Foreshore and seabed information   |   Indigenous Rights

Te Papa treasure 'stolen'

2 November 2004

One of Te Papa's star Maori attractions was acquired in a clear Treaty of Waitangi breach and there is a "real question" over whether the museum legally owns it, the Waitangi Tribunal has found.

The Crown has admitted the acquisition of the carved wharenui Te Hau ki Turanga, displayed on Te Papa's fourth floor breached Treaty principles.

The meeting house's original owner, the Gisborne-based Rongowhakaata iwi, says it was "stolen" by a government minister in 1867.

The iwi wants compensation and will continue to fight to be recognised as the true legal owner and some iwi members want the meeting house returned.

The tribunal has recommended that Te Papa negotiate with the iwi over arrangements for the wharenui's custody and maintenance.

"The Crown accepted that the wharenui had been acquired in breach of the Treaty," the report says. "We considered further that there is a real question about whether Te Papa ever acquired legal title to Te Hau ki Turanga at all."

Rongowhakaata spokesman Lewis Moeau said the iwi was generally pleased with the tribunal's findings, but disappointed it had failed to say the iwi owned the wharenui.

He also confirmed some of the iwi's younger members wanted Te Papa to return the wharenui.

"We would have continued discussions with Te Papa regardless of what the tribunal said, but obviously this gives us a boost," Mr Moeau said.

Te Hau ki Turanga (the breath, or vitality, of Turanga) has been described by one historian as the centrepiece of Te Papa's Maori collection, representing "a high point of the great carving tradition of Turanganui-a-kiwa".

The meeting house was built by prominent Gisborne carver and chief Raharuhi Rukupo in 1842 as a memorial to his older brother. Rukupo refused to sell the building to the Crown in 1865.

But two years later it was confiscated by Native Minister J C Richmond informally acting as director of the Colonial Museum dismantled, and removed on the government steamer Sturt.

Mr Moeau said the iwi enjoyed a good working relationship with Te Papa and talks would continue over the wharenui's future.

The iwi's prime objective was to win legal title of the wharenui, while pursuing a compensation claim with the Government.

"There's been some strong moves by some of the younger people here to bring the wharenui home," he said. "Those are the views and the opinions that have got to be managed, along with the previous decision by our elders to allow Te Papa to show it to the world.

"We're confident that we will establish ownership and then the discussions will go from there."

Te Papa kaihautu Te Taru White confirmed the wharenui was considered one of the museum's "central pieces". The museum was committed to working further with the iwi to confirm the role of the wharenui.

"It's a major iconic piece obviously and we're very keen to establish a long and enduring position with the iwi that we can be the kaitiaki (guardian) of first choice," Mr White said.

Rongowhakaata elders had previously given their blessing to have the "treasure" displayed publicly, which benefited both the iwi and museum visitors.

"It's a great opportunity for the iwi to put themselves on a national and international stage. Up on the East Coast there's not a hell of a lot of traffic through there, so it's an opportunity for them to tell their story."

Treaty Negotiations Minister Margaret Wilson said officials were studying the tribunal's recommendations and looked forward to entering into negotiations with iwi identified in the report.

Oskar Alley
The Dominion Post

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