Iwi Kūpuna Return


In late February, OHA and a hui of cultural practitioners received 20 iwi kūpuna (ancestral bones) that were housed for over a century at the University of Cambridge, ending a decade-long effort to return the Native Hawaiian remains to Hawai‘i.

“The international repatriation of iwi kūpuna, moepū (funerary artifacts) and mea kapu (sacred objects) continues to represent a significant priority for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs,” said Dr. Sylvia Hussey, OHA Ka Pouhana (Chief Executive Officer). “We extend a warm mahalo to our team of experts and to the dedicated community members whose passion and commitment are what made the return of these kūpuna possible. In addition, we thank the University of Cambridge for their respectful collaboration with us. OHA hopes that this unprecedented repatriation by the University of Cambridge can serve as a model for other international museums and collections to return the ancestral remains of native peoples.”

“This cannot possibly repair the hurt caused by the extraction of the iwi but it is a necessary and long delayed act of justice. It is a sign of our deepest respect for your kūpuna. It is a sign of our deepest respect for your culture. It is a sign of our deepest respect for you,” said Professor Stephen J. Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. “I am grateful for the opportunity to repair the damage caused by our own ancestors. To your kūpuna I say: I am sorry that your voyage home has been so long interrupted, but I hope that you may now travel back in peace.”

This event is part of a major initiative by OHA and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners to repatriate iwi kūpuna from international collections. Earlier in February, the hui of Native Hawaiians held consultations with six German institutions regarding claims for repatriation of iwi kūpuna, moepū and mea kapu. In 2017, the Dresden Museum of Ethnology in Germany transferred three iwi kūpuna to OHA and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, marking the first time the eastern German state of Saxony has repatriated indigenous human remains.

“Humanity benefits every time human beings agree to restore dignity to the deceased whose remains were removed without consent,” commented Edward Halealoha Ayau, a longtime advocate of iwi kūpuna repatriation. “We honor the leaders of Cambridge University for their courage to help us heal our kaumaha, our traumatic pain caused by the separation, and our innate desire to seek to return the ancestors to their moe loa after more than a century of being disturbed.”

The hui of Native Hawaiians on this trip included OHA Community Engagement Director Mehana Hind, former Executive Director of Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei Edward Halealoha Ayau, UH Mānoa American Studies assistant specialist Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu, and cultural practioners Mana Caceres and Keoki Pescaia.

The hui received 20 iwi po‘o (skulls) originating from Nu‘uanu, Wai‘alae and Honolulu. The iwi were transferred from three separate private collections to the University of Cambridge between 1866 and 1903.

This was the first time in the 800-year history of the University of Cambridge that the institution returned remains based on a request from an indigenous group. The iwi kūpuna were among the 18,000 individuals from around the world that are housed at the University of Cambridge’s Duckworth Laboratory, one of the largest repositories of human remains in the world.

According to Dr. Cressida Fforde, who led the historic documentation research efforts on behalf of OHA, this is a historic moment in the history of repatriation from British institutions. “Cambridge University should be congratulated for recognizing the right of indigenous peoples to the repatriation of their human remains, as is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” noted Fforde.

The Native Hawaiian hui escorted the iwi kūpuna home, arriving in Honolulu on March 1. OHA will next support the process to identify lineal and cultural descendants by the O‘ahu Island Burial Council and State Historic Preservation Division. Consultations regarding reburial will follow.

“I want to thank the University of Cambridge, Mr. Ayau and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for working together to return to their homelands those ancestral people whose remains were taken from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i so long ago,” said U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary Susan Combs. “The University’s decision to release the iwi kūpuna recognizes the importance of treating human remains with dignity. It also reaffirms how important it is that Native American remains be treated with care and respect.”

“While OHA is pleased with the outcome of this repatriation, we recognize that there is much more work to do with other museums across the globe as we continue the sacred work to restore our ancestral Hawaiian foundation,” said OHA Chair Colette Machado.