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Immaterial: Jade Transcript

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Maia Nuku: I’m a little girl and I’ve got a little beautiful box with a lid, and it’s actually made of pāua shell—the iridescent shell from the abalone—and it’s got kind of flecks of that in it.

And I had, I used to keep lots of little special things in that box. And so I would kind of lift the lid and it had this really nice, very satisfying kind of... it fit very tightly and I’d just kind of lift that lid off and I had all these little treasure, treasured items in there. And I had some little pounamu earrings with a little gold stem and, um, a little section of greenstone that I kept in there with some other little goodies. But that was my little treasure box, or my waka huia.

Ko Maia Jessop Nuku ahau
Ko Tainui te waka
Ko Rangiāhua te maunga
Ko Wainui te awa
Ko Torere-nui-a-rua te tipuna
Ko Ngai Tai te iwi
Ko Maia Jessop Nuku ahau
Tēnā koutou katoa.

Camille Dungy: That’s Maia Nuku, curator of Oceanic Art at The Met. She’s in the business of looking after treasure. Nephrite jade has been prized by every culture that’s ever found it in a riverbed. The stone is cool, smooth, and dense, harder than steel. When you strike it, it sings. And the sound is somewhere between metal and stone. It comes in colors ranging from brown to white, but you probably know it best as a brilliant shade of green.

It’s long been treasured in both China and Japan. To the Olmec in what’s now known as Mexico, the green stone was the first breath of the earth. The eleventh-century Persian scholar Biruni wrote that wearing it could protect you against lightning strikes. And in New Zealand, jade–or pounamu—can be an anchor… even as you sail away.

Nuku: It’s almost like the beating heart of Māori culture. Pounamu is this hard, durable, dense, weighty material. But what Māori are asking of it is a fluidity and an ability to kind of move with them. It’s a living thing. Because it is something that’s harvested from the, from the earth. So from the kind of beating heart of the earth.

Dungy: From The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this is Immaterial. I’m Camille Dungy. Today, we look at the agency, power, and meaning of jade in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Nuku: There’s this really important early ancestral narrative about Ngahue, leaving Hawaiki with his greenstone fish Poutini and traveling across the oceans to arrive in Aotearoa, or these two large landmasses that he encountered. They make one landfall and then carry on up and over round to the west coast of the South Island, which is now called Te Waipounamu. And he leaves Poutini there safely, in the river there. And then he returns to Hawaiki and tells of this incredible, rich landscape that he’s just encountered. And he takes a small piece of the side of Poutini back with him. And so he’s telling everyone back in the ancestral homelands in Hawaiki about this incredible place. So he starts to carve toki adzes as well as adornment. So kuru pounamu, or ear pendants and hei tiki.

Dungy: The hei tiki that lives at the Met is a jade pendant that’s deep green, solid, and cool, a bit larger than the palm of your hand. Made to be worn around the neck, the figure is upright; its head tilts to one side. Its eyes are made of pāua shell and embedded into the sockets with bright red sealing wax. It has a wide, heart-shaped mouth, and its eyes hold your gaze.

Greenstone pendant. Maori; Aotearoa New Zealand. Nephrite jade (pounamu), H. 6 1/8 in. (15.5 cm); W. 3 in. (7.6 cm); D. 1 in. (2.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Heber R. Bishop, 1902 (02.18.315)

Nuku: It’s really encapsulating that extraordinary moment where new life is birthed. There’s something very embryonic about this sculpture and the way that it’s conceived. It really mirrors the way that a woman births a child, but it also encapsulates the child itself, all that embryonic force that’s coming down that dark passage to be born into the new world. And so that open mouth and the flaring of the nostrils and that wide open eyes is really evoking that, that sense of vitality. We say Tihei Mauri Ora, you know, it’s like: this is life.
So it’s really all of that energy encapsulated in this beautiful dense stone that you can hold in your hand.

Lisa Ruaka Reweti: When you get to like an embryo, I guess it’s pure, isn’t it? Before, before that baby’s been born, you’ve got a pure little soul there. And I wonder sometimes if the hei tiki represents that part in people, in adults. That childlike, pure, spontaneous way.

