April 17th, 2017. GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Shane James’ voice boomed through the wide-open exhibit space on the upper floor of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
His words, spoken with conviction, resonated through the whale bones and other artifacts making up the recently-closed museum exhibit, “Whales : Giants of the Deep.”
A small crowd of museum employees stood in silent reverence as James conducted a minute-long karakia, or prayer, during a ceremony held early Monday morning, April 17.
With a crew standing by to disassemble and pack away the artifacts in the exhibit, James explained the importance of holding the ceremony. In part, the traditional ceremony seeks to honor and protect artifacts considered sacred to the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.
Following the karakia, James gave a summarized translation for his English-speaking audience.
“What I was saying there was thanking you for looking after our ancestral treasures,” he said. “It’s not something we do lightly, to give you what we call kaitiaki.”
Kaitaiki is the Maori word for those who serve as guardians of their taonga tuturu, the ancestral treasures and artifacts handed down generation to generation.
His job description sounds much more mundane when translated into English, James said.
“In English, it’s collection manager,” he said, triggering laughs from museum staff familiar with the title.
James explained his role Monday was to acknowledge the spiritual as well as physical elements of the exhibit, which focuses on the history of whales and their relationship with the people of New Zealand in recent centuries.
The Maori did not hunt whales, but would take advantage of the resources it provided if one was found stranded on a beach. Not an uncommon occurrence in New Zealand, James explained the Maori viewed such strandings as a gift from the god of the sea.
“Maori believe the taonga, the artifacts that you see here, are imbued with the spirit of our ancestors,” he said. “Maori also believe that the whales that you see here are also a taonga. They’re a gift from Tanaroa, the god of the sea.”
Possessing items made from whale bones — such as the pendant passed down through his family — is often seen as a symbol of status because of their importance.
“Whale bones are seen as very precious,” James said.
Europeans arrived in New Zealand in the early 1800s and began hunting and harvesting whales using ships. Whaling in the area ended in the 1960s, though they still face threats including water pollution and they hundreds of strandings that still occur each year.
Whales in particular are very important in Maori culture, featuring prominently in a mythology that teaches their ancestors rode on the backs of the enormous sea creatures when first traveling to New Zealand. James said this myth may be rooted in reality, since a ship following migratory whales might well have been led to the shallow waters off the coast of New Zealand.
The genealogy of the Maori people connects them to all things, James said, from the whales in the ocean to the trees, plants, mountains and rocks on land. That means artifacts like the whale-bone harpoon included in the exhibit as well as the whale bones on display are all sacred and connected to Maori like James and their ancestors.
The exhibit was on loan from Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa — Te Papa for short — and has been open to visitors in Grand Rapids since Oct. 22. It closed to the public on Saturday, April 15, triggering a visit from the crew from the New Zealand museum that includes James.
The crew expect to take about three weeks to disassemble the complex and sprawling exhibit before moving it and reassembling at its next stop in San Antonio, Texas.
In the prayer offered Monday, James acknowledged his ancestors as well as those of the native people of America and all those who have come to the land since. He offered thanks for the connections forged between different cultures and prayed for safety and protection for the artifacts and those working with the items.
As the guardian of the sacred items that make up the exhibit, James thanked all those who guarded them during during their stay in Grand Rapids.
“While we were away, you became the kaitaiki of our treasures,” James said. “On behalf of the Maori people, the New Zealand people and Te Papa, we’d like to thank you all for carefully looking after our taonga while we have been here.”
In keeping with tradition for formal events such as Monday’s ceremony, James offered up a brief and beautiful song to close out the ceremony. The songs are typically sung in a group and accompanied by traditional instruments. But that was not possible Monday, James explained, as his instruments and the rest of his luggage were lagging behind him a few days in arriving from New Zealand.
His voice echoed back from the far wall of the exhibit space, reflected off the smooth curves of an enormous sperm whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling.
Without accompaniment, there was nothing to hide the beauty and power of the melody, matching the intensity by the “Giants of the Deep” themselves.