischek’s actions in the 1880s were clearly despicable, although he was hardly unique; large collections of Indigenous human remains around the world were taken for “scientific” purposes during the Victorian period. What Reischek did at Kāwhia and elsewhere was immensely painful for the iwi concerned.  They saw the war and the fall of Vienna as an opportunity to request the repatriation of their tūpuna, and redress this wrong.  This took many years to achieve, with the last remains finally returning this year.

Image: "Reischek remains welcomed back to Te Papa", October 2022. Photo by Maiono Barton (Courtesy Waatea News).


[1] Ray G. Prebble. 'Reischek, Andreas', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993, updated October, 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,  (accessed 4 December 2022)

[2] Amber Kiri Aranui, “Te Hokinga Mai O Ngā Tūpuna: Māori Perspectives of Repatriation and the Scientific Research of Ancestral Remains”, PhD (VUW, 2018), pp.438-9.

[3] Andreas Reischek, Yesterdays in Maoriland: New Zealand in the ‘eighties, transl. H.E.L. Priday (Edinburgh: Morrison & Gibb, 1930), 214-216.

[4] Prebble.

[5] New Zealand Herald, 14 June 1883: 5, cited in Coralie O’Hara, “The Andreas Reischek Collection in Vienna and New Zealand’s Attempts at Repatriation” in Cressida fForde, C.Timothy McKeown & Honor Keeler (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Indigenous Repatriation: Return, Reconcile, Renew, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), p.441.

[6] Raymond Firth, “Maori Material in the Vienna Museum”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol 40, no 159 (1931): 95-102.

[7] Aranui, “Te Hokinga Mai”, pp.153-4.

[8] Committees – Maori Affairs [Minute Book, Petitions and Reports], LE1 1261 1945/12, Archives New Zealand, Wellington [ANZ-W].

[9] LE1 1261 1945/12, ANZ-W.

[10] LE1 1261 1945/12, ANZ-W; A version of the newspaper clipping can be seen online. Opunake Times, 25 February 1947: 1.

[11] Maori Affairs Committee (Reports of the): Nga Ripoata a te Komiti mo nga Mea Maori (Mr. J.B. Cotterill, Chairman), I-03, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1946.

[12] Te Awamutu Courier, 15 November 1950: 7.

[13] O’Hara, “The Andreas Reischek Collection”, p.443.

[14] LE1 1261 1945/12, ANZ-W.

[15] O’Hara, “The Andreas Reischek Collection”, pp.443-4.

[16] O’Hara, “The Andreas Reischek Collection”, pp.445-6.

[17] Media Release, 3 October 2022, Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa, “Remains of mummified Tainui child to return home after 100 years”, (Accessed 4 December, 2022); Tepara Koti, “Remains of mummified Tainui descendant returned home from Austria”, Te Ao Māori News, 25 May 2015. 4 December, 2022); Media Release, 3 October 2022, Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa, 4 December, 2022).

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