Bringing Our ʻOhana Home

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Over the course of a week in early February, Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo, a delegation representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) repatriated a total of 58 iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) from four institutions in Germany and one in Austria. The iwi were stolen from Hawaiʻi between 1860 and 1897.

The repatriation of the iwi kūpuna is the culmination of many years of research, coordination and communication between OHA and European museum, anthropologic and academic institutions. The iwi kūpuna were collected from Kauaʻi, Molokaʻi, Maui and Hawaiʻi Island by various 19th-century western scientists and collectors during a time of colonial violence. They were degraded, dehumanized and used for “study” without the consent of their families. The return of the iwi kūpuna to their homeland allows for healing and restoration of dignity so they may finally rest peacefully.

“There has been much change in the last decade amongst museum professionals and anthropological scholars that demonstrates a better understanding of Indigenous peoples and the past injustices committed against us. We certainly acknowledge this and applaud the re-humanization of these individuals and institutions,” said OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey. “Today, these actions allow us to heal, not only as individuals but as a lāhui.”

The repatriations began on February 8, when the OHA delegation received eight iwi poʻo (skulls) from Übersee Museum at a “handover ceremony.” After carefully preparing the iwi poʻo for transport to Hawaiʻi, the hui shared oli and speeches in a public ceremony. The signing of paperwork that allowed them to finally take the kūpuna home was followed by a pīkai cleansing ritual. On each of the subsequent days, the delegation would prepare 13 iwi from the University of Göttingen, three iwi poʻo from Friedrich Schiller University Jena, and 32 iwi from SPK — Berlin State Museums of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation for the long journey home. The final repatriation of two iwi poʻo from the Vienna Natural History Museum happened on February 14. Most of the ceremonies were live-streamed which allowed people around the world to witness the emotional expressions of deep remorse from the Germans and Austrians, and messages of gratitude and aloha from the Hawaiian delegation.

“For ethical reasons, there is no longer any justification for continuing to keep human remains in our collection. As a general rule, we would never entertain such sensitive purchases of unknown origin now. We bear the responsibility for the mistakes of our predecessors. Our task is to play our part in righting the wrongs of the past,” said Dr. Wiebke Ahrndt, director of the Übersee-Museum Bremen.

“The return of the iwi kūpuna to their homeland cannot undo this historical injustice, but it can be a first step towards healing it,” said Friedrich Schiller University Jena President Prof. Walter Rosenthal.

Edward Halealoha Ayau led the delegation, which also included cultural practitioners Mana and Kalehua Caceres, who were later joined by Kaumakaʻiwa Kanakaʻole. For the past 32 years, Ayau has advocated for and repatriated iwi kūpuna, moepū (funerary possessions) and mea kapu (sacred objects). He served as executive director of Hui Mālama i Nā Kūpuna o Hawai ʻi Nei until they formally dissolved in 2015. He now serves as a volunteer for OHA leading international iwi kūpuna repatriation efforts.

Photo: Edward Ayau with Museum Staff in Vienna

“We acknowledge the anguish experienced by our ancestors and take responsibility for their wellbeing (and thereby our own), by transporting them home for reburial,” Ayau said. “In doing this important work, we also acknowledge and celebrate our respective humanity – Germans and Hawaiians together in aloha – as we write a new chapter in our historic relationship as human beings.”

Arrangments were made with the appropriate parties to rebury the iwi kūpuna on their islands of origin, so that they may resume their journey to Pō, the Darkness that is the place of honor for the deceased.

OHA’s policy is to protect and promote the reverence and cultural importance of proper care, management and protection of iwi kūpuna. Over the last 30 years, OHA has been involved in 120 repatriation cases.

OHA’s Mana i Mauli Ola Strategic Plan seeks to empower communities to care for iwi kūpuna. In 2021, OHA established its new Iwi Kūpuna Repatriation and Reinterment Grants, providing $167,298 to four community organizations. Nearly $33,000 will help facilitate the reburial of 700 to 900 iwi kūpuna and moepū disturbed at Kawaiahaʻo Church. The remaining iwi kūpuna grants are providing education in communities throughout the state to empower Native Hawaiians to protect and care for iwi.

In March, OHA will nearly double the grant funds available for a new cycle of its Iwi Kūpuna Repatriation and Reinterment Grants.