Dungy: Lisa Ruaka Reweti is the public programmes presenter at the Whanganui Regional Museum, on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. She’s also in the business of taking care of treasure.

Reweti: If Polynesians were cruising around on the islands for like 5,000 years, you know, coming out of like East Taiwan: they did a hell of a lot of traveling. But right from the get-go, they took that human embryo form with them. 

How long have we been in New Zealand for? About a thousand years. And that’s what they’re bringing with them when they turn up, you know, when they voyage over. So I guess it’s still a connection. It’s that connection to their past. And if it’s a baby, it’s a connection to the future.

And if an adze, a toki, is first arrivals in a new country, then when you start wearing the human form or embryo form on your body, as an art piece. That’s settlement.

Dungy: A lot of the taonga, or treasures, at Lisa’s museum were donated by her family. But one of the most important family taonga doesn’t live in the museum at all. She’s a hei tiki named Te Rauna.

Reweti: I can always remember Te Rauna.

Dungy: Growing up, Lisa’s grandma would tell her the story of how Te Rauna was made.

Reweti: So there was a prophet, his name was Tahupōtiki Rātana. And he kind of had his own religion thing happening about five kilometers out of town, and he called it the Rātana faith. And so people were turning up and he was healing them. And someone came with a piece of tangiwai, it was quite a rare type of greenstone. So he was given this piece, this rock, as a thank you for healing us.

Reweti: And he had three hei tiki made out of the stone he was given. And then he gave one of those hei tiki to my grandmother’s aunt. My grandmother’s mother’s sister. 

Dungy: In 1924, Lisa’s great aunt wore the hei tiki for her haka group’s world tour - brass band, glamorous destinations, and a taonga along for the ride.

Reweti: And when she came back, my grandmother… Nana was right into her Māori stuff. And her Auntie Kara handed her the hei tiki. And Nana said, ’why are you giving it to me? You’ve got, you’ve got your own children.’ And Auntie Kara said, ’because you are the only one who shows an interest, who goes down to the marae, who’s always at the pōwhiri, who’s always welcomed guests, so... and you will do wonderful things with this hei tiki.’ So she gave the hei tiki to Nana and then Nana said, ’what’s her name?’ And Kara said, “How ’bout we call her Te Rauna?” It means around. Because she’d been around the world.

Dungy: For nearly seventy years, Te Rauna was in the care of Lisa’s grandmother.

Reweti: Oh, she’d ring you up. She’d go. She’d go, ‘Hellooo? Hello.’ ‘Hello.’ ‘Um, it’s, it’s your grandmother here? Maudie Reweti Ruaka Logan?’ As if you didn’t know [laughs] ‘Hi, Nana.’

Dungy: Lisa’s already an animated person - you might have noticed. But when she speaks about her grandmother, she really lights up, and you can hear in her voice that Te Rauna is just one link in the chain that holds them close.

Reweti: Nana was very good. She was very good and very pious. She was very tidy and very clean and she went to church and, um, she was never mean about anybody.

She was always beautifully dressed. So she always had perfect makeup. She always had these perfect eyebrows. She always had this, she had these massive talon type, really strong fingernails.

Dungy: Lisa has an old portrait of her grandmother following in her aunt’s footsteps.

Reweti: That was for a special occasion. She’d been chosen to be the soloist performer for a kapa haka group representing, um, you know, Whanganui, and, um, the photograph was taken then and Nana’s stepfather carved the frame.

Dungy: In the portrait, Lisa’s grandmother gazes just over the photographer’s left shoulder. She looks cheerful and a little shy, and almost impossibly young.

Reweti: That was 1937. She’d have been about nineteen or so. Yeah. It’s a beautiful photo.

Dungy: The frame is circular, with pāua shell embedded in it to give it life. Her grandmother is wearing her kapa haka uniform - a headband, an off the shoulder cloak, and Te Rauna. Seeing the same hei tiki Lisa wears in an eighty year old photo is a dizzying reminder of the way that taonga can travel through time and space - leaping out when we least expect it, to remind us of the past.

