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OHA: Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Iwi kūpuna repatriation in Jena helps heal historical injustices

JENA, GERMANY (February 10) – A ceremony at Friedrich Schiller University Jena today saw iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) handed over to a Hawaiian delegation representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). The iwi kūpuna came to the university in the 19th century and are to be reburied in Hawaiʻi. In addition to Jena, the Hawaiian delegation is also travelling to three other institutions in Germany and one in Austria to bring back to their homeland a total of 58 iwi kūpuna that were unlawfully brought to Europe.

Jena Repatriation

Mana Kamohali’i Caceres, Kalehua Kamohali’i Caceres und Edward Halealoha Ayau (v.l.n.r.) ,bei der Zeremonie zur Übergabe der Iwi kupuna an die Hui Iwi Kuamo’o des Office of Hawain Affairs am 10.02.2022 in der Aula der Universität Jena. Foto: Jürgen Scheere/Universität Jena

 The iwi kūpuna came from the possession of the Jena evolutionary researcher Ernst Haeckel and were handed over to the Hawaiian delegation today. Haeckel received them as a gift from Dr. Edmund von Bartels during a trip to Messina in 1860 and brought them back to Jena. It is still unclear how they came into Bartels’ possession. However, there is no doubt that they were taken illegally from Hawaiʻi by Europeans during the colonial period. 

Healing historical injustice

“The return of the iwi kūpuna to their homeland cannot undo this historical injustice, but it can be a first step towards healing it,” says university President Prof. Walter Rosenthal.  Immediately after the origin of the iwi kūpuna in the university’s possession was clarified, the university established contact with OHA, which is working to repatriate iwi kūpuna to Hawaiʻi, and arranged for their return.

Protection of iwi kūpuna is a central aspect of Hawaiian identity

For Native Hawaiians, iwi kūpuna are a central aspect of their identity. It is of great importance to care for and ceremonially bury them in their homeland, the place where the ancestors’ iwi kūpuna rest, as will their descendants at some point. The protection of the iwi kūpuna is crucial for the spirit of the deceased to rest in peace and for their descendants to prosper. 

These iwi kūpuna were taken at a time when the human remains and sacred items of Indigenous people were not respected; when their families and their descendants’ views that such actions were morally repugnant were ignored; and when there was an expectation of entitlement by colonial governments that such actions were not subject to question. The return of these iwi kūpuna to this delegation of Native Hawaiians, so that they may be returned home to their final resting place, is an act of compassion and understanding that is long overdue and much needed, one which we know took courage and self-reflection on the part of this institution to confront and change. Today’s actions mark a new chapter in our relationship; where respect, compassion and mutual understanding will prevail, and where we acknowledge our mutual and shared humanity,” said OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey.   

Handover Ceremony

The iwi kūpuna were handed over at a ceremony in the university’s auditorium. The Hawaiian delegation, consisting of Edward Halealoha Ayau who leads repatriation efforts for OHA and cultural practitioners Kalehua Caceres and Mana Caceres, opened the ceremony with prayers.

“From the bottom of our hearts, we ask the descendants of the  kūpuna to forgive us for the kaumaha – the trauma – our ancestors caused their ancestors and them. While trying to understand the descent of man, the evolutionists did not understand how to respect the dignity of human beings. Today, in honor of the iwi kūpuna, is a day of respect for tradition and cultural heritage, family, and humanity,” declared Rosenthal in his opening speech.

The State Secretary for Culture in Thuringia’s State Tina Beer also expressed her regret for the long-interrupted peace of the iwi: “For many years now, the Free State of Thuringia has been actively, vehemently, and in countless projects unceasingly committed to researching collection’s origins, and deriving options for action. Transparency enables worldwide participation and is the starting point for dialogue with the states and societies of origin. As a country, we are coming to terms with the German colonial era and the crimes committed during it and working to fulfill our ethical responsibilities.”

On behalf of the U.S. Consulate in Leipzig,I want to thank everyone involved for working so closely together to return to their homelands these ancestors whose remains were taken from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i so long ago. I’m humbled to be here today to send them on their path home,” stressed Lachlyn Soper, Consul for Public Affairs at the U.S. Consulate General in Leipzig.

“At last, these iwi kūpuna can return home after being separated from their families and removed from Hawaiʻi illegally. Today, there is some justice for past crimes committed and healing to experience through this act of repatriation. While there is still much work left to do, as we know there are other iwi still out there, this current effort lifts our spirits to continue and persevere even when we face the difficulties related to this cause. We must envision their return always, and accept no other outcome but repatriation, said Mana and Kalehua Caceres. 

“All iwi kūpuna held outside Hawaiʻi by museums, institutions, government agencies or individuals are unlawfully there,” clarifies Ayau. “They were not ceremonially buried by their families with the intention of being taken away as objects for sale, research or barter. Our ancestors did not mate for the purpose of creating osteological material, but rather to raise a loving ‘ohana (family). Only by returning the iwi kūpuna to their homeland for reburial can the deceased and living families be healed by this especially egregious chapter of colonialism.” 

The ceremony was attended by staff involved in preparing the return of the iwi kūpuna, senators and students from Friedrich Schiller University. A recording of the event is available on the university’s website:  www.uni-jena.de/en/all-news/ancestors-return-to-hawaiian-homeland.

University comprehensively reappraises colonial heritage

“The university is very aware of its responsibility to clarify the origin of its colonial collections carefully and comprehensively,” Rosenthal shared. “Human remains, in particular, do not belong in an exhibition, but in the care of their descendants.”

In order to coordinate provenance research at the university, the working group “Colonial Heritage and Education Critical of Racism” was set up last year. An interdisciplinary pilot project has just been completed laying the foundations for the processing of the collection items from colonial contexts at the university. The researchers were able to clarify the origins of several human remains by comparing inventory books and collection documents with university archives. Like the iwi kūpuna, these human remains will be handed over to their countries of origin:  Namibia, Tanzania and Papua (Indonesia). In addition to the working group, the universities of Jena and Erfurt have set up a coordination office to deal with colonial heritage in Thuringia, funded by the Thuringian Ministry of Science. The coordination office networks the diverse activities of academia and civil society in this field, initiates new projects, and contributes to a critical social debate on colonial heritage.


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