Hosting Paikea: On Indigenous Ontologies of Carving and Kinship

Hosting Paikea: On Indigenous Ontologies of Carving and Kinship

Aaron Glass, Bard Graduate Center

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, amidst the multitudes of travelers and transplants in New York City, resides a singular and remarkable voyager far from home. He hails from Aotearoa New Zealand and has lived here in relative obscurity for many decades, unbeknownst to his family and fellow citizens among whom he is quite famous—the subject of local lore, chants, and portraits. His name is Paikea and it is said that he has the ability to communicate with whales. As it happens, one of his equally illustrious relatives, the Māori writer Witi Ihimaera, was also living in New York in the 1980s, working at the New Zealand embassy, when, remarkably, a whale came up the Hudson River. Without knowing his kinsman was in the neighborhood, Ihimaera reflected on the stories his iwi (tribe) tells about Paikea and was inspired to write his 1987 novel, The Whale Rider—an acclaimed landmark of the Māori literary renaissance and itself the inspiration for the 2002 film by Niki Caro. The modern-day heroine of the book and film is a young girl, controversially named after her distinguished male forebear Paikea, who is destined to enlist the aid of passing whales to help her community find its way back to customary Māori values and practices. Not coincidentally, the novel was published only three years after Te Maori, the groundbreaking exhibition, toured ancestral treasures (taonga) from Aotearoa to New York, where it was installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Had curators known of his residence here, they might have enlisted Paikea to help welcome his Māori brethren to his adopted city. They might have even invited him to take up temporary shelter at the Met among other taonga. For the Paikea that resides in New York is a 7-foot tall tekoteko, a figure carved from wood, his name emblazoned across his chest in shallow-relief black pigment (Fig. 1). He has lived since 1908 in the care of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), cycling in and out of public view. Paikea recently departed the building, for the first time since arriving in the city, on a short excursion only a few blocks to the north.

Figure 1. Paikea. Made ca. 1890s by an unknown Māori carver, Aotearoa New Zealand. Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, Division of Anthropology, New York City, 80.0/615.

This is where I enter Paikea’s story (and he mine), and this short essay revisits my own encounter with him and my attempt to understand—and communicate to the public—the Māori system of knowledge, belief, and practice underpinning their recognition of this carving as a living ancestor. I teach anthropology, Indigenous arts, and museum studies at Bard Graduate Center (BGC), an interdisciplinary material culture studies program, and I was involved on the planning committee of a ten-year, Mellon Foundation-funded project called “Cultures of Conservation." The initiative entailed bridging the “culture of academia” and the “culture of the museum” through close attention to the material properties of objects as a method of both research and conservation practice. But we also wanted to stress that diverse peoples of the world bring their own cultural values and orientations to the material realm, and thus to conservation concerns: their own fundamental notions of what “the object” is and isn’t; what its proper relationship to various “persons” might be; and what factors contribute to protocols surrounding its care and repair, its treatment and preservation—if indeed it ought to be preserved at all. The last five years of the project focused on the concept of “active matter”—the propensity of certain materials toward flux and transformation—and the challenge this poses to traditional Western conservation values, which tend to privilege object stabilization and past (i.e. original or “authentic”) states of being. I coordinated a working group on Indigenous ontologies, which held lectures, workshops, and symposia (Glass 2022a and b), and I was responsible for assembling a potential loan list of Indigenous items that would contribute to the project’s culminating co-curated exhibition, Conserving Active Matter, held at BGC in Spring 2022.

