Ensuring Respectful Treatment of our Iwi Kūpuna

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By ʻIhilani Chu, Executive Director/Project Manger, Hawaiian Church of Hawaiʻi Nei

At first, the need was to bring iwi kūpuna home from around the world. So many were treated with disrespect, bundled together in bags on museum shelves. Later, it was discovered that many iwi kūpuna here at home were also secretly stored in cardboard boxes on shelves in State Historic Preservation Division offices, some for more than 80 years.

With rising development here at home, so, too, did our kūpuna rise. As developers ravaged the land throughout our islands to build their hotels and high rises, iwi kūpuna began rising as they were disturbed and desecrated.

It is important to us, as Kānaka ʻŌiwi, to care for our ancestors, and now is the time for our lāhui to mālama nā iwi kupuna in a dignified manner. Caring for our ancestors empowers and strengthens the Native Hawaiian community spiritually and culturally.

The Hawaiian Church of Hawaiʻi Nei was recently awarded its second Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) grant of $50,000 for a two-year period to provide workshops to make sacred items to care for iwi kūpuna throughout the pae ʻāina. An earlier OHA grant in 2021 helped to fund a series of 26 free workshops to teach the Native Hawaiian community how to make hīnaʻi lau hala, kapa and kaula hau.

We provide the education and knowledge necessary to gather and prepare the materials, then create the items, needed to care for our iwi kūpuna. It is difficult, time-consuming work, that takes dedication, commitment, and positive energy. Our workshops are two-day events and participants must attend both days.

The first day we focus on gathering and preparing. The second day we teach participants to craft the sacred items. Where possible, we use traditional tools. Most participants are lineal descendants who belong to a Native Hawaiian Organization or group working to mālama nā iwi kūpuna in preparation for reinterment.

Founded in 2015, The Hawaiian Church of Hawaiʻi Nei is an Indigenous, cultural, faith-based organization committed to strengthening and empowering Hawaiian spirituality through traditional Hawaiian ceremonies, rituals and protocols. Its mission is to promote, protect, preserve, and hoʻomau Indigenous Hawaiian religious practices, cultural rights, and traditions inclusive of spiritual and physical healing, spiritual and physical health, self-reflective understanding, hoʻoponopono and peace.

We need help from the community if we want to get iwi off shelves and out of cardboard boxes. Our kūpuna are waiting to be returned home – to be kanu back to our ʻāina, so that their ʻuhane may lele wale ka pō – fly off and return to the realm of gods.

For many years, Kahu Lokoʻolu Quintero and I have worked under the radar making hīnaʻi lau hala for iwi kūpuna disrupted by many development projects. I have spent more than 30 years caring for the ancestors of Hawaiʻi, first as a member of Hui Mālama i Nā Kūpuna o Hawaiʻi Nei and now continuing this kuleana. I’ve been trained and educated in all aspects of the traditional care of nā iwi kūpuna, including ceremonies and protocols. This training ensures that the respectful treatment and reburial of nā iwi kūpuna is passed on.

Eventually, The Hawaiian Church of Hawaiʻi Nei hopes to aquire land on each island to build an ahu for the iwi kūpuna who have no other place to rest – so even if their specific kulāiwi is not known, they will always have a place to rest in peace.


For more information and a workshop schedule visit: www.hawaiianchurchhawaiinei.org

The Hawaiian Church of Hawaiʻi Nei a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. They offer traditional Hawaiian ceremonies, rituals and protocols for all aspects of life (birth, reconciliation, wedding, cleansing, memorial) to our lāhui and others in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi or English.