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Iwi Kūpuna On Display in Scottish Museum Returned to Hawaiian Delegation

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Human remains stolen from Hawaiʻi and put on display in a Scottish medical museum were returned to a Hawaiian delegation consisting of Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The skull is believed to be taken without permission in the 1800s before ending up in the collection of Victorian anatomist Sir John Struthers, according to a Scotland newspaper the Sunday Times. The remains were most recently put on display at the Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh.

According to an OHA press release, the museum was approached in 2020 by OHA to discuss the item recorded in the museum catalog which was donated by Struthers in 1896. After discussion with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’s Heritage Committee, repatriation was agreed to in September 2021.

According to the news article, Struthers encouraged his students to collect human remains when working or traveling overseas for the study of the “different races of man.” This process of collecting most often included theft, and removing human remains without the consent of the community or relatives.

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These remains returned were then sent back to Struthers for his own collection and research.

The Kingdom of Hawai‘i introduced a law that made it illegal to remove human remains without consent in 1860. While the museum has not been able to ascertain exactly when this skull was removed, given Struthers’ teaching timeline, it is most likely to have come after this date. Making the removal not only ethically and morally questionable, but also illegal, OHA stated.

The iwi kūpuna were handed over during a private, solemn ceremony.

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“This is our first repatriation from the collections of the College and we are delighted to welcome delegates from Hawaiʻi,” stated Chris Henry, Director of Heritage at Surgeons’ Hall Museums. “By participating in this process we are demonstrating our commitment to the spiritual wellbeing of communities around the globe.”

The OHA release states this repatriation effort brought two cultures together to talk about the past, correct a historical wrong, educate, learn, and heal.

“Iwi kupuna sit at the core of Hawaiians’ connection to ancestry that strengthens and guides our understanding and interaction with our homeland, and with one another,” said OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey. “We extend our heartfelt thanks to Surgeons’ Hall Museums for recognizing the need to return the iwi kupuna to their one hanau (homeland).”

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