Nuku: In my twenties, I saw an exhibition of large scale portraits of Māori women by a studio photographer called Samuel Carnell who had a studio in Napier, in New Zealand. And they totally blew my mind.

Dungy: Maia Nuku again.

Nuku: I just saw in these women, this amazing clash of cultures, this encounter. They were wearing these beautiful Victorian black silk and taffeta and kind of moiré silk dresses. And they had ribbons in their ears, and they were wearing pounamu hei tiki.

From left to right: Maori woman from Hawkes Bay. Carnell, Samuel 1832-1920 :Maori portrait negatives. Ref: 1/4-022059-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23027787; Maori woman from Hawkes Bay district. Carnell, Samuel 1832-1920 :Maori portrait negatives. Ref: 1/4-022188-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22334918; Jane (Maori woman from Hawkes Bay district). Carnell, Samuel 1832-1920 :Maori portrait negatives. Ref: 1/4-022040-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23174122

They had niho mako, or shark’s teeth earrings, some of them. Another image had this pair of huia feathers in this young lady’s hair. And they had the moko kauae, which is the tattooed chin and lips. And I was really struck by them. They were going to this studio to have their photographs taken because they saw all these Pākehā women–you know, European settlers–in the town, having their photos taken. So it’s, they’re very strong images. You know, they’re really like looking out at you and they really aren’t shying away from this moment where they’re just taking the best from both cultures and really kind of owning it. And I found them very uplifting and positive and just really, they really changed my life.

Dungy: When she says they changed her life, she’s not exaggerating. She went back to school for masters degrees in art history and visual anthropology, and then a PhD in Pacific history and visual arts. Those photos are what brought her into museum work.

Nuku: In the moment that I saw them a lot seemed to kind of make sense to me about these different aspects of my own life. I guess they kind of just animated this other part of me, you know, growing up overseas in London, but having Māori heritage and kind of just straddling these different worlds.

They sent me down this track - and I always describe my discovering the research and avenue that I’ve been led down towards where I am today as polishing off these rough facets. Almost like a diamond, and that you just kind of embrace all of them. And then you just kind of create this new you, which honors all those parts of yourself.

Dungy: Maia and Lisa are both Māori and pākehā—European New Zealander—and through their work have found ways to blend those parts of themselves. So has Dan Hikuroa. But rather than going through a museum, his path runs deep underground.

Dan Hikuroa: My name is Dan Hikuroa. [Dan recites his Whakapapa and title] Maori Studies Department, The University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Dungy: Dan’s a geologist and earth systems scientist. In his work, he integrates science with mātauranga Māori, or Māori knowledge.

Hikuroa: So even though, you know, if people look at my name, uh, and maybe if you can kind of read faces, you might see, I have some... not strong Polynesian features, but once you know, people say ‘ah yeah, okay, this guy’s definitely Māori,’ I effectively grew up in a Pākehā way, in a, New Zealand European way.

And so I didn’t, I wasn’t exposed to, um, ancient knowledge. I didn’t, I didn’t sit on our marae, and just by being there absorb this knowledge and these ways of knowing, being, and doing. And so pounamu was something that was absolutely fascinating to me from an early child, but that I had no relationship with. It was this kind of thing we saw at the museum. But I didn’t, I didn’t understand that relationship with it, where it came from, its importance.

Dungy: His relationship to the stone has come a long way since then. As a metamorphic rock, nephrite jade is the literal foundation of Aotearoa New Zealand, and a huge part of his life as a  Māori geologist.

Hikuroa: Pounamu, like many minerals and rocks in the earth, forms when you get the right ingredients, get put through the right conditions. It’s kind of like baking a cake.

The ingredients for pounamu are found in many places around the world. But, you know, just because you have some flour and eggs and milk and butter, that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get a cake.

Dungy: To get that cake you need the Easy Bake Oven of New Zealand’s boisterous subduction plates. The plates aren’t great at sitting still. They like to move… a lot.

Hikuroa: Now from about one hundred and twenty, a hundred million years ago, New Zealand decided it had had enough of being next to Gondwana and it began to break off and set off on our own.

