Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei Part 3: Empowerment Through Education

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Photo: Edward Halealoha Ayau
Conducting proper burial was especially important because it was believed that ancestors could transform and become ʻaumākua (guardians) of living descendants and that these ʻaumākua must be cared for in order to maintain the pono (balance and unity) of the family. For the aliʻi nui (ruling chief), maintaining tranquility in the kingdom was dependent, in part, on his care for the akua (gods) and ʻaumākua. This was reflected by the status of gravesites. When there was peace people were buried properly; when there were treacherous rulers, the bones were dug up.

Photo: Mokumanamana Repatriation Team
1997 Nihoa and Mokumanamana Repatriation Team – Photo: Courtesy of Hui Mālama

“Ola nā iwi” (the bones live) refers to an elder who is well cared for by his or her family as well as to those who provide such care. This ʻŌlelo Noʻeau reminds us that our kūpuna reside within our own iwi; we are the sum of all of the ancestors who collectively gave us life. This relationship engenders a profound duty to care for and protect the bones of our kūpuna. The care of iwi kūpuna is a kuleana. The relationship between ancestors and the living is interdependent. Families maintain this kuleana by ensuring the ancestors are kanu pono (properly buried) and protected, as the physical and spiritual health of the family is related to the wellbeing of the ancestors.

“Mai kaulaʻi i nā iwi i ka lā” (don’t expose the bones to the sun light) instructs us to prevent exposure of iwi because the ʻuhane (spirit) of the deceased reside in a world known as Pō; (darkness). Thus, iwi should be placed in the ʻāina so that its mana can nourish the land physically and spiritually. From this proverb we understand that kuleana to care for iwi includes protecting them from disturbances that would result in exposure to light. Therefore, removal of iwi, displaying and studying them, are forms of desecration based upon this belief because they are exposed to light.