Like most new parents, Shawn and Hōkū Naone see perfection and promise when they gaze at their two-year-old twin girls. But that look of love is also seared with sorrow, anger and a deep sense of loss.

The Naones wanted to preserve their daughters ʻiēwe (placenta) as part of a traditional and customary Native Hawaiian practice. Though the Naones filled out the required paperwork and repeatedly requested that their babies’ ʻiēwe be returned to them, their hospital, Kapiʻolani Medical Center for Women & Children, destroyed the ʻiēwe without prior notice. “I want to do as much as I can to instill everything…to give them a sense of place and responsibility but that has been stripped away,” says Hōkū as she tries to tamp down the tears. For the Naones, what’s missing is the vital connection that links their daughters to their ancestors and their ʻāina – a bond that the ceremonial care of their ʻiēwe could have established. “From the start, we wanted to give them this cultural grounding,” Shawn said. “The hospital robbed us of that.”

The Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practice of caring for and burying the piko (umbilical cord) and ʻiēwe of a child is an important and well-documented one. For centuries Hawaiian families have practiced the time honored protocol of cleaning and burying the ʻiēwe as part of a ritual to help the child forge a connection with his or her ancestors and place of birth.

Hōkū said she was holding one of her daughters in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit when a nurse notified her that the ʻiēwe had been destroyed. Hōkū remembers being shocked not just by the information but also the way it was delivered. “It came across as a ‘oh by the way’ – that it was no big deal.”

Hōkū said she immediately left the unit because she was extremely upset. The hospital could not recognize that the Naone’s were grieving.

“We just don’t want anybody to go through that we did. We want to raise awareness, and that’s not going to happen if people don’t know how we were treated,” Hōkū said.

Both husband and wife believe education and change need to occur at all levels of hospital care.

“A lot of people don’t understand that Hawaiian is a religion, not just ethnicity,” Shawn said. He believes this tragedy could have been averted if Hawaiian was recognized as one of the faith choices that a couple can select upon admission to the hospital. “And if ‘Hawaiian’ was chosen, there would be a ‘whole set of protocols’ that would be there for everyone to know about,” he said.

The Naones are represented by NHLC staff attorneys Sharla Manley and David Kauila Kopper. “Both parents fear for the well-being of their twins due to the destruction of the children’s ʻiēwe. The twins have suffered a deep cultural loss despite their tender age, as they will never have the connection to land and culture that the ceremonial preservation of their ʻiēwe could have given them and will wrestle with the knowledge that a sacred part of their being was destroyed for the rest of their lives,” Ms. Manley said.

Shawn says the ordeal has solidified their commitment to their culture. “We’re more certain to continue on our path and just maybe this happened for a reason. Maybe it’s our daughters’ sacrifice for the nation to be stronger, for the lāhui and the betterment of the Hawaiian community.”