Five International Repatriations from England

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

From 2010 to 2014, repatriations were conducted from five institutions located in the United Kingdom (England). During that same time period, there was one repatriation from a U.S. institution and one repatriation from a private U.S. citizen.

The first British case occurred in August 2010 and involved the Maidstone Museum in Kent which returned two iwi poʻo (skulls) and two moepū (funerary possessions) for reburial. The iwi were carefully prepared and ceremonially reburied on Hawaiʻi Island. The second case involved the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in September 2011 and involved one iwi poʻo whose provenance was unknown. These are always the most difficult cases in terms of reburial.

Photo: Edward Halealoha Ayau with iwi kūpuna
Ayau prepares 144 iwi kūpuna for repatriation from the Natural History Museum in London. – Photo: Courtesy

The third British repatriation case, in August 2013, was the most significant. It featured the Natural History Museum in South Kensington where 144 iwi poʻo and one post-cranial from Molokaʻi, Oʻahu, and Hawaiʻi Island were housed.

The case began with the Bishop Museum’s repatriation to Molokaʻi in 1991. I was informed that the skull from Moʻomomi was no longer available for repatriation because it was sent to the Cranmore Ethnographic Museum in 1924, that this museum had since closed, and its Beasley Collection was disposed of after the museum was severely damaged by bombing during World War II.

This started an effort to inquire with several museums and institutions in England. At one point, my then 8-year-old daughter, Hattie, read me an inventory of Hawaiian skeletal remains held at the Natural History Museum while I typed the data into a relational database. “Collection: Beasley. Bone Type: Skull. Place: Mumumi; Island: Malakai,” she read. “I think they mean Molokaʻi, Dad!” And just like that, we found her, the woman from Moʻomomi whose skull had been sent to England.

In searching for her, we found 143 additional kūpuna and were able to get them returned home. This case was the last international repatriation by Hui Mālama i Nā Kūpuna o Hawaiʻi Nei, as the organization was dissolved in January 2015.

The fourth case involved a single iwi poʻo repatriated from the Science Museum/Wellcome Trust in August 2013. The fifth British case in 2014 involved an iwi poʻo repatriated from the Oxford Museum of Natural History and a brain preserved in spirit, which was challenging to resolve.

In the continental United States, two repatriations took place during this same period. The first was in April 2012 from a private citizen who once lived in Hawaiʻi and whose family collected iwi from Oʻahu. The second was in December 2014 from the Yale Peabody Museum involving iwi from Kōloa, Kauaʻi, which were ceremonially reburied.