Joyful homecoming for precious Maori cloak

By Emily Norman -
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MP Marama Fox and her mother, Francis Reiri-Smith, are overcome at the return of the cloak. PHOTO/ANDREW BONALLACK
MP Marama Fox and her mother, Francis Reiri-Smith, are overcome at the return of the cloak. PHOTO/ANDREW BONALLACK

Tears of joy and jubilation were shed at the welcoming of a historic Maori cloak back home to Wairarapa yesterday afternoon.

The 19th century woven cloak, or korowai, originally belonged to Wairarapa iwi and had been stored in the Rochester Historical Society collection in the United States for more than 100 years.

Since appearing for sale online at the start of the year, the korowai has been in hot demand by Wairarapa iwi who wanted it returned to the area.

However, the cloak sold to a Nelson man instead via Trade Me for a profit of almost $6000.

Wairarapa List MP Marama Fox was at the centre of negotiations with the successful Nelson-based buyer, who had received the precious taonga from Auckland "squashed in a box, and wrapped in some bubble wrap".

Yesterday, Aratoi Museum of Art and History curators wore white gloves and an expression of utmost respect to gently fold back the strands of the cloak for public viewing.

"There was some debate about how much we should negotiate to bring it home from Nelson," Ms Fox said. "A gentleman offered $20,000 for it, but the Nelson man knew that the people who were offering that money were wanting it as an art piece to hang on a wall. But for us, it meant so much more."

The amount paid to bring the taonga home was not disclosed, but it is believed the combined bid from Rangitane, Ngati Kahungunu, and Aratoi was a price worth paying.

"It's absolutely overwhelming and almost indescribable the value that this has to our people," Ms Fox said.

"The greatest thing we have is the reconnection with our ancestors who are definitely here in spirit and here today to see her come home."

Ms Fox said the korowai, which was shaped to the shoulder with darting, was a priceless example of expert weaving which is not seen today.

She said korowai made today are usually square and that this korowai was "a bit wider in the hips so it must be made for me".

"The effort and the time and the amount of harakeke that is involved in making her will be a beacon and example for the future," she said.

"It will connect us with our whenua and it will connect us with our ancestors and be an example for our young people to restore and revive these traditions."

Wairarapa iwi representatives, who collected the korowai from the Nelson Provincial Museum where it was being cared for before its return, lovingly named the cloak Hine Muka.

Aratoi Museum of Art and History director Alice Hutchison said it was very overwhelming to stand up and speak about the korowai at the welcome.

"This is a really important expression of Aratoi's commitment to our iwi," she said.

"It's a deeply significant and symbolic acquisition for us, to join in partnership with Rangitane and Ngati Kahungunu as a museum. To care for and own something together."

She said when Wairarapa iwi were reunited with the korowai in Nelson earlier this week, the feeling in the room, was "so intense and so strong for everybody".

"It was like a wave of incredible love and I've never felt anything like it."

Ms Hutchison said that although the museum could not display the korowai for long periods of time because of its fragility, she hopes to provide access in due course.

"The sunlight and exposure to light is quite damaging and you can see pieces are falling off it every time we move it. So the less movement the better," she said.

"This is the only climate-controlled facility in the region and we are very honoured to be able to hold and care for such incredible taonga that we hope will be preserved for future generations to view."

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