Arno Gasteiger

Moriori, a pride reborn

In spite of a widespread belief that their race and culture are extinct, Moriori people have survived on the Chatham Islands and are undergoing a cultural revival similar to that of their mainland cousins, the New Zealand Maori.

Written by       Photographed by Arno Gasteiger

When I first visited the Chatham Islands in Decem­ber 1986, I believed it was to write a requiem for an extinct cul­ture.

The invitation had come from Maui Solomon, grandson of Tommy Solomon, the so-called last Moriori, who had died in 1933. Maui ex­plained that his family had commis­sioned a statue of Tommy as a me­morial to him and to all Moriori peo­ple. It was to be unveiled by the Prime Minister at Manukau, the only remaining Moriori reserve on Chatham Island. The family trust es­tablished to raise the statue wanted also to commission a book on the history of the Moriori people. Would I write it?

My interest in Moriori history and culture was long-standing. When I was at primary school in the 1950s, I had heard a talk about the Chatham Islands from a man who had worked there as a radio opera­tor. The presentation included col­our slides of Moriori carvings on trees and rocks.

Stimulated by that introduction, I subsequently read most of the litera­ture about the Moriori. This revealed a massive confusion in the public mind about who they were and where they had come from. Some of the early New Zealand ethno­graphers, such as Stephenson Percy Smith and Elsdon Best, had main­tained that they were a Melanesian or part-Melanesian race who had oc­cupied New Zealand before the Maori. According to this view, the Moriori had been driven from New Zealand by the more intelligent and more assertive Polynesian arrivals, and their remnants had taken refuge in the Chatham Islands.

All such nonsense had been dis­proved by the professional ethnolo­gist Henry Skinner as early as 1923, when he published his pioneering book The Morioris of the Chatham Islands. From an analysis of mate­rial culture, particularly artefacts, Skinner showed beyond doubt that the Moriori were Polynesian, that the special features of their culture had evolved on the Chathams, and that their probable place of origin immediately prior to the Chathams was New Zealand.

For some reason, possibly be­cause the book was published in Honolulu, possibly because the real story was not as appealing as the myths, Skinner’s measured and scholarly findings failed to penetrate the public consciousness. Teachers in New Zealand primary schools continued to tell tales about the Moriori being a mysterious and infe­rior race. Books by amateur ethnolo­gists claimed that they had been dark-skinned, repulsive-looking and shifty. And nearly all New Zealand newspapers at some time carried let­ters to the editor that asserted that what the Pakeha had done to the Maori by way of colonisation was no more than what the Maori had done to the Moriori. This in turn bred an­other myth. In denying Maori mis­treatment of the Moriori on the mainland, some Maori denied that there ever had been a people called Moriori, either in New Zealand or on the Chatham Islands.

Meantime, New Zealand papers had formally announced the extinc­tion of the Moriori when Tommy Solomon died in March 1933. The Press Association paid tribute to him as “the last pure-blood survivor of the ancient Moriori race.” And a journalist who described his burial ended with the words:

“Twilight faded into darkness, and the dull roar of the ocean break­ers echoed along the lonely sandhills, as it had echoed before the Moriori came to his new home 700 years ago, and as it would con­tinue to echo though he no longer heard its call.”

This much I knew in 1986: There had been a people called Moriori, they were Polynesian, they had lived on the Chatham Islands, the largest of which they called Rekohu (“Misty Skies”), their culture had been documented extensively by the farmer-ethnologist Alexander Shand in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and it had, in effect, ceased to be a living culture around 1900 when the last of the Moriori who spoke their dialect died.

What I did not know was how Moriori descendants viewed their history and their identity more than 50 years after Tommy Solomon’s death. I did not know, because on this issue the literature was silent.

The only way I could find out was to travel to the Chathams and speak with the people themselves.

The thing that surprised me most about the Chatham Islands on that first visit was the fact that they were so much like the image I had formed of them from reading and listening to travellers’ tales. There were the volcanic cones rising from the mist and the sea; there the imprint of the Moriori carved into limestone rock and the trunks of kopi trees; there the abandoned trypots, stone fire­places and whale bones that could have come from a Herman Melville novel; there the sparse akeake trees twisted and bent by relentless winds over a harsh landscape; and there the people—descendants of sealers, whalers and missionaries who looked every bit as weather-beaten and as durable as the rocks and the surviving trees.

