Austria returns remains of 64 indigenous people to New Zealand

People wearing protective masks against COVID-19 ride a tram as it passes the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria, October 19, 2020. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

WELLINGTON, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The remains of around 64 indigenous New Zealanders that were stolen in the 19th century will officially be welcomed home on Sunday following more than 70 years of negotiations, the head of the repatriation team said on Thursday.

The skeletal remains, which include skulls without mandibles, craniums, loose mandibles and maxilla fragments, were handed over in an official ceremony in Vienna on Tuesday, where there was a panel and presentation.

"This panel and presentation highlighted the decades-long journey for the return of these Māori and Moriori ancestors to Aotearoa (New Zealand)," said Te Arikirangi Mamaku-Ironside, the New Zealand national museum's acting head of repatriation.

The Maori and Moriori ancestral remains were largely collected by Austrian taxidermist and grave robber Andreas Reischek from 1877 to 1889.

Katrin Vohland, Director General and Scientific Director, of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, said in a statement she had been impressed by how much the repatriation process was driven by the wish for reconciliation, and was happy her museum could contribute to the healing process.

Reischek was not the only person to steal skeletal remains and remains have ended up in museums and institutions around the world.

Since 2003 Te Papa has operated a programme to repatriate skeletal remains from institutions. More that 600 ancestral remains have since been returned.

In July, London's Natural History Museum returned skeletal remains for 111 Moriori and 2 Maori.

Amber Aranui, who is a curator at Te Papa and spent many years as a researcher for the repatriation programme, said returning ancestral remains to their homes was incredibly emotional and the job wouldn't be completed until they'd been returned to their descendents.

"There's still a lot of work to do," added Aranui, who estimates there could be upwards of 500 ancestral remains still overseas.

Reporting by Lucy Craymer; Editing by Kim Coghill

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