By Ishaan Tharoor
Wednesday, May. 12, 2010
Robert Pratta / Reuters
Last week, France's National Assembly voted to return the mummified heads of 16 Maoris from various museums back to their homeland in New Zealand. In traditional Maori practice, the heads of one's forefathers, often tattooed to the bone of the skull, were kept as totems honoring their spirits. But a macabre colonial-era fascination with these remains led to a lucrative trade, and many of the embalmed heads whisked away to Europe in the 19th century were actually Maori slaves, forcibly tattooed and decapitated by local or foreign opportunists.
At one time, over 500 Maori heads languished in the cellars of European museums; only in the past two decades, following calls from the New Zealand government as well as rights groups, have over 320 been repatriated. "You do not build a culture on trafficking," said France's culture minister, Frederic Mitterand, on May 5. "You build a culture on respect and on exchange." Just three years ago, though, his ministry blocked a French museum's independent offer to return the lone Maori head in its possession, fearful that it could lead to an emptying of other untold skeletons in France's closet.