Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei Part 5: Empowerment Through Education

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Unuhi ʻia e Noʻeau Peralto

Photo: Edward Halealoha Ayau

Over the past 30 years, we have empowered ourselves by inviting our ancestors by name to guide us. We were trained to utilize and trust our ancestral instincts. In death, our ancestors yearn to be a part of the family again. We used them in this way, and we believe they want us to because by doing so, by uttering their name, by asking for their help and guidance, by placing them in the position of supporting the family once again—they live on.

Strategically, we also advocated legal principles including free, prior and informed consent. We maintained that absent consent, acquisition is in reality theft, and that theft cannot form the basis for the legitimate acquisition and continued possession of ancestral remains and funerary possessions. Theft is theft. We asserted that our claims are based primarily on our kuleana or cultural duty as living descendants, and that we were the only party to this dispute that held such duties to the ancestral remains.

Photo: Sweden Repatriation Team
2009 Statens Historiska Museet & Karolinska Institutet, Sweden Repatriation Team –
Photo: Hui Mālama

Whereas museums sought to take from the ancestors, we sought to give back to them their place in our family. We further asserted that there is no room at the family table for the museums’ rights to continue the taking, which at its very best, only reifies the ill impacts of colonialism. In the global expressions of humanity, the fact that we seek to restore our ancestral family says something about us. The fact that museums seek to maintain the separation says something about them.

Importantly, we learned to protect ourselves from the psychological harm inherent in the revelation that our ancestors were repeatedly stolen and shipped off to foreign places without consent. Each time we learned of a repeated heinous act of burial site desecration we were subjected to an incredible level of kaumaha (traumatic harm). Our protection came in the form of traditional prayers taught to us and knowing who we are as ʻŌiwi. Armed with such understanding, we were able to shield ourselves from these ill effects. By this statement I don’t mean to mislead that we were not negatively impacted. We were. However, we learned to positively process this negativity so that it did not consume us in anger and weaken our ability to effectively focus on the goal of returning the ancestors home. Ola nā iwi.

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Edward Halealoha Ayau is the former Executive Director of Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei, a group that has repatriated and reinterred thousands of ancestral Native Hawaiian remains and funerary objects from the collections of museums and institutions worldwide. He trained under the direction of Edward and Pualani Kanahele in traditional protocols relating to care of nā iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) and moepū (funerary possessions). He resides in Panaʻewa, Hawaiʻi.