And there, too, were the Moriori. That was the second surprise. They were far from extinct. They were alive and flexing, a forceful presence in Chatham Island affairs. The fact that they were not “pure blood” turned out to be as irrelevant to their sense of ethnicity as it is to Maori, Pakeha or English folk. They were descended from Moriori. They iden­tified as Moriori. End of equation.

Many, of course, were Solomons. Old Tommy alone has close to 100 descendants, most of whom now live in mainland New Zealand. But the Solomon presence and the Solo­mon mana has been kept alive on the Chathams by the sons and grand­children of Bully Solomon, Tommy’s second son. Their resem­blance to Tommy is startling and an ample refutation of the notion that a people had died with him.

There were also the Preeces, de­scendants of an even larger Moriori clan, the Riwais. In 1986, one Preece, Charlie, was introduced to me as the senior Moriori elder on Chatham Island. Another, Bunty, was chairman of the county council. Still another, Riwai, was about to become the island’s Anglican vicar. And the next generation of the fam­ily was deeply involved, on Chatham and Pitt, in the islands’ primary occupations of fishing and farming.

There are other Moriori clans too: the Tamihanas or Thompsons de­scended from Tamihana Heta, who lived in a huge homestead at Wairua until the 1930s; the Davises, de­scended from Ani Davis, whose fam­ily came back to the Chathams in the 1890s via the Auckland Islands, Foveaux Strait and Port Underwood; the Ashtons, whose bones lie along­side Solomons and Riwais at Manukau; and others whose Moriori links have merged with Maori and Pakeha associations. Most were rep­resented on Chatham Island at the time of the statue unveiling. Almost all were enthusiastic about the no­tion of a written Moriori history.

Maui Solomon, son of Tommy’s oldest son and chairman of the trust which raised the statue, was the most emphatic: a book was needed to dispel the pejorative myths that had grown up around the origin and identity of the Moriori. Bunty Preece agreed, and said he wanted his children and grandchildren to know that they were Moriori, and to learn what that meant. Charlie Preece jun­ior, son of the islands’ senior elder, said he wanted to ensure that the voices of his Moriori ancestors con­tinued to be heard down the corri­dor of passing years.

There was only one Moriori who expressed reservations to me. Riwai Preece, who was returning to live in the Chathams after spending most of his adult life in the racing industry in Christchurch, feared that turning a historical focus on Moriori history and experience would have divisive effects on island life. In particular, he feared that it would exacerbate tension between Moriori and Maori, with adverse consequences for the Chatham Islands community as a whole.

He was right. The relationship be­tween Moriori and Maori on the Chathams is one that is potentially uncomfortable. While there is no truth in the notion that Moriori were driven from the New Zealand main­land by Maori, the coming together of the two peoples in the nineteenth century was even more traumatic for the Moriori than the mythical clash which supposedly exiled Moriori to the islands.

In November and December 1835, the brig Rodney carried two shiploads of Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama Maori from Port Nicholson to Chatham Island: around 900 men, women and child­ren in all (with 78 tonnes of seed potatoes, 20 pigs and seven canoes).

They landed at Whangaroa, took time to recover from the voyage, be­ing nursed and fed by local Moriori, and then began to formally takahi­walk the land—to claim it according to their tikanga or custom. They ritu­ally killed around 300 Moriori to confirm this claim.

“We were terrified,” a survivor, Minarapa, told a government agent three decades later. “[We] fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape . . . It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed, men, women and children . . . .”

The 1300 survivors were en­slaved and forbidden to marry, speak their language or practise their culture. “Men were separated from women, parents from children, older children from younger child‑ren, and the strings of their heart quivered,” Moriori petitioners told Governor George Grey in 1862.

Moriori tikanga forbade fighting, even in self-defence. Consequently, they became a subjugated and de­moralised people for the next 27 years.

Like these dendroglyphs or tree carvings, removed from the Chathams and stored in the National Museum in Wellington, Moriori culture has been under wraps and largely ignored during this century. Only now is the significance of the carvings being realised, and aNempts to preserve the few remaining living examples, incised 011 the bark of kopi (karaka) trees, being made.
Like these dendroglyphs or tree carvings, removed from the Chathams and stored in the National Museum in Wellington, Moriori culture has been under wraps and largely ignored during this century. Only now is the significance of the carvings being realised, and aNempts to preserve the few remaining living examples, incised 011 the bark of kopi (karaka) trees, being made.