The intellectual and ethical heart of the larger project, and the core of my specific curatorial mandate, was the challenge of translating and making legible different ontologies of the material world and its relation to diverse kinds of living beings—human or other-than-human, terrestrial or celestial, past or present or future. Indigenous (and some other non-Western) ontologies, in particular, tend to approach these different realms or existential scales as intrinsically relational and interpenetrating, not easily reducible to the classic Cartesian dualisms (subject/object, mind/body, spirit/flesh). In selecting loan items from global cultural traditions, I sought out appropriate examples that were especially “active” in different ways: specific materials that are intrinsically mutable or unstable (possessing what conservators call “inherent vice”); cultural forms that demand intentional change over time (through practices such as restoring, replacement, veneration, or “deactivation” via destruction); “power” objects and animate beings that can channel active spiritual presence and agency (which often require complex and esoteric practices of care); and items whose activation depends on remaining embedded in persistent networks and relations of knowledge, genealogy, and practice (which are often disrupted by histories of museification). While many global religious traditions feature sculptured deities—physical manifestations of divine presence, power, and efficacy that illustrate multiple modalities of “activity”—Paikea is not a carved god but an ancestor who embodies and activates a different ontology, temporality, and relationality, one defined primarily by kinship and genealogical connection (what the Māori refer to as whakapapa).

It was Paikea’s recent reconnection with his kin, and the subsequent alteration in museum conservation and care protocols, that made a deep impression on me. I first learned of him from a colleague at AMNH, Jacklyn Lacey, who mentioned these developments at a 2018 Indigenous ontologies workshop I convened at BGC. To better understand Paikea’s multiple origin stories and complicated biography (as both carving and person), I read Ihimaera’s literary invocation as well as a scholarly article co-authored by another of his descendants, Dr. Wayne Ngata (Lythberg, Newell, and Ngata 2015). In brief, the ancestral Paikea journeyed from the Pacific Māori homeland, Hawaiki, to Aotearoa with the help of whales. He eventually settled in the area of Whāngārā, on the eastern coast of the North Island, and begat descendants among multiple contemporary iwi. By the late 1800s, he was embodied in a carved tekoteko gable figure, which stood at Uawa (Tolaga Bay) atop a whare (meeting house) named Te Kani a Takirau and was documented in photographs. Around 1880, a haka (chant and posture dance) was composed by Mikaere Pēwhairangi that recounted his migration story and that was passed from generation to generation of area families. At some point around the turn of the twentieth century, the house was dismantled and this tekoteko was sent to England under circumstances that are not well documented (subsequent gable figures have embodied him at home since then; there is no one single, essential manifestation). Paikea ended up in the UK collection of British military officer Horatio Robley, from whom AMNH acquired him in 1908. He was installed in the museum’s South Seas Island Hall until it was renovated in 1927, at which point he seems to have gone into storage (see also Lythberg, Ngata, and Salmond 2019; Ngata 2020).

Paikea’s descendants first discovered him through the museum’s new online database, launched in 2005. In 2013, on the occasion of a travelling exhibition about whales organized by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, a delegation of his kin among the Te Aitanga a Hauiti iwi met him in person for the first time. To prepare for the encounter, which was facilitated by Dr. Jennifer Newell, then Curator of Pacific Ethnography, AMNH collections staff learned of Paikea’s story and his status as a living ancestor.  They placed him on a movable platform to better accommodate such visitations, and relaxed handling protocols (as they had become accustomed to doing for Indigenous visitors) to allow his relatives to embrace him and to offer him gifts in order to reactivate their historical connections with, and persistent obligations to, him. As Ngata and his colleagues wrote, “Paikea, for all intents and purposes, was made human again and kept ‘warm’ through the duration of the visit” (Lythberg, Newell, and Ngata 2015:206). A follow-up visit in 2017 allowed the descendants to gift Paikea a newly carved whale tooth pendant during an emotional reunion that was witnessed by museum staff, documented on film, and featured in the premiere 2018 episode of a Māori Television program called “Artefacts”. On this occasion, Paikea’s relatives spoke to him, wept, and performed the haka they had known their whole lives. (The journey of the pendant from Aotearoa to New York is a dramatic saga unto itself, as the whale tooth was initially subject to import restrictions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora; see Lythberg and Ngata 2019).

