Ancestors return to their Hawaiian homeland

The Hawaiian delegation at the iwi kupuna repatriation ceremony. Image: Jürgen S

The Hawaiian delegation at the iwi kupuna repatriation ceremony. Image: Jürgen Scheere (University of Jena)

In a ceremony at the University of Jena on 10 February 2022, the bones of three ancestors (iwi kupuna in the language of the indigenous people of Hawaii) were handed over to a delegation from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) [ Here is the programme of the ceremony.  de ]. The iwi kupuna came to the University of Jena in the 19th century and are to be reburied in Hawai’i. In addition to Jena, the Hawaiian delegation is also travelling to three other institutions in Germany and one in Austria to take back to their homeland a total of 58 iwi kupuna that were unlawfully brought to Europe.

The Jena iwi kupuna that were handed over to the Hawaiian delegation were among the possessions of evolutionary researcher Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel received them as a gift from the doctor 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 Hawai’i by Europeans during the colonial period.

Healing historical injustice

"The return of the iwi kupuna to their homeland cannot undo this historical injustice, but it can be a first step towards healing it," said the President of the University of Jena, Prof. Walter Rosenthal. Immediately after the origin of the iwi kupuna in the University’s possession had been clarified, the University established contact with OHA, which is working to repatriate iwi kupuna to Hawai’i, and arranged for their return.

Protection of the iwi kupuna is a central aspect of Hawaiian identity

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

"These iwi kupuna were taken at a time when the human remains and sacred items of Indigenous people were not respected; when their families and their descendant’s views that such actions were morally repugnant and 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 kupuna 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, 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 kupuna 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  kupuna to forgive us for the kaumaha - the trauma - that 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 kupuna - is a day of respect for tradition and cultural heritage, family, and humanity," declared Prof. Rosenthal in his opening speech.

In addition to the President of Friedrich Schiller University Jena, the Thuringian State Secretary for Culture, Tina Beer, also expressed her regret for the long-interrupted peace of the iwi: "For many years now and in countless projects, the Free State of Thuringia has been actively, vigorously, and unceasingly committed to researching collections, investigating provenance, and developing options for action based on that work. Transparency enables worldwide participation and is the starting point for dialogue with the states and societies of origin. Coming to terms with the German colonial era and the crimes committed during that time as part of our social culture of remembrance forms part of the basic consensus in Germany for all areas of society, culture, education, science and civil society. The Free State of Thuringia does not have an ethnological museum; nevertheless, it fulfills its comprehensive ethical responsibility to come to terms with the origin of collection items in a colonial context."

"On behalf of the US 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," noted Lachlyn Soper, Consul for Public Affairs at the US Consulate General in Leipzig.

 "At last, these iwi kupuna can return home after being separated from their families and removed from Hawai’i 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 kupuna held outside Hawai’i by museums, institutions, government agencies or individuals are unlawfully there," added 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 kupuna to their homeland for reburial can the deceased and living families be healed of this especially egregious chapter of colonialism."

University comprehensively reappraises colonial heritage

"For several years now, artifacts with a colonial background have been processed in the collections of the Friedrich Schiller University," said Prof. Rosenthal. "The university is very aware of the responsibility for its collections and is concerned to clarify their origin carefully and comprehensively. Human remains in particular do not belong in an exhibition, but in the care of the descendants."

In order to coordinate provenance research at the University of Jena, the working group "Colonical Legacy and Anti-racist Education" was set up last year. An interdisciplinary pilot project has just been completed, laying the foundations for processing the collection items from colonial contexts at the University of Jena. The researches were able to clarify the provenance of several human remains by comparing inventory books and collection documents with university archives. Like the iwi kupuna, 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.

Repatriation Ceremony: Jena University hands over "iwi kupuna" to Hawaiian Descendants


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