Demanding Respect

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Repatriation of Iwi Kūpuna and Moepū in 1993-1994

Photo: Edward Halealoha Ayau

In years four and five, there were nine repatriation cases involving six museums under the authority of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). In 1993, two repatriations took place with the Peabody Essex Museum whose staff demonstrated a great respect for the NAGPRA process and the humanity of Native Hawaiians. This museum houses the largest collection of Hawaiian cultural items outside of Hawaiʻi and within US borders.

Iwi from Kahoʻolawe were identified at Bishop Museum. However, a burial bundle was unaccounted for and the museum was unable to explain its whereabouts.

During repatriation we attempted to hand-carry the kūpuna and their moepū on a flight to Maui, whereupon a security officer insists we open the boxes for inspection despite documentation from the museum disclosing the sensitive contents. We refuse.

More officers arrive and they insist we open the boxes. We refuse. I realized we had to go heavy in our response. I summoned supreme educator, Maka, and directed him to explain our position. After some time, the edification is successful and the security officers back off. We are allowed to board the flight without having to expose the kūpuna.

Additional iwi and moepū were discovered at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History following the repatriation in 1990. While deemed an oversight on the part of the museum, the implications were immense for those who ʻauamo (carry) this kuleana, as these iwi were originally found with iwi that were already returned and reburied. We insisted museum staff apologize to the ancestors before we repatriated them.

As mentioned in last month’s article, the first appeal of a museum refusal to repatriate involves the Phoebe Hearst Museum at Cal-Berkeley.

The museum agreed to repatriate three remains and refused to repatriate two others. Hui Mālama appealed the decision, and the NAGPRA Review Committee mediated the dispute.

We offered testimony, later referenced as “spiritual evidence,” as we asserted that during a ceremony with these five iwi kūpuna, we confirmed in our naʻau that they are all ancestral Hawaiians.

The Committee accepted our testimony and recommended repatriation of the first skull finding that we established Hawaiian cultural affiliation but subjected the second skull to physical examination. The examination results established Hawaiian ethnicity, and the second ancestor was repatriated six months later. While some celebrate the NAGPRA process as “working,” we were devastated that we failed to prevent this desecration, and that spiritual evidence is not allowed to stand on its own.

In 1994, we coordinated a repatriation involving 283 iwi from the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. This case involved iwi whose island and place of origin were unknown. The Hanapēpē community offered to hānai these kūpuna and requested they be turned over to their care. The iwi were reburied following an overnight vigil to welcome them home, share mele aloha and pule, and conduct their reburial. A few years later, a stone platform was built over the grave site to commemorate their replanting in the bosom of Papahānaumoku.


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.