Dungy: Gondwana is the supercontinent that used to encompass much of what’s now the southern hemisphere. Sort of like a tectonic Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The band started to break up in the Mesozoic period. And like many newly solo artists: when New Zealand left the group, it went into a bit of a decline.

Hikuroa: So our rocks cooled off, and remember we’re sitting on a molten mantle. Uh, the rocks slowly sank through time to about twenty-five, thirty  million years ago where we almost sank altogether. And there were only just a small percentage of the land we have now was, was above water.

Uh, if we come forward a few more kind of 10 or 15 million years—

Dungy: Just a hop, skip, and a jump in time—

Hikuroa: I know; it’s easy for a geologist to just throw numbers out—

Dungy: That’s when a new plate tectonic boundary formed. Think of it as New Zealand’s epic comeback album. The country started to rise again, on the volcanic back of the Alpine fault. And as those rocks were melted, crushed, and driven upward, a spine of pounamu was formed. All of the country’s greenstone is found along the Alpine fault, but one of the largest deposits is in the Arahura River. This is one story of how it got there, and it starts with a greenstone fish you might remember.

Hikuroa: Poutini was a taniwha, or a water-like being, the guardian of pounamu. He feared another taniwha named Whatipu, who was the guardian of Hinehoaka, who was the goddess of sandstone. Pounding by Whatipu could flake Poutini and injure him seriously. Hence he feared them immensely.

Once, Poutini was being pursued in the sea by Whatipu and took refuge in a bay at Tuhua, now known as Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty.

There, Poutini observed a beautiful woman named Waitaiki coming down to the water to bathe. Enthralled by her beauty, he captured her and swam towards the mainland.

When Tama-te-ahua, Waitaiki’s husband, discovered that his wife was missing, he used karakia, or incantations, and the art of divination with a small dart-like spear called a teka, to find her. He threw the spear up into the air, said a karakia, and then wherever the spear landed, it pointed towards the location of Poutini.

So when Tama-te-ahua cast his dart the first time, it pointed towards Tahanga. And so there he went, but Poutini had realized that Tama-te-ahua was coming to capture him, to retrieve his wife from that place.

Dungy: So Poutini fled down the center of the north island of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Hikuroa: And so from Tahanga, Poutini went to Whangamata.

Dungy: They jumped the main strait of the archipelago, landing on the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand.

Hikuroa: From there, he went to Rangitoto ki te Tonga.

Dungy: Poutini’s flight streaked across the coast and up, toward the northwestern edge of the south island.

Hikuroa: To Whangamoa, Onetahua.

Dungy: Everywhere they stopped, Poutini lit a fire to keep the captive Waitaiki warm.

Hikuroa: And then down the west coast of the south island to Mahitahi and Takiwai in south Westland, which is almost all the way down, uh, the west coast of the South Island, before turning back to a place called Arahura. And at that point, Poutini went up the Arahura River with Waitaiki, and Tama-te-ahua realized that he’d been fooled, turned around, came back up, and realized that Poutini had taken Waitaiki up the river.

Poutini realized that he was trapped. And fearing capture, but refusing to give Waitaiki up, Poutini turned her into his own essence—into pounamu—and laid her in the riverbed at the junction of the Arahura River, a major river on the west coast, and a nearby stream. That stream became known as Waitaiki.

Dungy: Dan says that story is great for kids, because of the epic flight down the coasts of New Zealand before Waitaiki is turned to stone. But behind the chase scene, all those fires Poutini lit were doing deeper work.

Hikuroa: Each one of those places where Poutini stopped with Waitaiki, where Tama-te-ahua came searching for him, is an area where you’ll find a stone. So, in effect it’s like a resource map. It’s like a treasure map. It tells you where those different places are.

Dungy: The power of story is a huge part of passing on knowledge in Māori culture. It also creates an elegant ability to shift through multiple dimensions.

