Photo: Ahu Ula Feathered Cloak
The ʻahu ʻula is made with the feathers of more than 20,000 birds - Photo: Courtesy of Te Papa

By Melanie Y. Ide, Bishop Museum President and CEO

An ʻahu ʻula (feather cloak) and mahiole (feather helmet) gifted to Captain Cook in 1779 have been permanently returned to Hawaiʻi by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. These cherished items were gifts from Hawaiian Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu to Captain James Cook and have been in Te Papa’s collection since being gifted to the museum in 1912.

In March 2016, the items returned to Hawaiʻi as a long-term loan to Bishop Museum. In July it was confirmed that the ʻahu ʻula and mahiole will remain in Hawaiʻi in perpetuity, and held in trust for the people of Hawaiʻi by the Museum.

This historic repatriation is the result of a partnership between the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. It is also supported by the descendants of Lord St. Oswald, who donated the items to New Zealand’s Dominion Museum in 1912.

Dr. Arapata Hakiwai, Kaihautū (Māori co-leader) of Te Papa, said it was an honor to be able to return these taonga permanently to the people of Hawaiʻi. “These priceless treasures have so much to tell us about our shared Pacific history. We are honored to be able to return them home, to reconnect them with their land and their people,” said Hakiwai.

“Woven into these taonga is the story of our Pacific history, with all its beauty, challenges and complexity,” Hakiwai continued. “When I see these treasures, I’m reminded about the whakatauki or proverb, ʻHe Toi Whakairo, He Mana Tangata: Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity.’ Te Papa was founded on the principle of Mana Taonga, which recognizes the deep connections of taonga to their source communities. Returning these taonga to Hawaiʻi is a powerful example of that principle in action.”

“For nearly 250 years, these mea makamae (cultural treasures) have been abroad, illustrating the amazing story of our kūpuna and their superlative craftsmanship,” said OHA CEO Dr. Sylvia Hussey. “We were honored to be part of the effort to permanently return these beloved items home, where they will continue to inspire future generations of Native Hawaiians. We extend a warm mahalo to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Bishop Museum, former OHA CEO Kamanaʻopono Crabbe, and to all of those, past and present, who made this possible.”

After more than a century in Te Papa’s care, Bishop Museum is humbled to accept the kuleana of caring for the ʻahu ʻula and mahiole of Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Together with OHA and members of our community, we have witnessed these precious pieces of our cultural heritage return home. With their extraordinary presence, they give the people of Hawaiʻi a tangible connection to the past, and to ancestors whose mana remains strongly rooted. The impact of this gift will be felt for generations, and we will honor Te Papa’s inspirational act of leadership and generosity with our commitment to strengthen the kinship between our peoples and institutions. We offer our deepest gratitude and aloha to our friends in Aotearoa and look forward to all that we will do together as a Pacific community.