Ernst Dieffenbach, who visited the Chathams in 1840, noted that they were “the labourers and porters of their masters, who have no notion of anything like moderation in the labour they exact; so that ulcerated backs bent almost double, and ema­ciated paralytic limbs, with diseased lungs, are the ordinary lot of these ill-fated wretches, to whom death must be a blessing.”

Most Moriori took advantage of that “blessing.” By the time the slaves were released in 1862, Moriori numbers had plummeted to around 160—one-tenth of the 1835 population. The islands had been annexed to New Zealand in 1842, but it took the passage of two dec­ades before the imposition of New Zealand law was sufficiently effect­ive to give Moriori the same rights and privileges that Maori and Pakeha enjoyed on the mainland.

In 1870, after eight years of agita­tion by Moriori survivors for redress for the wrongs done to them, the Native Land Court sat in Waitangi to hear competing claims for the is­lands lodged by Maori and Moriori. Moriori took it for granted that “Brit­ish justice” would restore what had been taken from them by force. They contested the Maori assertion of ownership of the islands by con­quest on the ground that Moriori, according to the dictates of their tikanga, had not fought; where there was no fighting there could be no conquest.

The Native Land Court Judge, John Rogan, was deaf to Moriori ar­guments. As he saw it, he was a New Zealand official sitting in a New Zealand court. And the Native Land Court on the mainland based its de­cisions on tikanga Maori; it applied the so-called 1840 rule, which re­quired judges to give primary weight to circumstances as they were at the time of British annexation of New Zealand—not before.

Judge Rogan found in favour of the Maori claimants. He awarded them ownership of some 97 per cent of the islands’ territory, reserving a mere 2.7 per cent for the subsistence of the unsuccessful Moriori litigants.

This decision was a blow almost as crushing to the morale of Moriori as the 1835 invasion itself had been. They tried in 1885 to win ownership of the offshore birding islands, but these were deemed to have been awarded to Maori in the 1870 deci­sion.

Without the redress they had ex­pected, and without adequate eco­nomic resources to support a cul­tural and demographic recovery, Moriori numbers continued to de­cline: there were 27 left in 1889, 12 in 1900, six in 1904 and two by 1922. Tommy Solomon was the last.

These figures were, of course, misleading. They referred, as did Maori statistics of the time, to peo­ple of so-called “pure blood.” And while the number of “pure blood” Moriori was falling rapidly, Moriori of “mixed blood” were increasing slowly. The Riwais, the Solomons, the Tamihanas and others all had Moriori-Maori descendants and eventually Moriori-Maori-Pakeha descendants. The Davises had Moriori-Negro-Amerindian de­scendants. Many of these, particu­larly the Solomons and Preeces, continued to identify as Moriori. Many did not: some because it was more advantageous to be regarded as Maori; others because they were per­suaded that Moriori had indeed been an inferior people, and that such ancestry was a source of shame.

These latter simply became Chatham Islands Maori. And most Maori on the Chathams came to terms with the events of 1835 and 1870 by regarding Maori and Moriori as one people. In their minds, the separate identities of vic­tor and vanquished had been blended by the passage of time and by intermarriage.

Even those Moriori who treasured and nurtured their separate mana and their tangata whenua status did not flaunt these things in front of their Maori friends, believing that it would be un-Moriori to do so. They spoke of them among themselves, and to interested Pakeha who vis­ited the Chathams, such as Henry Skinner and the conchologist A. W. Baden Powell.

This modus vivendi, along with Moriori forbearance, was respons­ible for the reasonably even tenor of Chatham Islands life. And it per­sisted until the 1980s, when a group of new factors and circumstances combined to upset it.

Moriori rock drawings in the cave known as Te Ana a Nunuku at Moreroa on Chatham Island are mostly of seals, the central item in the pre-European Modori economy. The cave may have been the site of seasonal rituals associated with seal hunting.