Hikuroa: If we think about pounamu, it is a traveler through time. It was - the precursor ingredients were erupted into ocean floors, hundreds of millions of years ago. And then it came through this next phase where it was squashed and rent and torn and put under immense pressure and temperature, uh, to form into the pounamu, uh, up in the mountains.

Pounamu has seen so many things through its time. Uh, and then as it shapeshifts through, through the efforts of, of natural processes and then through human processes, it gets imbued with those different things as it shifts itself through that time. And I think that’s maybe part of why we value it so deeply is that it can tell us so much and can reveal so much.

Dungy: You know when you love something so deeply that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t there? It feels like no matter what might separate you, there will always be a rush of recognition when you meet again. Like coming home.

Hikuroa: Our long, long past ancestors came out of Asia. That’s unequivocal now. And so I couldn’t help… the romantic in me couldn’t help but think, ’man. Maybe, maybe this is a long forgotten treasure. And we’ve just found a new… a new source for it.’ My relationship with it has deepened, and has shifted to one where I see it more as a taonga, not in the noun sense of treasure. But in the verb sense of, to be treasured. And I think that’s where I sit with pounamu now is, it’s not just a thing. It’s an act of treasuring it, as opposed to it just being a noun, or a thing that we can kind of lock in a treasure box.

Dungy: That came up again and again: pounamu is almost impossible to keep locked away. When we come back, we’ll hear more about why that is and the role museums can play in setting treasures free.

Have you ever held a piece of jade? It’s heavier than it looks. When it’s been sitting out, it’s quite cold. But when you pick it up, it warms as if to greet you.

Dougal Austin: The smoothness of that stone, if it’s water-worn, or if it’s been made into something and smoothed off. It’s just one of these materials that you just feel like touching.

Dungy: Take it from an expert. He literally wrote the book - it’s called Te Hei Tiki.

Austin: Kia ora, I’m Dougal Austin. I am, a… my title is senior curator, Mātauranga Māori, at Te Papa Tongarewa, The Museum of New Zealand. My whakapapa is to the south of Aotearoa New Zealand, and I whakapapa with with the iwi, the tribes of Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu, and Waitaha.

Dungy: Dougal’s whakapapa, or genealogy, includes the iwi Kāi Tahu, for whom pounamu is a protected taonga which can only be found in their South Island tribal region. So like Lisa, in many ways he’s also caring for his own treasures.

Museums are complicated places, and Te Papa is no different. Colonial history means that not everything in a collection was ethically acquired, and many of those things will never go back home. Dougal says that’s why it’s critical that museums employ Māori staff who are able to properly care for objects. Not just physically, but spiritually.

Austin: For example, if we go into our collection store rooms, we say a karakia, which is a, like a prayer. And we follow certain tikanga, or protocol, for working with the taonga.

So we don’t step over them. You know, it’s about cultural respect. And if we bring a group out, if we take a group in, if we bring a group out, then we have running water nearby, which removes the tapu. The tapu’s like a sacredness from the association with the ancestors. And then you’re free to go on your way.

Dungy: This is a shift that began after The Met’s Te Māori exhibition in 1984, where for the first time in an art museum setting, curatorial decisions were Māori-led.

Austin: The role of a museum historically was, you know, like… they weren’t really places for indigenous people. They were places where cultures, and material culture of those cultures, was collected and studied by authorities. You know, [laughs] ethnologists and the like.

Dungy: But he says they can and should be more than that. As times change, colonial institutions can be both safe havens and launching pads for taonga, keeping them connected with their network of descendants. Lisa Reweti agrees… with some caveats.

Reweti: When Dougal put together the pounamu exhibition, he asked if Te Rauna could actually go in that exhibition, which essentially meant that I wouldn’t have her for five years.

And I said, no, I said, no. I said, you have all of these unprovenanced hei tiki that you can use. But this one is still living. My hei tiki is still alive. And if I put her behind glass, then I’ll kill her. All the warmth will go. They, they need, they need the warmth.

Dungy: So what does that mean for hei tiki that may never see their families again?

Reweti: I feel for those hei tiki. I really do. Sometimes that’s impossible. You’ll never be able to find the area that it came from, to be able to take it back to. So it will always be in the museum. And those hei tiki are cold. They’re cold, you know, and… yeah. I feel sorry for them. Because they, they like being worn. This one loves the limelight.

