An Act of Congress

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Requiring the repatriation of iwi kūpuna

Photo: Edward Halealoha Ayau

In 1995 and 1996, there were 18 repatriation cases involving 14 museums pursuant to the authority of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the voluntary return of a single skull from a private individual.

In January 1995, one iwi kūpuna was repatriated from the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. The museum director agreed to follow protocol and hand-carry the iwi to Honolulu. A month later, another iwi was repatriated by a retired doctor, also from Fairbanks, who explained that the University of Alaska Medical School used the iwi for teaching. He, too, hand-carried the iwi home. Both iwi were reburied on Oʻahu.

Support to Lānaʻi families extended to helping them weave the hānaʻi for reburial.- Photo: Courtesy

Then in June, we traveled to Hanover, N.H., to repatriate three iwi kūpuna from the Dartmouth College Hood Museum of Art. The registrar of the museum wrote us saying, “I am honored that, in some small way, I was able to assist in the return of your ancestors and their mana. Although it saddens me to think that it required an Act of Congress to precipitate such a simple act of respect, I am heartened by these long overdue first steps.”

On that same trip, we also traveled to Richmond, Ind., and took possession of two iwi held by the Earlham College Moore Museum. Following their return, all five iwi kūpuna were reburied on Oʻahu.

The following month, we traveled to California to repatriate two large sets of human teeth donated by Dr. William Bryan to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The niho (teeth) were collected from Moʻomomi, Molokaʻi, and were returned there for reburial.

In July, we also repatriated and reintered 25 iwi held by the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum that had been removed from Fort DeRussy on Oʻahu.

We supported the efforts of Hui Mālama o Lānaʻi in October 1995 to repatriate another 212 iwi kūpuna from Lānaʻi also held by the Bishop Museum. This was a troubling case given the circumstances around Dr. Kenneth Emory’s collection of these iwi. Our support to the Lānaʻi families extended to helping them weave the hānaʻi for reburial, as Hurricane ʻIniki had destroyed the lauhala trees on their island three years earlier.

A total of 113 iwi kūpuna, along with moepū, were successfully repatriated in November 1996 from nine museums and universities: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology (62), Reading Public Museum (2), University of Arkansas Museum (2), University of Kansas Museum of Anthropology (3), UCLA Fowler Museum (7), Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (17), Cal State Fullerton Department of Anthropology (16), California Academy of Natural Science (1) and the Santa Cruz Museum Natural of History (3).

We conducted most of the reburials and coordinated with various Hawaiian organizations to reinter the remainder on the islands of Hawaiʻi, Maui, Lānaʻi, Oʻahu and Kauaʻi. The following month, we supported the repatriation of three iwi kūpuna from Waimea, Kauaʻi, held by the Bishop Museum, and ceremonially reburied the remains.


Edward Halealoha Ayau is the former executive director of Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawaiʻi Nei, a group that has repatriated and reinterred thousands of ancestral Native Hawaiian remains and funerary objects.