One was the Maori cultural re­naissance in New Zealand, echoes of which reached the Chathams when islanders returned home. Some claimed that Maori identity had been too much absorbed into a general Chatham Islands culture, and that it was time to reassert mana Maori and to consider making re­source claims—particularly con­cerning the lucrative Chathams fish­ery—to the Waitangi Tribunal.

At the same time, there was evi­dence of a reawakening of Moriori identity. Television New Zealand had screened a documentary on Moriori history in 1980. The Solo­mon family had held a reunion and decided to raise the statue of Tommy at Manukau. Both events led to talk of an eventual revival of Moriori lan­guage and culture.

Some Chatham Islanders­Moriori, Maori and Pakeha—were unsettled by what were beginning to look like disruptions to the social and cultural pattern of island life. Riwai Preece was one of them. He told me in 1986 that there had been considerable unity and unanimity among islanders in his lifetime. “We are all one people. And our elders represent all of us, whatever our background. This talk of ‘Maori’ and `Moriori’ and Takeha’—it divides us up in a way that we’re not used to.”

It was a cry from the heart and a position of utter sincerity. But it was only one voice. Others saw a written history as an essential cultural re­source to support the burgeoning Moriori renaissance and to deci­sively clear away the destructive myths of the past. Still others were offended and hurt by the growing inclination of a small number of Maori on Chatham Island to speak of themselves as tangata whenua without reference to the tuakana sta­tus of Moriori (who had, after all, occupied the islands for at least 500 years longer than Maori).

For these people, an acknow­ledgement of what had transpired in the past was a prerequisite for future Moriori-Maori cooperation. They were especially wounded by the in­sistence of one kaumatua of Ngati Mutunga that, in spite of the tradi­tional and historical evidence, and in spite of the testimony of Maori before the Native Land Court in 1870, there had been no Moriori killed as a consequence of the 1835 invasion.

For a mainlander, many features of this cultural and historical equa­tion were unusual. The sequence of settlement in New Zealand had been Maori, then European, and Europe­ans had colonised the Maori; on the Chathams the sequence had been Moriori, European, and then Maori, and Maori had colonised the Moriori.

Just as Maori could be said to hold the moral high ground on the mainland, Moriori—because of their status as victims—occupied that po­sition on the Chathams. And just as Maori rightly claimed in New Zea­land that they were being denied full acknowledgement of their tangata whenua status and the rights that flowed from that, so on the Chathams it was Moriori who made this claim. They had lost the vast bulk of their land, their fishing rights, their birding rights, and a large part of their physical and ma­terial culture. By the mid-1980s they were even having difficulty retain‑ing their speaking rights on the Chatham Island marae. The Maori, who were by this time planning to lodge a Waitangi Tribunal claim for the Chathams fishery, intended to do so without any reference to Moriori rights.

It was these factors and others which convinced me that, despite the possibility of social disharmony, the Moriori history had to be writ­ten.

[Chapter Break]

I worked on the project over the next three years. Some of the information that needed to be gathered into the narrative lay on the Chathams, in the collective memories of Moriori families Al­though people kept telling me how much of Moriori history and culture had been lost, I was continually sur­prised by how much individuals re­membered of things that parents and grandparents had told them: the cor­rect practices for catching fish and gathering shellfish; the rules of tapu that applied when water was being used for different purposes; the use of Chathams gentian as a contracep­tive; and things of this sort.

The most vivid recollections were those of Moriori individuals:

Tommy Solomon, genial and gener­ous; Tommy’s father Rangitapua, a dignified and solemn man; Riwai Te Ropiha, who doused one of his jock­eys with women’s scent on Chatham Islands race day, because the boy hadn’t washed recently; Arthur Lockett, who assumed leadership of the Moriori iwi when Tommy Solo­mon died; and Bill Davis, who was remembered as being a shrewd busi­nessman and an articulate spokes­man for Chathams interests.

Some of the most moving stories, however, came from former island­ers living in New Zealand. Jane Hough, a nonagenarian in Taupo, told me how her aunt had got to her feet to karanga Tommy the last time he appeared at the race course near Waitangi in December 1931:

“She called out in Maori to Tommy, to his father and mother, and to all those other Moriori old people she had known who were now dead. And she called out to the tipua Moriori—the spirits that the Moriori had been able to raise in the days when they ruled the island . . . It was her way of saluting him and farewelling him, and of acknowledg­ing that his people were the first people of the island. Tommy didn’t say anything. He just stopped the sledge and listened to her, with his head bowed. The tears were rolling down his cheeks.”