When it came time to select the loan list for Conserving Active Matter, I knew I wanted to feature Paikea’s story to educate audiences on how Indigenous conceptions of “active matter” are challenging standard Western ontologies and museum values, and how some museums are productively engaging with communities to adapt and adjust their protocols.  I approached our colleagues at AMNH to discuss what might be involved in hosting him in person and, supportive of the idea in principle, they put me and the lead organizer of the exhibit, Soon Kai Poh, in touch with Ngata, whose approval on behalf of his community was prerequisite for us to proceed. We understood the weight of responsibility that BGC would bear in providing a temporary home for Paikea, and we discussed with Ngata the notion that the exhibit could be a “diplomatic mission” for the tekoteko to represent his iwi while he is living here in New York City. As he did with his 2013 visiting delegation to AMNH, Ngata emphasized their interest in using Paikea’s history of travel and presence here to inform the general public of their people’s specific story, of the key role of taonga as genealogical bridges across time and space, and of the broader history of Māori persistence and revitalization. For the museum, the exhibition provided a venue to showcase their responsive collections management, custodianship, and care practices. We were all thrilled and humbled—and a little intimidated by the responsibility of the honor—when the loan was actually approved.

Then came the time to prepare for Paikea’s visit to BGC. I went into this process with a combination of experience working with other Indigenous peoples in museological contexts, some exposure to Māori cultural protocols around exhibitions, and many preconceptions. We suggested to our BGC gallery, programming, and development colleagues that Paikea’s preferred pronouns are he/him (as opposed to it), and we generally tried to avoid using the word “object” in reference to him and to “objectifying” him in promotional material by singling his image out as an iconic exhibition item. As it happened, BGC was also installing a second exhibit at the same time entitled “Richard Tuttle: What is the Object?”, and the confluence of themes prompted wide discussion amongst the curatorial team about the limitation of that term to adequately characterize many of the global material traditions we were mobilizing. We ended up installing graphic treatments with many alternative terms (“heirloom,” “souvenir,” “treasure,” “artifact,” “ancestor”) throughout the entire gallery and elevators in order to challenge visitors to consider the situated semantics of common Western categories. I got in the habit of greeting Paikea with a friendly “kia ora” (hello!) when I came by or introduced him to visitors.

My own experience with Indigenous communities and exhibits in Aotearoa and North America led me to some assumptions about how Paikea’s kin might want him to be featured: with an installation overseen by knowledgeable ritualists; with a prominent placement in the gallery to properly honor him; freed from the confines of a sealed plexiglass vitrine; in proximity to a basin of water so Māori or other Pacific Island visitors could wash after their encounter with him (I’d seen similar exhibit resources in Aotearoa when taonga or ancestors were involved). One efficient conversation with Ngata disabused me of all of these: he wanted to ensure that the local Indigenous peoples of New York City were centrally, or at least initially, acknowledged; he deferred to the AMNH’s conservators and BGC’s exhibit designer to ensure respectful installation (the fact that Covid prevented people coming from Aotearoa was a practical exigency here); he explained that while Paikea was alive to them, he was not flesh and blood and didn’t need to breathe oxygen, and he both appreciated and accommodated the museum’s concern for Paikea’s physical safety with the use of a plexiglass vitrine; and he informed us that cleansing water was only required when exhibits contained materials that were tapu (sacred, restricted, protected, spiritually charged) and that Paikea was not.

