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Hawaiian ancestral human remains, treasures repatriated from Ireland

HONOLULU — Following ongoing dialogue with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and Hui Iwi Kuamo‘o, the National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) hosted an official handover ceremony at Ulster Museum in Belfast this month and successfully repatriated iwi kupuna (ancestral Hawaiian human remains) and five mea makamae pili ali‘i (treasures associated with ali‘i) which were a part of the World Cultures Collection.

The repatriation process involved a private ceremony followed by a public ceremony at Ulster Museum. Hawaiian representatives, NMNI colleagues, and delegates from the United States Embassy were in attendance.

“The return of the iwi kupuna and mea makamae pili ali‘i to this delegation of Native Hawaiians, so that they may be returned home to Hawai‘i, is an act of compassion and understanding that is much needed and long overdue,” said OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey.

Following extensive research into the provenance of each of the materials, it is believed that Gordon Augustus Thomson, who had travelled to Hawai‘i Island in 1840, had removed iwi kupuna from burial caves, and donated these iwi kupuna to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1857. The material was included in a 1910 donation to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, a precursor to NMNI.

Kathryn Thomson, chief executive at NMNI said: “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 kupuna and mea makamae pili ali‘i should be returned by repatriation to the Native Hawaiians through the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a self-governing corporate body of the State of Hawai‘i.

“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. We understand and respect cultural values and are in ongoing liaison with source communities and their representatives to establish if items within the collection can and should be returned to their ancestral homes. We remain open to further repatriations as these engagements develop.”

The return of the iwi kupuna and mea makamae pili ali‘i has great significance on a cultural level for the people of Hawai‘i. The five mea makamae pili ali‘i are considered sacred by Native Hawaiians and incorporate either human hair, bone, or teeth.

The use of human remains was done purposefully and with meaning to infuse objects with mana, spiritual power. The lei niho palaoa, whale-tooth necklaces, were traditionally provided to ali‘i (chiefs) and displayed around the neck to show a connection between the chiefly class and akua (gods). The bracelet and fan intertwined with human hair were reserved for ali‘i and used only during ceremonies rather than for everyday use.

In modern times, Hawaiian leaders and cultural practitioners still revere the use of such objects and typically only adorn or use them during ceremony. The fan, in particular, is one of a very few early 19th century styles not typically available to Native Hawaiians today for ceremony, due to their rarity.

On the same trip, the Hawaiian delegation also repatriated an iwi po‘o (skull) from Surgeons’ Hall Museums in Edinburgh, and engaged in repatriation consultations in London. The iwi kupuna will be reburied on Moloka‘i and Hawai‘i Island from which they were taken. The five mea makamae pili ali‘i will be properly stewarded by OHA.
Source: The Garden Island

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