The fullest accounts of Moriori experience, and the richest, turned out to be preserved in documents. There were the writings of Alex Shand, who had ridden around Chatham Island with Hirawanu Tapu between 1868 and 1900, speak­ing with all Moriori whose recollec­tions went beyond the period of Maori occupation. This corpus pre­served most of what we know today about Moriori language and culture.

Of even greater significance, how­ever, were the writings of Moriori themselves. In the papers of Sir George Grey, held in the Auckland Public Library, lay two major Moriori manuscripts. One, written in 1859 by elders of the Otonga tribe, is made up of historical and genea­logical information which empha­sises the difference between Moriori and Maori (although, ironically, it is largely written in Maori, the lan­guage of the colonisers).

The other, 131 pages in Moriori and Maori, is the proceedings of a council of Moriori elders held at Te Awapatiki in 1862. It records their recollection of the Maori invasion 27 years earlier (“November must have been the month, for we were drinking honey from the flax-flow­ers when they landed”), and it lists all adult Moriori alive in 1835, and details what became of them (“know by looking at this that those with two crosses by their names were killed and eaten”). It closes with a plea to Grey to restore Moriori land to its former owners.

In addition to these documents, a large number of Moriori letters sur­vived from the nineteenth century. Some had been collected on Chatham Island in the 1930s and 1940s by a Post Office radio techni­cian, Bill Burt, and eventually de­posited in the Turnbull Library. Oth­ers survived in the papers of Tom Ritchie, a Northern Irishman who had come to the Chathams in 1864 and farmed there for nearly 60 years. He employed Moriori farmhands and stockmen, many of whom wrote letters to him about day-to-day farm management, and about their crises and rites of passage: “Rau has died . . . I have seen the accounts for Rau’s long-timer [long-term debt] and the accounts for the sheep. I will find payment for the long-timers af­ter his funeral. I send you my love. I am greatly distressed . . . .”

The most important set of surviv­ing Moriori papers, however, came to light after the book was pub­lished.

The first Europeans to see the Chatham Islands and meet its inhabitants were crew members of the Royal Navy brig Chatham in November 1791. An estimated 2000 Modori were living on the islands at the time. Tragically, the encounter between the two cultures was marred by violence as a Moriori named Tamakaroro was shot and killed by Pakeha. Two hundred years later, this first meeting between the races was re-enacted on Kaingaroa beach.
The first Europeans to see the Chatham Islands and meet its inhabitants were crew members of the Royal Navy brig Chatham in November 1791. An estimated 2000 Modori were living on the islands at the time. Tragically, the encounter between the two cultures was marred by violence as a Moriori named Tamakaroro was shot and killed by Pakeha. Two hundred years later, this first meeting between the races was re-enacted on Kaingaroa beach.
A waka korari or Modori reed canoe takes to the water for the first time in more than 100 years. This vessel, named Rangimata after one of the canoes which brought Modori ancestors to the Chathams, was built as part of the New Zealand sesquicentennial canoe project and sailed proudly alongside Maod waka in the Bay of Islands in February 1990.
A waka korari or Modori reed canoe takes to the water for the first time in more than 100 years. This vessel, named Rangimata after one of the canoes which brought Modori ancestors to the Chathams, was built as part of the New Zealand sesquicentennial canoe project and sailed proudly alongside Maod waka in the Bay of Islands in February 1990.

I had devoted considerable time, unsuccessfully, trying to find out what had become of Bill Davis. Davis, Moriori on his mother’s side, had grown up in the 1890s and early 1900s at Hawaruwaru. As the last of the Moriori elders there sickened and died, they bequeathed their pa­pers to him, believing that he would carry what was left of Moriori cul­ture into the modern world.

They were right about identifying Davis as a man of ability and integ­rity. He enlisted as a private in World War One and came home a second lieutenant. By 1940, he was a successful farmer and chairman of the county council. Then he left the islands and nobody there had heard from him since.

In January 1990, I took a phone call from a man who told me that I wouldn’t know him, but that his name was Wilford Davis. I said at once: “Bill Davis’s son!” And so he was. And he told me that he had “a few papers that might interest you.”

