And So it Began…Repatriation of Iwi Kūpuna and Moepū (1990 – 1991)

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Photo: Edward Halealoha Ayau

This year, I will continue to document the education efforts that were made regarding the care of iwi kūpuna and moepū by focusing on repatriation (meaning to return to country of origin – in this context, Hawaiʻi) from institutions or individuals located within the United States and from foreign countries.

Repatriation efforts began in 1990. The first repatriation case ever conducted occurred in July 1990 and involved 81 skulls held by the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

The legal authority to repatriate these ancestral remains was the National Museum of the American Indian Act, enacted by Senator Daniel Inouye in 1989. That law allowed two Native Hawaiian organizations, Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawaiʻi Nei and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, to claim human remains and funerary objects from the Smithsonian. This effort took place prior to the establishment of the Smithsonian Repatriation Office and was conducted in two phases at the behest of the Kauaʻi families involved.

This initial repatriation effort was supported by Hawaiians who worked in Washington, D.C., for Sen. Inouye, and by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. They housed, fed and provided ground transportation to the repatriation team from Hui Mālama led by Edward and Pualani Kanahele and which included Ulunui Garmon, Parley Kanakaʻole, Pele Hānoa, Charles Maxwell, Kūnani and Ipō Nihipali, Coochie Cayan, Kaʻohu Seto, Alapai Hanapi and myself.

In addition, the July 1990 trip included the repatriation of a mummified infant from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology in Philadelphia that was stolen from a burial cave in Hanapēpē, Kauaʻi. That case was especially heartbreaking.

The second repatriation from the Smithsonian occurred a year later and involved 134 skulls from the islands of Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi, Oʻahu and an island of unknown origin, and was conducted by the Kauaʻi families led by LaFrance Kapaka-Arboleda, Boots Panui, James Panui, Wilma Healani Holi, Atwood Makanani, Ilei Beniamina and Moses Keale, with the support of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. This effort featured a protest at the museum by a Hawaiian from Kauaʻi, which was eventually resolved.

In May 1991, the University of Alaska Museum returned a single skull to Paumalū, Oʻahu, for reburial and, in June that same year, 32 remains were repatriated from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, and 27 remains were returned from the Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) in Chicago. The AMNH case was highly contentious because of the museum’s objections to the new repatriation law. In contrast, in the FMNH case, field museum staff were supportive and cooperative.

In August 1991, a single skull was repatriated from the Brigham Young Museum of Peoples and Cultures in Provo, Utah, and 54 remains and funerary objects were returned from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum to Waimānalo.


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.