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German museum returns iwi kūpuna, ancestral remains, to Hawaiʻi

 Representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Mana Caceres, Kalehua Caceres and Edward Halealoha Ayau oli at the beginning of the handover ceremony at Übersee-Museum Bremen on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.
Courtesy Übersee-Museum Bremen/Office of Hawaiian Affairs
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Representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Mana Caceres, Kalehua Caceres and Edward Halealoha Ayau oli at the beginning of the handover ceremony at Übersee-Museum Bremen on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

The ancestral remains of eight Native Hawaiians have been returned from the Übersee-Museum Bremen in Germany.

Representatives from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the U.S. Consul General from Hamburg and German officials took part in a solemn handover ceremony Tuesday.

Eight iwi kūpuna, or ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains, were returned. Research shows that each set of remains reached the museum by a different route – with the earliest arriving in 1865.

OHA applied to the Übersee-Museum Bremen in August 2019 to have the remains returned. The museum then worked with the Senator for Culture and OHA to undertake a comprehensive investigation and documentation of the matter using the sources available and on the basis of ethical standards; this work was funded by the German Lost Art Foundation.

After a thorough examination, the Übersee-Museum recommended to the Senate of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen that the ancestral remains be returned. The Senate approved the application at its meeting on Feb. 1.

Zeremonie_Hawai'i_Foto 3.jpg
Courtesy Übersee-Museum Bremen and Office of Hawaiian Affairs
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Mana Caceres and Kalehua Caceres during a cleansing ritual at the end of the ceremony. Attendees are sprinkled with saltwater to symbolically cleanse them from the uncleanliness that is naturally linked to the dead, so that the iwi kūpuna can return to their families.

“There has been much change in the last decade amongst museum professionals and anthropological scholars that demonstrates a better understanding of Indigenous peoples and the past injustices committed against us. We certainly acknowledge this and applaud the re-humanization of these individuals and institutions,” OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey said in a statement. “Today, these actions allow us to heal, not only as individuals, but as a lāhui (Hawaiian nation).”

An OHA delegation is currently in Europe to bring home a total of 58 iwi kūpuna that were stolen from Hawaiʻi more than 100 years ago. The remains are being repatriated from three other institutions in Germany and one in Austria.

Leading the Hawaiian delegation is Edward Halealoha Ayau who has led efforts to advocate for and repatriate iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains), moepū (funerary possessions) and mea kapu (sacred objects) for more than 30 years as the former executive director of Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei (Group Caring for the Ancestors of Hawaiʻi). He continues to work on international repatriation as a volunteer for OHA.

“For ethical reasons, there is no longer any justification for continuing to keep the human remains in our collection. As a general rule, we would never entertain such sensitive purchases of unknown provenance now,” Prof. Dr. Wiebke Ahrndt, director of the Übersee-Museum Bremen, said in a statement. “We bear the responsibility for the mistakes of our predecessors. Our task is to play our part in righting the wrongs of the past.”

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