Bill Davis had died at Laingholm in Auckland in 1962, and his son Wilf had found a box of fragile docu­ments written in pencil and ink. He had looked at them, seen that they appeared to be in Maori, and stored them away. Early in 1990, as a con­sequence of reading Moriori, A Peo­ple Rediscovered, he got them out again, and contacted me.

It was a moving experience for both of us to sort through the papers. Here were whakapapa, waiata, sto­ries, information on Moriori tribal boundaries, navigation instructions, letters to people in government, and much more. All had been painstak­ingly written by elderly men in smoky ponga huts in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Some pages still smelt of peat smoke and tobacco. Miraculously, they had sur­vived. Collectively, they amounted to a treasure trove of cultural and historical information, significant and enduring messages that Moriori ancestors had sent to their descend­ants.

I would, of course, have been grateful for knowledge of the Davis papers before the book was written. But, as it turned out, there was noth­ing in them that contradicted the evidence of other sources. They ex­tended and elaborated the Moriori story rather than recast it.

And that story, in brief, is that the ancestors of the Moriori almost cer­tainly came to the Chathams from mainland New Zealand. They car­ried with them the East Polynesian styles of ornament- and tool-making that they shared with early Maori. They also carried New Zealand ma­terials with which to make these tools, especially argillite and obsid­ian, and a range of names for trees, birds and fish.

Over the centuries that followed, this founding population ex­panded and developed a culture that in some im­portant respects differed from that of their cousins in mainland New Zea­land. Chatham Island Polynesians outlawed warfare, largely dis­carded notions of rank, abandoned horticulture and developed their own dialect. This was the cul­ture that came to be known in the nineteenth century as Moriori.

Their artefacts and technology seemed to observers to be more primitive than that of other Polynesians. Their waka korari or reed ca­noes, for example, were slow and cumbersome craft, difficult to steer and half inundated with water. Yet, by using wa­ter as a natural ballast, they were perfectly adapted to Chatham Is­lands conditions. They remained stable in the rough seas around the is­lands. Maori laughed at them in 1835. But the dugout canoes which Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama brought with them turned turtle off theChathams, and tipped their crews into the sea. From then on, until the arrival of European boats, the birding and the fishing was done for Maori by Moriori in waka korari.

Moriori people and Moriori iden­tity survived the traumas of the seal slaughter of the early nineteenth century, the introduction of Euro­pean diseases, the Maori invasion and the unfavourable decisions of the Native Land Court.

The statue of Tommy Solomon, symbol of the Moriori presence and mana whenua on the Chathams, stands four square on Moriori land at Manukau and gazes at the ocean from whence his ancestors came.
The statue of Tommy Solomon, symbol of the Moriori presence and mana whenua on the Chathams, stands four square on Moriori land at Manukau and gazes at the ocean from whence his ancestors came.

In the period that I was writing the book, Moriori lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal for com­pensation for their loss of physical and cultural resources as a conse­quence of Maori and Pakeha coloni­sation of the Chathams.

By the 1990s, they had joined the National Maori Congress as tangata whenua of the Chathams, and they were negotiating successfully for quota from the Maori Fisheries Com­mission. They were again using Moriori language and waiata for their rituals of welcome (on the oc­casion of the bicentenary of Broughton’s landing at Kaingaroa in 1791, for example).

Moriori people not only have an accessible and well documented past, they now have an assured fu­ture. And plans for that future include the building of a marae on Chatham Island, the holding of whare wananga to educate their iwi in Moriori lan­guage and culture, and the establishment of tourism and fishing ventures to generate employment for Moriori on the Chathams and income for further cultural de­velopment.

Charlie Preece jun­ior, now chairman of Te Iwi Moriori Trust Board, estimates the number of identifiable Moriori descendants to be between 300 and 1000. He has boundless optimism about the op­portunities now open­ing up for his people.

“We have not only survived in the face of impossible odds over the past 200 years, we have flourished in spite of them. We stand proud with our whanaunga from Aotearoa as we develop our fisheries and reju­venate our cultural roots. We do these things not as an ap­pendage of any main­land tribe, nor as vas­sals of our so-called conquerors. We assert our own mana and our own tino rangatiratanga as Moriori, the first people of Rekohu.”

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