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OHA: Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Iwi Kūpuna Repatriations

For untold generations, our kūpuna (ancestors) carefully secreted away loved ones upon their passing, keeping them safe in sand dunes, burial caves, stone platforms, or other ‘āina that ‘ohana would guard. ʻOhana would kanu, or plant, the remains of loved ones in such places allowing kūpuna (elders) to complete their life cycle. Mana concentrated in iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) would imbue the ʻāina and spiritually nourish the living community—the natural role of kūpuna in this phase of their life.

Unfortunately, many foreigners that came to the Hawaiian Islands after contact in 1778 did not respect our cultural values of family, and conducted widespread desecration of family burial sites and burial caves, looting them of iwi kūpuna and moepū (funerary possessions).  These actions amount to a transgression against the sanctity of our burial places and the integrity of our cultural identity as Native Hawaiians.  Due to this trend, the Hawaiian Kingdom eventually made it illegal to remove human remains from burial sites without the legal authority to do so when the Act for the Protection of Places of Sepulture was passed on August 24, 1860.

One of the many ways that Native Hawaiians seek and claim self-determination is through the return and reburial of our Native ancestors who were stolen and taken away to institutions and facilities for study – both here at home, and all over the world. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), established in 1990, solidified the ability for Native peoples to make these claims in the U.S. and work towards healing past injustices that violated the sanctity of the grave. The road to NAGPRA was a difficult one, but an important battle for human rights.

NAGPRA allows for human remains, burial goods, and sacred objects in federally funded institutions to be repatriated to the cultural groups with which they are associated. NAGPRA also provides a clear process for including native entities in decisions about the treatment of burials encountered in federally funded or permitted projects.

OHA has been involved with over 125 repatriations over the decades

Over the years since the very beginnings of NAGPRA, OHA has participated in domestic and international repatriations in partnership with other Native Hawaiian organizations (NHO), families, and beneficiaries. In many cases, beneficiaries bring information to OHA about filing a repatriation claim and OHA assists them through the process to provide the necessary resources to carry it out. For decades, OHA partnered with Hui Mālama I Na Kūpuna, the only other NHO specifically called out in NAGPRA with OHA, as well as other NHOs, including various Island Burial Councils as co-claimants. Together, they were able to successfully repatriate thousands of iwi kūpuna from all across the world in over 120 repatriation efforts, and here at home in the islands as well. While Hui Mālama is now dissolved, OHA still works closely with community members who are former members and identified as traditional religious leaders.

OHA is also the constitutionally established body responsible for protecting and promoting the rights of Native Hawaiians and representing the lawful interests of Native Hawaiians.  State of Hawai‘i law mandates OHA to “[s]erve as the principal public agency in the State of Hawaiʻi responsible for the performance, development, and coordination of programs and activities related to native Hawaiians and Hawaiians; . . . and [t]o assess the policies and practices of other agencies impacting on native Hawaiians and Hawaiians, and conducting advocacy efforts for native Hawaiians and Hawaiians.”[1]

OHA has built relationships with the U.S. Department of State and Department of the Interior on the repatriation front as working with respective U.S. Embassies and Consulates are integral to international repatriations.  Each country has their own respective processes and Ministries to report to when exporting human remains.  The State Department has helped navigate these intricacies and also aided in contacting local airport authorities.  The DOI has further assisted in acknowledging OHA’s standing in foreign countries as a government agency with the resources and expertise to execute repatriations responsibly on behalf of Native Hawaiians.

Latest news on Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo & OHA’s repatriation efforts

List  of ‘ōiwi repatriation efforts starting in 1990

Mana to Mauli Ola Strategic Plan - PDF Format

OHA Iwi Kupuna Repatriation & Reinterment Grants

OHA’s new Iwi Kupuna Repatriation and Reinterment Grant is providing $167,298 to four community organizations. Nearly $33,000 will go toward facilitating the reburial of 700 to 900 iwi kūpuna and moepū (funerary possessions) disturbed at Kawaiahaʻo Church grounds. The remaining iwi kupuna grants will provide education in communities throughout the state to empower Native Hawaiians to protect and care for iwi and provide training on the proper treatment of iwi. For a full listing of Iwi Kūpuna Reinterment and Repatriation Grants, click here.

Ka Wai Ola Column on Iwi Kūpuna Repatriations

Halealoha thumb Read articles on iwi kūpuna repatriation efforts over the years written by Edward Halealoha Ayau for his ninth column in Ka Wai Ola News. Ayau is the former Executive Director of Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei, a group that has repatriated and reinterred thousands of ancestral Native Hawaiian remains and funerary objects from the collections of museums and institutions worldwide. He trained under the direction of Edward and Pualani Kanahele in traditional protocols relating to care of nā iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) and moepū (funerary possessions).

[1] Hawai‘i Revised Statutes § 10-3.
[2] See National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.


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