Hawaiian Humanity Empowered by Repatriation

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Mana ʻo shared at the Handover Ceremony, Natural History Museum Vienna, Austria, on Feb. 14, 2022

The international repatriation of iwi kūpuna and moepū is a dutiful expression of Hawaiian cultural traditions that place high value on all that is ancestral – especially the sanctity of human remains, funerary possessions and places of burial. The traditions of family, care, responsibility, and protection are paramount to an inter-dependent relationship where the living and deceased look after one another.

One’s role in the family does not end with death, it elevates to that of ancestral guardian. It is the role of the living to protect the dead, their places of internment and the dignity of the afterlife. It is the role of the deceased to provide for living descendants. Our ancestors yearn for continued function within our families and when we call upon them for guidance and help, they will come. By engaging the ancestors on a daily basis to help us navigate the challenges of being Hawaiian, they live on.

For the past 32 years, efforts by Native Hawaiians to return iwi kūpuna and moepū from domestic and foreign institutions were undertaken to continue restoration of our ancestral foundation, to return mana to our homeland and to living descendants, and to support the rebuilding and empowerment of all that is Hawaiian, beginning with our dignity – ancestral and living – that will no doubt culminate with the re-establishment of our Hawaiian Kingdom.

There are certain self-truths that are so fundamental, so pure and beautiful, that they cannot be denied. Reuniting families through restitution and reburial out of the solemn respect for the sanctity of the grave is one such self-truth. It does not require justification because it is justification. It is the essence of aloha that is the source of our authority to repatriate – love for those who came before us, which is best explained by the following family moʻolelo shared by Dr. Kamana Beamer:

“The story of the 1819 Battle of Kuamoʻo has been in our family for generations. My grandmother shared the courage of our ancestors to support traditional religious laws in the midst of tremendous social change. This story is filled with tragedy as our ancestors, severely outgunned, perished at the hands of opposing forces. It is also a story of hope expressed in the words of Manono, ʻmālama kō alohaʻ ʻkeep your love!’ after her husband [Kekuaokalani] had been killed. Her words were a plea to both sides that no matter what obstacles come, keep your love for one another – powerful guidance for future generations.”

Aloha is a shield to protect us from the harm caused by the repeated knowledge of the desecration and theft of our ancestor’s bones. Aloha can be a spear to be asserted when museum officials refer to the ancestors as “osteological material” or their “property.” Aloha is that ultimate place of refuge and safety when our ancestors are objectified and dehumanized – which objectifies and dehumanizes us.

There is no statute of limitations or legal prohibition on the assertion of aloha in any part of the world, and it is the authority by which Hui Iwi Kuamo ʻo comes here today to Vienna, Austria, to retrieve these ancestors and escort them home, and the authority by which we will continue to do so.

Today, let us celebrate our respective humanity – the Hawaiian and the Austrian people – and let us do so together by mālama kō kākou aloha, by keeping our love for one another.