Hawaiian Ancestral Human Remains and Treasures Repatriated from Ireland

Photo: Ulster Museum Repatriation Ceremony
Pictured L-R at the official ceremony at Ulster Museum are Kathryn Thompson, chief executive of NMNI; Hui Iwi Kuamo‘o representatives Dane Uluwehi Maxwell, Mana Caceres, Kalehua Caceres and Starr Kalahiki; and Aaron Snipe of the U.S. Embassy in London. - Photo: Courtesy

Following ongoing dialogue with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo, the National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) hosted an official handover ceremony at Ulster Museum in Belfast in May and successfully repatriated iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian human remains) and five mea makamae pili aliʻi (treasures associated with aliʻi) which were a part of the museums’ World Cultures Collection.

The repatriation process involved a private ceremony followed by a public ceremony at Ulster Museum. Hawaiian representatives, NMNI colleagues, and delegates from the United States Embassy were in attendance.

“The return of the iwi kūpuna and mea makamae pili aliʻi to this delegation of Native Hawaiians, so that they may be returned home to Hawaiʻi, is an act of compassion and understanding that is much needed and long overdue,” said OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey.

Following extensive research into the provenance of each of the materials, it is believed that Gordon Augustus Thomson, who had travelled to Hawaiʻi Island in 1840, had removed iwi kūpuna from burial caves and donated them to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1857. The iwi kūpuna were included in a 1910 donation to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, a precursor to NMNI.

Kathryn Thomson, chief executive at NMNI said: “National Museums Northern Ireland believes it has legal and ethical responsibilities to redress the injustices shown to Native Hawaiian cultural values and traditions, and so through ongoing dialogue, it was agreed that these iwi kūpuna and mea makamae pili aliʻi should be returned by repatriation to Native Hawaiians through the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a self-governing corporate body of the State of Hawaiʻi.

“We are re-evaluating our World Cultures Collection on an ongoing basis, to better understand the complex global stories of some 4,500 items – and how and why they came to be in Belfast. We understand and respect cultural values and are in ongoing liaison with source communities and their representatives to establish if items within the collection can and should be returned to their ancestral homes. We remain open to further repatriations as these engagements develop.”

The return of the iwi kūpuna and mea makamae pili aliʻi has great significance on a cultural level for the people of Hawaiʻi. The five mea makamae pili aliʻi are considered sacred by Native Hawaiians and incorporate either human hair, bone, or teeth. The use of human remains was done purposefully and with meaning to infuse objects with mana, spiritual power. The lei niho palaoa, whale tooth necklaces, were traditionally provided to aliʻi (chiefs) and worn around the neck to show a connection between the chiefly class and the akua (gods). The bracelet and fan intertwined with human hair were reserved for aliʻi and used only during ceremonies rather than for everyday use. The wooden ipu kuha (spittoon) and ipu ʻaina (scrap bowl) were made exclusively for aliʻi so their attendants could carefully dispose of food scraps and bodily remains, lest the material fall into the hands of a kahuna ʻanāʻanā (sorcerer) and be used to harm or kill the chief.

In modern times, Hawaiian leaders and cultural practitioners still revere the use of such objects and may use them during ceremonies. The fan, in particular, is one of a very few early 19th century styles not typically available to Native Hawaiians today for ceremonies, due to their rarity.

On the same trip, the Hawaiian delegation also repatriated an iwi poʻo (skull) from Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh and engaged in repatriation consultations in London. The iwi kūpuna will be reburied on Molokaʻi and Hawaiʻi Island from which they were taken. The five mea makamae pili aliʻi will be properly stewarded by OHA.