The Challenges of Repatriation in the Private Sector

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

In December 2017, after months of research, consultation, planning and prayers, a single iwi poʻo from Nuʻuanu, Oʻahu, was repatriated from Malvern, Pennsylvania. It was in the possession of a family whose ancestor collected it when she was teaching at the Kawaiahaʻo School for Girls in the 1900s.

What distinguishes this and similar cases is that federal law does not apply to private citizens regarding the return of iwi kūpuna.

I’d heard from a Kamehameha classmate that a family in Pennsylvania might be in possession of iwi. I fact-checked the information, then researched prior faculty of the Kawaiahaʻo School for Girls and found a match to the name I was given.

I reached out to colleagues with federal law enforcement experience for advice and formulated a plan. Additionally, I sought assistance from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), which wrote a formal letter to the family advocating for the return of the iwi. I traveled to Philadelphia to take possession of the iwi before the family responded.

Ultimately, I hand-carried the ancestor home without incident. There were many opportunities for things to go wrong – the family could have discarded the iwi fearing legal action. But through prayer, careful planning and execution, all went well.

Important lessons were learned from this experience. First, use advocacy skills to persuade the other party to be pono. Second, do not be motivated by anger, but by a noble sense of responsibility. Third, learn to project power through aloha and commit to the task. Fourth, rely on experts to provide accurate information and educate oneself to navigate the challenges. Finally, learn the prayers to engage the kūpuna to become a part of their own rescue by providing guidance, insight, courage, and love. Ola nā iwi, the bones live!