Corban Te Aika, curator of human history (Matauranga Maori) at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, shares how his family reconnected with their ancestral pounamu (New Zealand greenstone), after they nearly lost it in battle, and then did lose it to a European collector.
The Te Aika Hei Tiki (hei tiki is a pendant in human form) has been in my family for around seven or eight generations. Around 1830, Kaiapoi Pa, the fortified village that my family has an association with, on New Zealand’s South Island, was attacked by a North Island tribe. The goal of the tribe was essentially to acquire Kaiapoi Pa in order to control the trade of pounamu.
It was quite common practice that if you knew you were going to be attacked, any significant carvings or taonga (treasures) were to be retrieved and, more often than not, hidden or taken away to your backup pa or smaller villages.
When Kaiapoi Pa was about to be attacked, my fourth-generation great-grandfather, Aperahama Te Aika, was sent to retrieve the hei tiki that had fairly recently been buried with his grandfather. We’ve got a watercolor image in the exhibition of the settlement that Aperahama would have lived in and where he would’ve kept the hei tiki after he retrieved it and the war had passed.
The hei tiki remained in the family until around 1922, when my second great-grandfather sold it to a European collector of curios because he needed the money to raise his six children, as his wife had died of tuberculosis.
Finding the Family Hei Tiki
In the mid to late 1990s, my great-uncle decided to see if he could find this hei tiki, and he worked with one of my predecessors here at Canterbury Museum, Roger Fyfe, to track down the hei tiki.
They found it in London, of all places; it had made itself a new home on the other side of the world.
It was a joint venture between the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Roger Fyfe, and my great-uncle to bring the hei tiki home. The family was very fortunate that Te Papa fronted up the cash to help bring it home.
Holding Te Aika Hei Tiki
Prior to the hei tiki arriving here at Canterbury Museum for the “Kura Pounamu: Our Treasured Stone” exhibition, the last time I saw it and got to hold it, I was about 13 or 14 years old. That’s 15, 16 years ago now. Te Papa and my great-uncle had essentially purchased it back, and it was here at Canterbury Museum for a number of years when it first returned to New Zealand, just to allow the family to come in and see it, and interact with it.
It was quite an emotional experience back then because I had heard my grandfather and my great-grandfather talking about it for a number of years, and we grew up knowing that we had this hei tiki somewhere, which belonged to our family and which had been sold off.
I remember two of my aunties in particular. They did a karanga—the high-pitched call of welcome that you often hear in a marae (Maori meeting house)—to the hei tiki as it was being brought out in front of us. It was quite a homecoming ceremony for it in some ways.
I think getting to handle the hei tiki at such a young age was quite a pivotal moment in my life. I could see the history of my family in it. And despite it being very small, it’s a superb example of a hei tiki.
I wanted to make sure that all of our family’s taonga (treasures) like that would ideally be returned or even briefly reunited with us again.
It definitely influenced what I decided to do after high school. Being a young kid and coming into the museum and having to wear gloves and go behind the scenes of the museum, it was like you were going into the deep, dark vaults of the museum, when really it was going into a lab that I walk into every other day that I work here.
When the “Kura Pounamu: Our Treasured Stone” exhibition opened here just before Christmas last year, a branch of the family had a reunion over Christmas, and one day, about 30 of us came into the museum and got to spend a bit of time with the hei tiki—first and foremost to get our photos taken with it. There were a couple of newborn babies that got to see it for the first time, even though they won’t remember it. I think it’s just having that living connection and treating the hei tiki as a taonga, as a treasure, as opposed to just an object that’s important.
It’s been in the family for so long and has had an association with us for seven-ish generations, and that’s something that we want to be able to share with the entire family.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.