Return of Human Remains and Burial Objects to Hawaiʻi

Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte

Recently, four iwi kūpuna (human remains of Hawaiian ancestry) and seven moepū (funerary possessions) were handed over to Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo, a Hawaiian First Nations organisation representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). The ancestral human remains had been held by the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, part of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, since 2011, while the funerary possessions had been a part of the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum for some 135 years.

At the end of 2021, the SPK Foundation Board resolved to repatriate human remains and funerary possessions to Hawaiʻi. The first part of this process began on 11 February 2022, when 32 iwi kūpuna were handed over to Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo, members of which travelled to Berlin to accompany their ancestors back home. Following a private ceremony, there was also a solemn public handover ceremony held in the museum.

A second transfer of additional human remains and funerary possessions, including a spear, a gourd, a calabash, and a stone disc will now also take place.

We wish to return human remains obtained in colonial contexts where the corresponding countries or societies of origin can be identified and desire their return. This is of course also true of funerary possessions that were acquired in an unjust manner, for instance if they were surreptitiously taken without permission. I am pleased that our cooperative efforts with OHA representatives concerning the restitutions of these artefacts is proceeding so well.

Hermann Parzinger, President, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz

Today’s repatriation effort is the result of many years of cooperative communication and coordination between the Staatliche Museum of Berlin, Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo and OHA. It is the embodiment of the power of laulima (many hands working together).

Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, Chair, OHA Board of Trustees

The inscriptions “Sandwich Islands” and “Hawaii” on the three skulls and the calvarium mean that they could be clearly identified as originating from the Hawaiian archipelago and subsequently now returned. Despite thorough provenance research efforts, however, it was not possible to ascertain the specific site or burial cave from which they were taken.

In terms of the funerary possessions, which were part of the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum, it is also the context of their acquisition that justifies their return. They come from the collection of Eduard Arning, who by his own account took them from burial caves in Hawaiʻi in 1885. In his records, he writes that he secretly entered the caves and explicitly avoided being seen by Hawaiians, who would certainly have disapproved of what he was doing. All around the world, burial sites have always been well-protected places and are of particular significance to the relatives of those who have been laid to rest there. The secret removal of objects from such places represents a clear injustice that warrants the return of these objects to Hawaiʻi.

The world inches closer to a higher level of understanding when mutual humanity is respected, resulting in the return of ancestral remains and their funerary possessions stolen in colonial times from their original places interment.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, Executive Director, Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo