An International Repatriation Effort that Spanned 26 Years

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

After a 26-year effort, three iwi poʻo (skulls) and one ʻālalo (mandible) from Honolulu and Waiʻalae, Oʻahu, were repatriated from Germany’s Staatliches Museum fur Volkerkunde Dresden in October 2017.

It began in 1991 when Hui Mālama i Nā Kūpuna o Hawai‘i Nei President Edward Kanahele wrote to the Dresden Museum to request the return of all Hawaiian remains for proper reburial. His request was denied by Dr. Heinz Israel, director of the State Museum for Ethnology in Dresden.

For years Hui Mālama tried to advocate for the return of these iwi through the U.S. State Department but to no avail.

In 2015, I co-authored an article with Cherokee attorney Honor Keeler critiquing 2013 German Museum Association Repatriation Recommendations. The article detailed the Dresden Museum’s failures and in the article I referred to museum officials as “intellectual savages.” I did not anticipate that the article would raise awareness of our experiences and, ultimately, lead to their decision to repatriate.

In June 2017, the local government there agreed to permanently release the iwi. We later learned it was the first repatriation from the Dresden Museum and the Free State of Saxony.

Photo: Dr. Kamanaʻopono Crabbe and Halealoha Ayau at Dresden Museum
Dr. Kamanaʻopono Crabbe (second from left) and Halealoha Ayau (speaking) with German officials at a public news conference at Dresden Museum on Oct. 23, 2017. – Photo: Courtesy

At a news conference on Oct. 23, 2017, Director of the Museum of Ethnology Nanette Snoep stated, “Today is the first time that we restitute ancestral remains from Hawai‘i back to their homeland; back to their earth, sand where they come from. Back to the people who have waited for more than 100 years for the return of their ancestors.”

Dr. Marion Ackerman, director-general of the Dresden State Art Collections said, “The restitution of human remains…is an act of humanity…an important part in the process of healing of historical injustice.”

Noting that the human remains in museum collections were largely acquired through theft, grave robbery or colonial wars, State Minister of Science and Arts of the Free State of Saxony Dr. Eva-Maria Stange stated, “Today…we are looking at these collections from a different angle. They are being rehumanized… with their return, we are giving back their value…”

Reflecting on the Dresden repatriation effort, delegation member Noelle Kahanu wrote, “These returns happened, not because a federal law mandated it, but because of individual and institutional relationships that have developed over time, because doors were opened by those who understood the humanity in returning iwi kūpuna to their homelands…it is a network of people working together, inside, and outside of museums, redefining ethics and reasserting notions of human dignity, that will bring the last of our iwi kūpuna home.”