Dungy: For that reason, Te Rauna isn’t just Lisa’s ancestor, or her family treasure. In some ways, she’s also her coworker.

Reweti: The great thing, the great thing… the one thing I really enjoy about having her is that she is essentially a museum piece. And with every other museum piece that we have, you look at it behind glass. But if I’m teaching, um, say an education program about hei tiki, then they can see my hei tiki.

And I had a class in of twelve year olds, all Māori and Pasifika children, and I was doing a hei tiki program with them. And they were so chilled, these kids. You know: giant, giant twelve year olds all bigger than me. They’re all sitting on the mat and they were so into it that I took Te Rauna off and I said, “I’m going to pass her, so you can see how she feels, all the way around.”

And so, you know and if I’m… which is not what you normally do, with a hei tiki that’s insured for fifty thousand. But I trusted these children and I knew that it would make their experience so much, um, so much more. And I said, ‘the only rule I have is that you hold her with two hands and don’t snatch.’ No one snatched. They, they were all so gentle and sweet.

Dungy: Lisa says she sees that tenderness a lot in her work with young people.

Reweti: We’ve got a couple of, we call them pou, you know; they’re like carved people on posts. They kind of look human, but not necessarily.

Some of them have big faces and they’ve got the moko on their face and stuff. Some children, like three-year-olds will go up to that carved pou, that person, and they will talk and hug and kiss them like they’re seeing a live person. And when you pull out a couple of features in a carving that children can relate to. Then they will relate. They’ll make those connections.

You know, Whanganui carvings always have big round eyes. They always have their hands in their mouths, because we hold on to our stories. We’re careful about what we share and who we share with. And the toes and knees are always pointed inwards. And that’s because we’re a river people, usually standing in a boat going up and down the river. If your toes and knees are in, your balance is better.

So, you know: big eyes, hand to mouth, toes and knees in, and they’re like, ‘That’s one of ours! They belong to us here, in Whanganui.’ So children have a great sense of pride, particularly Māori children. So Māori children can actually, you can give them an opportunity to excel at being Māori.

Dungy: And that’s the work she’s willing to take Te Rauna off for.

Reweti: Hopefully, if I do my job properly, in twenty years there will be young adults, Māori and pakeha, from all over New Zealand who will see value in righting any wrongs that have come from colonization.

Dungy: Museums are changing. The galleries that once held taonga in glass cases, alone, can also be sites of transformation. In 2019, Maia Nuku put that into practice in a Met exhibit called Atea: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia.

Nuku: There’s one Fijian artist, fiercely talented performance artist and choreographer, Jahra Wasasala, and she conceived and performed a 20-minute piece in response to all the taonga in the Pacific galleries. And the piece was really very powerful and explored her own feelings of pride at the mana and status of these taonga that were on display in the galleries. And her joy at being reconnected with them really came through and finding them here in New York. And it also plumbed the depths of her melancholy and that fractured sense of loss and grief at the disconnection and the rupture that, you know, colonialism has affected. So it was really moving, and it allowed a space for those of us from the Pacific to be able to really feel and express that grief inside the museum, you know, there in the gallery amongst and alongside all, all our ancestral treasures, you know, with our ancestors there.

Dungy: For Maia, taonga are never truly dead, or frozen in time. But sometimes they go offline and it’s her job to bring them back.

Nuku: They’re designed to be very mobile, and that mobility is enacted throughout their lives. The issue with museums is that that trajectory gets halted. And so you have this situation where things were gifted and exchanged and then, you know, Europeans acquire them and then they get caught up in another system, which then puts them in a vitrine and the line kind of stops. And so the challenge for us as curators and for institutions is, you know, how do we keep those ley lines open?

Dungy: The answer to that question, she says, is just as important as the climate control and maintenance that protect the taonga’s physical bodies.

