Undoing Colonialism: 30 Years of Repatriation of Hawaiian Ancestors


In this conversation, Hawaiian activist Edward Halealoha Ayau describes the signification of the Return of Hawaiian kūpunas (ancestors) to their homeland, as well as the training, strategies, and rituals that the Return of over 6,000 remains and cultural items have necessitated these past 30 years.

Article published in The Funambulist 30 (July-August 2020) Reparations. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: For the last 30 years, you successfully put pressure on 120 museums and institutions in the world (in particular in the United States and Europe) for your organization to be able to repatriate Indigenous Hawaiian iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains) and moepū (funerary possessions) to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. I know that sometimes, museums comply relatively quickly with your demand, while others take years if not decades. Could you describe this process in which you became an expert — so much so that you can promise any museum that they are next on your list! [laughs]

EDWARD HALEALOHA AYAU: Aloha nō kākou. Mahalo for that introduction. It’s been 30 years in the making and for us it started with a burial disturbance on the island of Maui, a place called Honokahua. At this particular property, a private landowner wanted to build a Ritz-Carlton hotel but the sand dunes he wanted to build a portion of the hotel on had iwi kūpuna, ancestral Hawaiian remains buried there. Archaeologists estimated maybe 40 individuals would be disturbed so they went ahead with this project. They were very wrong in terms of the number of burials. Back then, there weren’t any strong laws that protected cultural sites such as this, and so when they completed the excavation, 1,100 individuals were disturbed and it was not even the whole sand dune either, it was just a portion of it. So this was a communal burial site, the final resting place for 1,100 people who were dug up to make way for a parking lot! This was in 1987-1988. The news was horrific and people were shocked. The negative impact of something like that is being made to feel less than human. That someone else would value a parking lot over a burial site containing 1,100 people. Just think about that! Any cemetery you might think about: one day, it’s a cemetery, the next day you can park a car there.

What that event did was make Hawaiian people realize that we were completely asleep at the wheel in terms of protection of our ancestors’ burial sites. We had lost this part of our ancestral memory that involves our relationship with our ancestors. We had become immune to where our ancestors were and the need to protect them. There was a protest that was held at Honokahua and folks came from all of the islands, occupied the site and demanded the Governor, who was Hawaiian, to halt the digging. In the end, the State condemned the property and had the land owner move the hotel further inland so that the 1,100 people who were dug up were reburied and the rest of the dune that had not been dug up was protected. For me and for a lot of Hawaiians, it was an ho‘āla (awakening) because it said to us that we were failing in our responsibility to mālama (to care) for the bones of our ancestors. As a result of the tragedy that happened in Honokahua, some very significant changes took place. The first one is the eventual enactment of a law that protects Hawaiian burial sites in Hawai‘i by the creation of island burial councils. The second one was the birth of Hui Mālama i Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei by Edward and Pualani Kanahele of Hilo who are cultural practitioners. They are kumu (teachers) of Hawaiian values and practices. Mrs. Kanahele is a Kanaka‘ole and her family are fierce and stubborn protectors of Hawaiian ‘ike (knowledge) through hula, chant and through the practice of rituals. They saw Honokahua and realized that we as Hawaiians needed to know how to again interact with our ancestors to be able to take care of them, to rebury them in a way that they were accustomed to, and not in a way that we became accustomed to.