Dozens of human remains to be returned to Hawai'i by German institutions

By Will Trafford

Dozens of ancestral remains are to be returned to Hawai'i over 100 years after they were stolen by a German explorer.

A delegation representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) will repatriate a total of 58 iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains) from four institutions in Germany and one in Austria this week.

The iwi kūpuna were taken around 1880 from Kaua‘i, Molokaʻi, Maui and Hawai‘i Island by German naturalist Hermann Otto Finsch; they’re believed to belong to 32 different people.

“These iwi kūpuna were collected during a time of colonial violence, and were horrendously dehumanised for study without the consent of their families. The return of the iwi kūpuna to their one hānau (homeland) allows for healing and restoration of dignity, so they may finally rest peacefully,” the OHA said in a statement.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the government agency that oversees Berlin’s museums and cultural institutions will hand them over in ceremonies beginning today when the delegation will receive eight iwi po‘o (skulls) from Übersee Museum.

Return offered to other countries

On subsequent days, the delegation will prepare for the return home of 13 iwi from Georg-August Universität, three iwi poʻo from Friedrich Schiller Universität and 32 iwi from Museum für Vor-und Frühgeschichte. The final repatriation from the Natural History Museum Vienna of two iwi poʻo will happen on February 14.

In a statement Germany’s culture minister Claudia Roth said the country had lessons to learn from the taking and retaining of the iwi kūpuna, adding "Human remains from colonial contexts have no place in our museums and universities; their return must be a priority.”

“Colonial history has left many wounds. We must do our part to help close these wounds – through restitution, through a consistent examination of our colonial past, and through greater international cultural exchange. We need a decolonizing of our thinking in all areas.”

The Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has been in talks to return the human remains since 2017. The foundation promised to return more human remains from “colonial contexts” if relevant countries and societies wished for them to be returned.

Later this year they will return burial items Finsch allegedly stole from the graves.