(BIVN) – Recent video shared by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs – documenting the ceremonial handover of eight iwi kūpuna, or ancestral remains, from collections held in the Übersee-Museum Bremen – featured the words of OHA representative Edward Halealoha Ayau, who answered questions from the media following the event.
During a press conference held after the ceremony, Ayau read the words of OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey:
In October 2017, representatives of the Office Hawaiian Affairs and our Native Hawaiian community ventured to Dresden, Germany to retrieve iwi kūpuna that had been held for over a century within anthropological collections.
These iwi kūpuna were collected during a time of colonial violence. A time when western society was attempting to appoint themselves as being the highest point of evolution over all others. A quest ensued in the 18th and 19th centuries on the backs of imperialist agendas that resulted in the theft and collection of ancestral human remains of many indigenous peoples around the world. Our ancestors were horrendously dehumanized and objectified for study without the consent of their families and against prevailing Kingdom of Hawaiʻi law, at the time, protecting the sanctity of the grave.
Notably, this was the first restitution conducted in the state of saxony which also served to signify a confession of humanitarianism and respect to the Hawaiian people. Our ancestors were rehumanized and we were made whole again by finally being able to fulfill our responsibility to return these iwi kūpuna home as this unfortunate chapter of colonialism was finally coming to a close.
A new chapter of shared humanity was birthed and a commitment was made to repeat this event with the return of more iwi kūpuna in the future. Today we are seeing this promise made good with the return of many more iwi kūpuna from various institutions throughout Germany.
During the press conference, Ayau was asked how the process started.
“Part of the work that we do is to send email inquiries to institutions all around the world. When we first started, we sent 200 letters to institutions in other countries, inquiring whether they held iwi kūpuna,” or other sacred objects, Ayau explained. The email that was sent stated that if the museums held such items, “we wanted to initiate a discussion on their return. The initial response from museums back 30 years ago was, ‘yes we do. But no, we will not engage in that discussion.’ That attitude has completely changed,” Ayau said.
Ayau said that when he sent the email to the Übersee-Museum, “the response was ‘yes, we do have Hawaiian remains that appear to be provenance from Hawaiʻi, and that we wish to engage in in that discussion.”
When asked about what will be done next with the iwi kūpuna, Ayau said that he is “asked that question probably more so than any and it’s always awkward to respond, because the answer is self-evident. We will restore them to the condition their families placed them, originally, when they were buried. And then that journey was interfered with through theft, through scientific collection. And so, upon return, once we are clear on where they’re from, then we will network with the families from that area to re-bury them and return them to the journey back to Pū, back to that place of darkness where our ancestors go, so that they can be returned to their ancestral families.”
When asked about the scientific reasoning at the time the iwi kūpuna were taken from Hawaiʻi, Ayau first said they “were very accurate about provenance,” however, “over time, that information may have either been lost or we just haven’t accessed it yet.”
However, Ayau continued: “The real question isn’t whether you can do science or what it was doing. It’s whether they had consent. So, if they went to someone and said, ‘Can I take your grandma’s head? I need to do these studies.’ And if that family said yes, then we wouldn’t be here. But no Hawaiian family ever said yes. You know why? Because they were never asked. So that’s the real issue. It isn’t what science could have done back then. It’s whether or not they had consent. Where they do, then they are free to keep them, because the family speaks for the iwi. Not science.”