Hawaiians welcome stolen ancestral remains after a century

By Marena Mane

Earlier this month, representatives of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hui Mālama i nā Kūpuna o Hawai'i nei, ventured to Germany and Austria after what has taken three decades of work to retrieve 58 iwi Kūpuna, ancestral human remains that were stolen from Hawai'i during a time of colonial violence.

For over a century their kūpuna (ancestors) have been held in archaeological collections.

Hawaiian Affairs representative Edward Halealoha Ayau from Ho’olehua on the island of Molokai says the kūpuna were taken secretly without the consent of the living families of that time.

“The one thing they all had in common is they were all acts of thievery and during that time, Hawai'i was a kingdom and we had laws that made it a crime to disturb the contents of a grave. These are criminal acts and we asked them to recognise that those are violations of not just our sovereignty but also our family values,” he says. 

Representatives from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs led by Ayau travelled to Germany and Austria to retrieve their remains. 

It's been a 30-year emotional journey to find them and arrange for their return. 

This also includes connecting with the whānau to whom the remains belong.

The return home

On retrieving the ancestral remains, Ayau says they recited mo’okuahao (genealogy), prayer and chants to establish a connection, to gain the trust of their kūpuna, to allow them to return them home safely.

“We drove to three cities that were three hours each time with our kūpuna. We had Hawaiian music in the van. We sang to them, we did everything we would do as if they were living and sitting right there next to us.”

Returning home, the kūpuna would have seen a different Hawai’i from the one they remembered.

“There was the shock of landing in Honolulu and then they saw what had happened to our home and just the anguish that comes with that.”

Accepting the pain is reciprocal

Driven by their lore of Aloha (love), they've been able to express their pain and anguish.

“It's a really gratifying feeling but it's laced with kaumaha, with pain because of the recognition that the sanctity of their grave was disrespected.”

“It's very painful and we need the Germans and whoever it is that had our ancestors to experience that pain, because only by experiencing it will they know never to do it again.”

Who are they and where do they belong?

Knowing where to place the Kūpuna remains has been challenging. 

Ayau says that they've turned to their own traditional abilities rather than relying on science and documentation papers as to who they are and where they belong.

“We have those in our culture who have the ability to communicate with them and we rely heavily on them to guide us through. We really respect our indigenous ways of knowing.”

Repatriation in Aotearoa

Ayau credits Māori for leading the way in international repatriation.

“Big aloha to the Māori people for leading the way in international repatriation. It's been a powerful experience for us to know that we're helping to set an example, not just for other indigenous peoples, but especially for our kiki, our children.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is planning a trip to Aotearoa in the near future to repatriate kūpuna remains being held at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.