Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei Part 1: Empowerment Through Education


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The Native Hawaiian organization Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei was established by Edward and Pualani Kanahele in 1988. The organization was intended to be an interim response to the problems created by the desecration of ancestral Hawaiian burial sites by the Kapalua Land Company at Honokahua, Maui. This event proved to be steeped in anguish and enlightenment. Organization members were trained in cultural and spiritual practices, both traditional and contemporary, that were applied to the care of iwi kūpuna (ancestral bones) and moepū (funerary possessions). These practices were grounded in traditional Hawaiian knowledge, values and beliefs. However, the members had no idea as to the extent of the problem in terms of how many iwi had been disturbed in the State and were taken away to places around the world.

1990 Smithsonian Natural History Museum Repatriation Team. – Photo: Courtesy of Hui Mālama

Established “to stop the desecration of the bones of our ancestors,” upon its dissolution in 2015, the organization had accomplished the following: 1) trained its members in cultural traditions designed to provide care and protection to iwi kūpuna, moepū and mea kapu (sacred objects); 2) helped restore the ancestral foundation by repatriating over 6,000 iwi kūpuna, moepū and mea kapu items from museums, institutions and individuals in the United States, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, England, Scotland and Germany; 3) repatriated ancestral remains of Native Americans, Chamorros, Aborigines, Tahitians, Marquesans, Tongans and Maoris; 4) supported the enactment of the National Museum of the American Indian Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and Act 306 to amend the Hawai‘i Historic Preservation Law to establish island burial councils; 5) advocated at the United Nations for the rights of Indigenous peoples to repatriate ancestral remains; 6) developed databases of cultural items held in U.S. and foreign institutions; 7) provided training to Native Hawaiians in cultural protocols relating to the care of iwi kūpuna, moepū and mea kapu; 8) constructed traditional style reburial structures and utilized traditional burial spaces; and 9) educated mostly Indigenous peoples regarding strategies and understandings of repatriation over a 30-year period through lectures and publications.

These achievements were the results of the application of knowledge and instincts gained from our own ancestry, education, and cultural training and practice in discipline as taught by our kumu, through our own courage, focus, and mana to help restore the ancestral Hawaiian foundation.