The bone repatriation process involves protecting, preserving and returning ancestral remains.

On a mission to retrieve the remains of her ancestors from museums in Europe, Uluwehi Cashman discovered a major surprise when she started to examine boxes of artifacts in a back room in Austria: strands of human hair woven together through ancient bracelets and jewelry.

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Collections of silver streaks were plucked from the heads of her ancestors when they were still living, she thought as she carefully looked at the materials. That hair was then wound into a bundle as a part of a whale-tooth necklace worn by Hawaiian chiefs.

Besides this piece of jewelry and a few other ornate sacred objects, the bones of 55 elders —  including skulls and other human body parts —  were just stacked up in storage containers nearby, awaiting rediscovery and repatriation.

“That was just mind boggling to see,” Cashman said. “For us Hawaiians, even our hair is important. Every part of us is important, so to even feel like you can just take somebody’s hair and do what you want with it, and take someone’s bones and do what you want with it.”

“It’s so insensitive, and that humanity aspect, that aloha is lacking. That’s what we were bringing home. You know, so much more than just iwi (bones) is out there of our kupuna,” she added. “So much of that was taken from Hawaii and from us.”

Cashman and nine other Native Hawaiian activists raised $40,000 for the trip in April, and went to six sites in the region, including Germany. The bone repatriation process involves protecting, preserving and returning ancestral remains. This includes reconnecting them with their respective Indigenous communities and regions, and efforts across Hawaii to bring their ancestors’ bodies and souls home to rest.

Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo is one of the biggest organizations addressing this issue. Group members have been bringing ancestral remains and funerary possessions from around the world back to their rightful resting places in Hawaii for 33 years.

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Sacred Native Hawaiian artifacts were taken and stored in institutions throughout the world. Activists want to bring them home. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

Others are involved, but this group alone has conducted more than 100 repatriation trips in 48 cities internationally and reclaimed over 6,000 iwi kupuna, or ancestral bones. With a long history of colonization in the islands, these sacred artifacts for the community have been taken and stored in institutions throughout the world.

“Some of (these cases) have taken 20, 30 years to resolve because it took that long for those colonial attitudes to dissipate and finally go away,” said the group’s executive director, Edward Halealoha Ayau. “Repatriation of our ancestors is the responsibility to help restore the ancestral Hawaiian foundation. They are the physical embodiment of our ancestors. They represent the foundation of our families.”

According to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, one of the legal ways that Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo has been able to reclaim artifacts is through the acknowledgement of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which can be used anywhere in the United States.

Established in 1990, this act aims to protect the right to bring ancestral remains home to their respective Indigenous communities and creates a process for determining provenance of the artifacts and paths to repatriation.

“No one should ever be dug up, especially without their consent or their family’s consent,” Cashman said. “It’s something that I don’t ever want to happen to me — or happen to my family living now, my family who has passed away, and then also my family in the future. I think that’s my personal drive.”

Repatriation is a long and hard process, and one of the challenges is not knowing how many ancestral remains are actually out there, Ayau said. With generations of colonization, no one really knows how much work there is left to be done.

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Another struggle that repatriation organizations face is the internal conversation between Native Hawaiians who do and who do not believe this issue is important to address, Ayau said. Similar to how some universities and museums argue that these remains are needed for cultural research purposes, he said, some Native Hawaiians believe that this is not an issue to tackle and that the possession of ancestral remains might support the expansion of worldviews in research.

“When we first started, the people that were most critical about what we were doing were our own people. That hurts 10 times more,” Ayau said. “(Many people) pushed us hard not to repatriate them all. Colonialism was very successful in Hawaii, and so was Christianity in terms of wiping out a lot of our ancestral memories, cultural knowledge and understanding.”

Despite these obstacles, these groups are continuing to shed light on the taking of their elders’ remains, and are calling on others to support these efforts toward the rest of their kupuna.

Ayau says there is no statute of limitations on returning the remains. It’s “the humanitarian thing to do.”

“Our ancestors didn’t meet for the purposes of becoming archeological material,” Ayau said. “Part of who we are today is a function of them. And therefore we have a duty, a kuleana, a responsibility to make sure that their eternal rest is protected. In doing so, we set an example for our children to make sure that our bones have eternal rest and they are not disturbed.”

Cashman noted the process is expensive and time-consuming.

“My hope is for repatriation to end in my lifetime. Unfortunately, we find that we’ll go to an institution, repatriate, and then find out that we have to go back, that there’s more to come back for,” Cashman said. “And it’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of time away from Hawaii, from our families. But we need them home now.”

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