Nuku: Kaitiakitanga is a concept, you know, of guardianship and custodianship. It’s about physical care, but it’s also about metaphysical care: and that’s where museums and institutions have tended to focus all their energy. It’s on the physical care of collections, which is vital. But then we have to think again about the conservation of cultural heritage. And allow them to breathe. And so there has been that idea, I think, that we preserve and we document and we classify and we keep things safe. And I think we need also to acknowledge that we’re now operating in an environment where we’re looking after the metaphysical safety of collections on behalf of people. On behalf of people from all around the world.

Dungy: Despite being a crucial piece of Polynesian culture, The Met’s hei tiki lives in the Asian Art department. That’s because it came into the museum as part of the Heber Bishop collection, which featured primarily Chinese and Indian jade. Before arriving at the Museum in 1902, almost everything about the hei tiki’s history is unknown.

Nuku: That makes me feel that much more close to this hei tiki. Cause I kind of want to nurture it, because it has had that link kind of broken. And so to reunite it with the rest of the Oceania collections will be really wonderful.

Dungy: Once an object enters a museum: whose knowledge systems should determine where it belongs? And to truly reckon with the colonial history of museums, what needs to be reevaluated? It’s a question with many answers. But it’s worth remembering that these objects were never meant to be static.

Nuku: There is a way of thinking about some of those taonga as being ambassadors, as traveling overseas, to create a connection with the homeland in these other places. And so the galleries in New York: to my mind, when we host Pacific peoples in our galleries, the space of the gallery really becomes like a little piece of an island. It becomes an island.

Dungy: She says that learning to hold treasure with an open hand is a crucial lesson: one the taonga themselves can teach. Remember Maia’s treasure box, her waka huia? ‘Waka’ means vessel, like a canoe. The secret is mobility.

Nuku: Our ancestors didn’t make it across the oceans, you know, by being restrictive about the culture. Actually, they were thinking in this very expansive way. You have lots of stories in the central Polynesian archipelagos which, which are really the ancestral homelands, Hawaiki. Parts of islands kind of break off and swim through the ocean and then anchor themselves in other parts to create another island. So you have this kind of splintering off of the land, and then the people follow. They follow in their canoes, or their waka.

Dungy: What happens when a gallery becomes an island, anchored by a beating heart of stone? It’s a piece of New Zealand, ten thousand miles away, moving in Māori space and time.

Nuku: And that’s what ritual protocol does. That’s what the chanting does, that’s what the singing does. It just kind of animates everyone in the moment. In a sense, it stops ordinary time and you kind of move into this extraordinary time where the ancestors are with you and they’re guiding you.

Dungy: In Pacific Island cultures there’s a concept called walking backwards into the future. Spread your arms into a V, and look forward. You’re facing your ancestors. And they won’t let you fall.

Reweti: You know where you’ve come from. You know where you’ve been. Because, even though you’re walking backwards, into the future. You are using what you learned in the past to enable you to do it. And your eyes are open.

Dungy: I’m Camille Dungy, and this is Immaterial.

Immaterial is produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise.

This episode was produced by Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong and Rachel Smith.

Our production staff also includes Jesse Baker,  Elyse Blennerhassett, Eleanor Kagan, and Eric Nuzum.

And from the Metropolitan Museum, Sarah Wambold, Benjamin Korman, Rachel Smith, and Douglas Hegley. This season would not be possible without Sofie Andersen.

Sound design by Ariana Martinez. Engineering by Ariana Martinez and Kristin Muller.

Fact-checking by Christine Baird.

Sensitivity listening by Chanel Clarke.

Special thanks to Cellia Joe Olsen.

The podcast is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos.

Additional support is provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

This episode would not have been possible without James Doyle, Former Assistant Curator for the Art of the Ancient Americas, Navina Haidar: Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah Curator in Charge of the Department of Islamic Art, Maia Nuku, Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Curator for Oceanic Art in The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing and Courtney Smith, Senior Research Assistant in the Department of Islamic Art.

To see portraits of those nineteenth century Māori women Maia Nuku mentioned, as well as Lisa Reweti and her grandmother wearing the hei tiki Te Rauna, visit the Met’s website at

I’m Camille Dungy.