OHA, Hui Secure Return of 20 Iwi Kūpuna

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After a decade-long struggle, ancient Native Hawaiian remains housed in a foreign land have returned to Hawai‘i.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs and a hui of cultural practitioners on Saturday received 20 iwi kūpuna (ancestral bones) kept for over a century at the University of Cambridge in England, according to an OHA press release.

“The international repatriation of iwi kūpuna, moepū (funerary possessions) and mea kapu (sacred objects) continues to represent a significant priority for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs,” said Sylvia Hussey, OHA Ka Pouhana (CEO). “We extend a warm mahalo to our team of experts and the dedicated community members whose passion and commitment are what made the return of these kūpuna possible. In addition, we thank the University of Cambridge for their respectful collaboration with us.

“OHA hopes that this unprecedented repatriation by the University of Cambridge can serve as a model for other international museums and collections to return the ancestral remains of native peoples,” Hussey continued.


The hui will receive 20 iwi poʻo (skulls) originating from Nuʻuanu, Waiʻalae and Honolulu. The iwi were transferred from three separate private collections to the University of Cambridge between 1866 and 1903.

This will be the first time in the 800-year history of the University of Cambridge that the institution is returning remains based on a request from an indigenous group, the release said. The iwi kūpuna are among 18,000 individuals from around the world housed at the University of Cambridge’s Duckworth Laboratory, one of the largest repositories of human remains in the world.

“The University of Cambridge is honored to be able to return the iwi kūpuna to their ancestral home,” Professor Stephen J. Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. “The iwi kūpuna came to be in Cambridge many decades ago and it is only appropriate that we now do what we can to help them complete their journey. I am sorry that their journey home has been so long interrupted, but I hope they may now travel in peace.”


Today’s event is part of a major initiative by OHA and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners to repatriate iwi kūpuna from international collections, the release said. Earlier this week, the hui of Native Hawaiians held consultations with six German institutions regarding claims for repatriation of iwi kūpuna, moepū and mea kapu.

In 2017, the Museum of Ethnology Dresden in Germany transferred three iwi kūpuna to OHA and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, marking the first time the eastern German state of Saxony repatriated indigenous human remains.

“Humanity benefits every time human beings agree to restore dignity to the deceased whose remains were removed without consent, which is to say when we collectively embrace and celebrate ‘ohana (family),” said Edward Halealoha Ayau, a volunteer member of the hui that traveled to England and a longtime advocate of iwi kūpuna repatriation.


The hui of Native Hawaiians on this trip includes:

  • Mehana Hind, OHA Community Engagement Director
  • Edward Halealoha Ayau, former Executive Director, Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawaiʻi Nei
  • Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu, assistant specialist, American Studies, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
  • Mana Caceres, cultural practitioner
  • Keoki Pescaia, cultural practitioner

The Native Hawaiian hui escorted the iwi kūpuna home, arriving in Honolulu on Sunday evening, March 1. OHA is now supporting the process to identify lineal and cultural descendants by the O‘ahu Island Burial Council and State Historic Preservation Division. Consultations regarding reburial will follow.

“While OHA is pleased with the outcome of this repatriation, we recognize that there is much more work to do with other museums across the globe as we continue the sacred work to restore our ancestral Hawaiian foundation,” said OHA Chair Colette Machado.

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