The Legal Mandate to Rebury Iwi at Mōkapu


Eleven repatriation cases were conducted in 1999 as specified by the authority of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). In January, one moepū was repatriated from the Milwaukee Public Museum and 10 iwi kūpuna and moepū originating from Kahoʻolawe were repatriated from the Bishop Museum. The following month, three iwi kūpuna and moepū from Moku o Keawe were returned for reburial.

Then in April, the U.S. Navy formally repatriated the largest collection of pre-contact Native Hawaiian burials that had been removed from ili Mōkapu and Heleloa, Oʻahu, comprising portions of two ahupuaʻa: Heʻeia and Kāneʻohe.

Photo: Aerial view of Mōkapu Peninsula
Aerial view of Mōkapu Peninsula in the ahupuaʻa of Kāneʻohe on Oʻahu. – Photo: Courtesy

Following the intentional removal of ancestral remains by the Bishop Museum and the University of Hawaiʻi Department of Anthropology, subsequent discoveries over the years of additional skeletal remains and burial objects at Mōkapu uncovered the remains of approximately 1,582 Native Hawaiian ancestors; however, upon examination, that number nearly doubled.

The Mōkapu Peninsula was retained as Crown Land following the Māhele of 1848. But in 1940, by Federal Executive Order through the U.S. Navy, all 464 acres of the Mōkapu Peninsula were condemned and a “Declaration of Takings” enacted. In 1952, Mōkapu became the site of the Kāneʻohe Marine Corps Air Station. Most of the iwi were removed from the peninsula prior to federal control.

From 1925 to 1940, jurisdiction over burials recovered from Heʻeia and Heleloa belonged to the Territorial Government. The Territorial law on reburial was applicable and governed both Bishop Museum excavations and the large-scale excavations by the University of Hawaiʻi.

The Territorial Government (now the State of Hawaiʻi) may have some responsibility for the excavations in 1938 since its agent, the Director of the Sanitation Department, permitted excavation of human skeletal remains from Heʻeia with the condition that “(4) ultimate disposition, if ever, must be reburial.”

Therefore, the Bishop Museum, University of Hawaiʻi, and the State of Hawaiʻi share responsibility for the large-scale excavations and should assist with completion of the reburial of the ancestral skeletal remains they ordered removed and studied. These entities need to be reminded that, at the time this action originally occurred, an important legal requirement for excavation was reburial. The time has come to fulfill this legal mandate and for these entities to contribute to the cost of reburial being undertaken by the Marine Corps on behalf of the U.S. Navy and lineal descendants.

Other cases in 1999 include three iwi kūpuna and moepū that were repatriated from Bishop Museum and reburied on Molokaʻi in June, and three iwi kūpuna and one moepū repatriated from the Bishop Museum and reburied at Mana, Kauaʻi in August.

Finally, in September, there were several repatriations including three iwi from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology; 13 iwi from the Bishop Museum that were reburied on Oʻahu; 78 iwi whose origins are unknown from the Bishop Museum; seven fishhooks that originated from Kahoʻolawe; and eight iwi kūpuna from Honouliuli, Oʻahu, repatriated from the U.S. Navy and the Bishop Museum.