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Hawaiian Ancestral Remains, Treasures Repatriated From Ireland

May 26, 2022, 7:30 AM HST
* Updated May 25, 2:43 PM
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Pictured from left during the official ceremony at Ulster Museum are Kathryn Thomson, chief executive officer of the National Museums Northern Ireland; Dane Uluwehi Maxwell, Mana Caceres, Kalehua Caceres and Starr Kalahiki with Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo; and Aaron Snipe from the U.S. Embassy in London. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs)

Ancestral Hawaiian human remains and treasures of the aliʻi have returned home thanks to the efforts of several organizations to have them repatriated to Hawaiʻi.

Ongoing dialogue between the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo and the National Museums Northern Ireland led to an official handover ceremony at Ulster Museum in Belfast this month and the successful repatriation of iwi kūpuna, or ancestral Hawaiian human remains, and five mea makamae pili aliʻi, or treasures associated with aliʻi, which were a part of the museum’s World Cultures Collection.

During the trip to Ireland, the Hawaiian delegation also repatriated an iwi poʻo, or skull, from Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh and engaged in repatriation consultations in London.

The iwi kūpuna will be reburied on Molokaʻi and the Big Island from where they were taken. The five mea makamae pili aliʻi will be properly stewarded by OHA.

“The return of the iwi kūpuna and mea makamae pili aliʻi to this delegation of Native Hawaiians, so that they may be returned home to Hawaiʻi, is an act of compassion and understanding that is much needed and long overdue,” OHA Board Chairman Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey said in a press release.

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It is thought that Gordon Augustus Thomson, who traveled to the Big Island in 1840, removed iwi kūpuna from burial caves and donated them to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1857. The remains were then included in a 1910 donation to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, a precursor to the National Museums Northern Ireland.

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“National Museums Northern Ireland believes it has legal and ethical responsibilities to redress the injustices shown to Native Hawaiian cultural values and traditions, and so through ongoing dialogue, it was agreed that these iwi kūpuna and mea makamae pili aliʻi should be returned by repatriation to the Native Hawaiians through the Office of Hawaiian Affairs,” Kathryn Thomson, chief executive officer at the National Museums Northern Ireland, said in the press release. “We are re-evaluating our World Cultures Collection on an ongoing basis to better understand the complex global stories of some 4,500 items — and how and why they came to be in Belfast.”

The return of the iwi kūpuna and mea makamae pili aliʻi has great significance for the people of Hawaiʻi.

The mea makamae pili aliʻi are considered sacred by Native Hawaiians and incorporate human hair, bone or teeth. The use of human remains was meant to infuse objects with mana, or spiritual power. The lei niho palaoa, or whale-tooth necklaces, were traditionally worn by aliʻi to show a connection between the chiefly class and akua, or gods. The bracelet and fan intertwined with human hair were reserved for aliʻi and used only during ceremonies.

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In modern times, Hawaiian leaders and cultural practitioners still revere the use of such objects.

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