Searching, Tracking and Finding Stolen Ancestors: An Insight

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

For the past 32 years we have searched for the iwi kūpuna (ancestral bones) and their moepū (funerary possessions) that were stolen from their final resting places. Never once has there been any evidence that the family of the deceased consented to their removal.

These search efforts were in response to the harsh realization that thousands of ancestral Hawaiian remains were collected in the name of science, furthering the colonial violence perpetrated upon the humanity of the Hawaiian people.

Photo: Fishing Hooks
Dreams were the principal practice whereby the kūpuna would provide hints to their whereabouts. – Photo: Courtesy

Beginning in 1989, these efforts took the form of letters of inquiry to institutions throughout the world from our organization, Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawaiʻi Nei. In addition, I read archaeology, anthropology and medical journals for articles referencing Native Hawaiian skeletal remains or funerary possessions to identify institutions that may be holding iwi kūpuna. With improved technology came faster searching abilities.

Similarly, with repatriation and reburial experiences came the ability to elevate search efforts through Hawaiian ceremonial practices and skillsets.

Dreams were the principal practice, whereby the kūpuna would provide hints to their whereabouts. In addition, prayers were invoked to reveal the ancestors taken from Hawaiʻi. This led to a higher understanding and appreciation for the requirement to establish a relationship of trust with the kūpuna in our abilities to provide them with care and protection.

Sometimes, my naʻau told me to go back to an institution that already said they did not possess iwi. In a few instances, we learned those museums, in fact, housed iwi kūpuna. Waking up in the night unable to fall asleep was often a clue and an opportunity for insight, as I was taught the darkness was the natural time when the kūpuna were most active.

My first experience was powerful. The Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, had iwi kūpuna but it was unclear, based upon their identification system, whether they could accurately account for the exact number of iwi kūpuna and their provenance, thus the museum could not complete the inventory. As a result, our effort to bring them home stalled and museum staff opined it would take them months to decipher the identification system.

Shortly thereafter, I had a dream in which the numbering system was revealed to me. I woke up and started writing it all down. I typed up my revelation and faxed a memo to the museum. I received a response that confirmed the interpretation and authorized repatriation. It was my first experience of ʻike pāpālua (spiritual discernment).

I came to understand that it takes courage and trust for spiritual communication to occur. I also learned that our ancestors still have a consciousness and wish to remain a part of their family’s lives. These understandings have helped empower us to complete 128 repatriation cases and return over 6,000 iwi kūpuna and moepū to Hawaiʻi for reburial. Ola nā iwi, the bones live!