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Maori on Head-Hunting Trip to N.Y.

March 16, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ A New Zealand Maori is on a head-hunting expedition to the big city.

Dalvanius Prime is trying to persuade the American Museum of Natural History to return its collection of 35 preserved and tattooed human heads.

The well-known New Zealand singer began negotiations last week with the museum, which bought the heads in 1907 from one of his forebears.

``Their bodies are in New Zealand, and their heads are in a foreign land,″ he said.

The museum hasn’t displayed the heads since the 1970s, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Chapman. She would not say whether it will return them.

Maori once preserved the heads of their dead through a drying process and often kept the heads of their loved ones around the home. The preserved heads are known as ``mokomokai.″

``We handled them, we touched them, we kissed them, we loved them,″ Prime said. ``It was a natural part of our lives.″

The remains of enemies or slaves were not so revered, and many Maori traded them for European goods like muskets.

``There was quite a vigorous international trade in them last century,″ said John Wood, New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States.

Prime said he doesn’t know whose heads _ slaves or loved ones _ are at the New York museum.

All mokomokai have their hair and skin intact. Many of the faces are covered with the tattoos. Slaves were often preserved with eyes and lips open, while heads of respected people had eyes and mouths sewn shut.

``They are works of art,″ Prime said. ``I love them and I’m proud of them.″

Prime, 50, who leads a group attempting to recover the heads, said seeing the heads in a museum vault was extraordinarily moving.

``I was overcome by their spirits, and by the spirits of my ancestors,″ he said.

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