Once we better understood the appropriate parameters of his participation, we turned to curatorial decisions about how best to present Paikea in the context of the exhibition. We had four themed rooms organized around provocations, the last three of which were thematically relevant to his interpretation: “How is matter active?” (focusing on materials themselves and the diverse modes of activity outlined above); “Who acts on matter, and when and why?” (focusing on the different human agents that activate objects under changing conditions); and “Where is the future of conservation?” (focusing on expanding the professional field given the pressing global needs of environmental and heritage preservation). Having encouraged visitors to think differently about materials, and about practices of care and repair more broadly, we decided to place Paikea at the entrance to the final gallery, allowing this voyager from the past to point the way into the future. A number of other items from around the Pacific Ocean kept him company in this room. In the short space of the wall label (posted to the accompanying website page), we wanted to focus on Paikea’s reconnection with his kin and on the museum’s subsequent adjustment to their care protocols. In dialogue with both Ngata and our AMNH colleagues, we left him on his rolling mount—a practical device that is also symbolic of his mobility—and enclosed him in a plexi vitrine, which had the collateral benefit of allowing visitors to get much closer to him physically than had he been exposed on a six-foot-wide platform. Most importantly, we placed him in front of a life-sized photograph of his visiting relatives from their initial 2013 visit, and had a small video screen showing a looped, 5-minute clip of the return visit in 2017, including the haka and the gifting of the whale-tooth pendant, which Paikea wore in the exhibit (Fig. 2). Every time I gave an exhibit tour, I could see the emotional impact that his dramatic physical presence had on visitors (and on me, every time!) when enlivened—when activated—by the faces and chanting voices and tears of his descendants, even if mediated by photography and video. We hope that they provided some comfort to this particular material manifestation of Paikea, so far from home.

Figure 2. Paikea in the exhibition Conserving Active Matter, Bard Graduate Center, New York City, March 25-July 10, 2022. Photograph by Bruce M. White, courtesy of Bard Graduate Center. Installed photograph of Paikea visiting with his descendants at AMNH in 2013, courtesy of Billie Lythberg.

My final visit with Paikea before the exhibit closed was on a memorable evening during which we hosted a public screening of the film Whale Rider, which was attended by some guests from the New Zealand consulate who—like Ihimaera decades before—had no idea Paikea was living in the city. Wayne Ngata provided a short, pre-recorded introduction in Māori and English. I’d seen the film multiple times in the past but not since meeting Paikea myself, and I was unprepared by just how strongly its fictional tale underscored the remarkable opportunity we were given to host this voyaging diplomat for a few brief months. After the screening, the audience reconvened in the adjacent gallery to greet him. I could barely contain my tears. Once everyone left, I quietly said good bye and thanked Paikea for the honor of knowing him just a little and of helping tell but a small part of his epic and ongoing tale.



Although a reflection of my own experience and understanding, I’d like to offer my respectful gratitude to the following people for reading and commenting on earlier drafts: Wayne Ngata, Billie Lythberg, Jenny Newell, Laurel Kendall, Soon Kai Poh, Samantha Alderson, and, as always, Helen Polson. 


Glass, Aaron. 2022a. “For the Lives of Things: Indigenous Ontologies of Active Matter.” In Conserving Active Matter, edited by Peter Miller and Soon Kai Poh, 221-33. New York: Bard Graduate Center. 

Glass, Aaron. 2022b. “What are Indigenous Ontologies?” In Conserving Active Matter: Digital Publication, edited by Peter Miller and Soon Kai Poh. New York: Bard Graduate Center. [accessed September 27, 2022].

Lythberg, Billie, Jenny Newell, and Wayne Ngata. 2015. “Houses of Stories: The Whale Rider at the American Museum of Natural History.” Museum and Society, 13(2): 195-220.

Lythberg, Billie, and Wayne Ngata. 2019. “Te Aitanga a Hauiti and Paikea: Whale People in the Modern Whaling Era.” RCC Perspectives, No. 5 (New Histories Of Pacific Whaling): 105-112.

Lythberg, Billie, Wayne Ngata, and Amiria Salmond. 2019. “Curating the Uncommons: Taking Care of Difference in Museums.” In Curatopia: Museums and the Future of Curatorship, edited by Philipp Schorch and Conal McCarthy, 227–43. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ngata, Wayne. 2020. "Paikea at the American Museum of Natural History." Smarthistory, July 23, 2020, [accessed September 27, 2022].

Aaron Glass is Associate Professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York. His research focuses on various aspects of First Nations visual art and material culture, media, and performance on the Northwest Coast of North America, both historically and today. Themes recurring in his work include colonialism and indigenous modernities, cultural brokerage and translation, the politics of intercultural exchange and display, discourses of tradition and heritage management, history of anthropology and museums, and cultural and intellectual property.