"The Next Chapter in the Book of Restored Humanity and Decolonization": Human Remains Return to Hawaii

11.02.2022"The Next Chapter in the Book of Restored Humanity and Decolonization": Human Remains Return to Hawaii

On February 11, 2022 SPK returned human remains from the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte and grave goods from the Ethnologisches Museum to Hawaii. Edward Halealoha Ayau, Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) representative, explains what iwi kūpuna are and what their return to Hawaii signifies.

Four people stand with their eyes closed in front of a table covered with a black cloth
Human remains handover ceremony © SPK/photothek.net/Felix Zahn

What happens to the ancestral remains once they are back in Hawaii?

Edward Halealoha Ayau: This is an awkward question only in that the answer is self-evident. The iwi kūpuna (ancestral skeletal remains) will be reinterred as close to the area from whence they were originally stolen from. While we will never be able to completely restore these ancestors whole with their entire body in the exact place where their families ceremonially placed them for what they thought would be eternity, we shall recommit them ceremonially and with aloha and respect back to the bosom of Papahānaumoku, our Earth Mother, so that they may resume their journey to , the Darkness that is the place of honor for the deceased.

A woman speaks at the ceremony, there is a table covered with black cloth
Kalehua Kamoali‘i Caceres at the ceremony © SPK/photothek.net/Felix Zahn

What is the tradition behind the iwi kūpuna?

The tradition behind the iwi kūpuna is the same as with the living – based upon aloha and protection – both of which were violated when the iwi kūpuna were illicitly acquired and removed from their place of interment. The relationship between the living and the deceased is best described as inter-dependent, whereby each relies on the other for mutual care, protection and benefit. We the living are duty-bound to care for those who cared before us and are now deceased, and the kūpuna are duty-bound to look after us and grant us the tools we need in our lives including ‘ike (knowledge), ikaika (strength), akamai (intelligence), maopopo pono (true understanding), ‘ike pāpālua (avenues of communication with our ancestors) and mana (spiritual essence, power).

What is the significance of this return for you?

The significance of all repatriations is the expression of kuleana (responsibility, duty) to restore our ancestral foundation, so that our lāhui (Hawaiian nation) and our ‘ohana (families) can stand tall again, make good decisions, and return to the high level of existence in our thoughts, words and deeds. These repatriations are a profound expression of our Hawaiian humanity, which places the aloha for our ‘ohana at the forefront. It is also an excellent lesson to our keiki (children) and mo‘opuna (grandchildren) of how to treat the iwi kūpuna who have been disturbed and to understand the sacred duty to protect them in place.

A man stands upright in front of them with a black cloth covered table
Edward Halealoha Ayau with the iwi kūpuna © SPK/photothek.net/Felix Zahn

The significance of this return is that it represents the next chapter in the book of restored humanity and decolonization in the relationships between the Hawaiian people and the German people. The first chapter of this book was written in October 2017 and involved the repatriation of 3 iwi kūpuna from the Dresden Museum für Völkerkunde (Dresden Museum of Ethnology). A high level of respect and love by German officials was expressed on that day in Dresden and it was acknowledged and returned ten-fold by our Hawaiian delegation, as will happen next week at the Übersee Museum (Oversea Museum) in Bremen, the Georg-August-Universität (Georg-August-University), in Göttingen the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität (Friedrich-Schiller University) in Jena, the Museum für Vor-und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Prehistory and Early History) in Berlin and the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum) in Vienna, Austria.

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