EDWARD HALEALOHA AYAU /// Reparations: 30 Years of Repatriation of Hawaiian Ancestors


In this conversation recorded to be featured in The Funambulist 30 (July-August 2020) REPARATIONS, 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.

Edward Halealoha Ayau is ‘Ōiwi (Hawaiian), a 56-year- old father of four daughters and a son. For the last 30 years, he has led efforts to repatriate iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains), moepū (funerary possessions) and mea kapu (sacred objects) as the Executive Director of Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai‘i Nei (Group Caring for the Ancestors of Hawai‘i). Founded by traditional cultural practitioners Edward and Pualani Kanahele of Hilo, they repatriated and reburied over 6,000 remains and items from museums around the world, before formally dissolving in 2015. He continues to work on international repatriation as a volunteer for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.


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.

Part of what we learned was prayers and chants, some of them were traditional and others were contemporary made just for the work of repatriation and ceremonial wrapping of our ancestors’ remains for reburial. That was the beginning of a new life for me. I was raised in a Hawaiian family on Molokai; we were raised with culture and history, but not the ritual side, not the ceremonial side —  like most Hawaiian of my time, we were going to church. When I began the training with Mr. and Mrs. Kanahele, I was fresh out of law school, I was eager to get in the fight. But I realized that the lessons that they were teaching me were life lessons, and it brought immense responsibility. I was 25 years old and I was very naive; I had no sense of the scope of the problem: I thought this had to do with the situation at Honokahua only, maybe some other cases and that was the extent of it. I had no idea that our ancestors had been stolen from us and removed to various parts of the world. Nobody had any idea of that, because it was not something that was readily announced or shared. Those who were trafficking in iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains), moepū (funerary possessions) and mea kapu (sacred objects) were doing so on the down low. Then you had this whole history when items were being sold intentionally: then you had the transition to Christianity and a lot of the spiritual items were either sold off or stolen. You had this huge market, and it was not just in Hawai‘i; it was happening all over the world. 

I don’t remember how many of us were there at the beginning, but the majority of us were not Hawaiian language speakers, so that made it hard because the protocol and the entire training was in our mother tongue. It was an opportunity to re-embrace our language, learn our respective roles based on gender — in Hawaiian ceremony, there are certain roles that each gender has. And the most important lesson was how to call upon our own individual ancestors to come and help us. It was based on this real simple thinking but profound that your grandmother who helped you when she was alive would also help you after she dies. That part of the relationship does not change. Who would come to help when you needed it most than your own family members? I took a lot of comfort in knowing that: if I needed help, I would just call on my grandmother, my great grandfather, or someone I knew who knew me and I knew who would always be there for me. The basis of the spirituality of our work is on family. And family does not end when you die. Your role in the family does not end because you die. In Hawaiian, it actually elevates it, especially where deceased ancestors are deified and become what we call ‘aumākua or ancestral guardians.

Our prayers teach us how to ask for the different tools that we need to do our work. No one told us how to repatriate because no one knew how. We had to figure this out on our own. However, what our kumu Mr. and Mrs. Kanahele taught us were the core cultural values that we needed to understand. “Mai kaula’i i nā iwi i ka lā” (don’t expose the bones to sunlight). What does that teach us? It teaches us that we are not supposed to be digging people up; it teaches us that we are not supposed to allow anthropologists to examine them; that once someone passes away, their world is darkness, not light. Being exposed whether on display or being examined is the opposite of the existence they’re supposed to be experiencing. And that’s how our responsibility: our job is to maintain and protect their journey if you will. And we do that by making sure that iwi are where they are supposed to be. Why is that so important? Because in Hawaiian, the word for “burial” and the word for “planting” is the same. In effect, we were planting our ancestors. The belief is that from their burial becomes growth. Physical growth because their remains are breaking down and they’re becoming elemental again and being part of the ground that plants actually grow from. And on the spiritual level, it is the infusion of their mana (spiritual essence, power; life force) into the land. Emotionally, it’s knowing that they are where they are supposed to be: not on museum shelves, but hidden away in the protection of the darkness. That’s the relationship that we have with them. When they are disturbed, we are disturbed. We are the sum of all our kūpuna. I don’t only carry the names of my kūpuna, I also inherited their DNA and their ancestral memories. When you go to a place and you have this sense of familiarity, even though you know that you’ve never been there — this happened to me in some parts of Hawai‘i, but also when I went to Tahiti and Aotearoa. I had these déjà vu feelings — which are my kūpuna memories. This familiarity is about reconnection. 

The reconnection part is the most important part because what we’ve done in 30 years, I only know one other entity in this world that has done repatriation at the level that we have; that’s the folks at Te Papa Tongarewa of Aotearoa. We attribute that to the fact that our prayers asked our ancestors to guide us so in effect, we are trying to empower the ancestors to become a part of their own rescue by making sure that we receive the right thoughts and that we are not overwhelmed by anger. A lot of people started off working on this and a lot of people left because of the kaumaha (emotional, spiritual, physical trauma) of learning that our ancestors were objectified, dehumanized, mistreated: there is great pain in this kind of revelation. You find out that a ship captain sold a Hawaiian sailor who got sick and died to John Hopkins University Medical School. There are stories about how Hawaiians were mistreated as non-humans, so you have to protect yourself from the intense trauma generated by what these stories reveal. Our training is helping us to learn how to protect ourselves, protect our mind, our spirit, our body, physically, from what we call haumia (defilements). The Hawaiian belief is that when someone dies, they are naturally defiled because they are in a state of death, which means that when you’re with them, when you’re working with them, before you can transition back to the living you have to go through a cleansing so that the defilement of the dead doesn’t carry over into the living. 

So it’s all about the training. And the next major step, of course, is the actual implementation of that training. We started in the 1990s, we were the first to repatriate from the Smithsonian; we used each case to build on for the next one. When we started off, it was overwhelming, partly because we were so new to it. Our kumu tells us: “I’m trying to get you to return to who you are.” That comes through lessons in mo‘okū‘auhau in knowing your genealogy so that when you call on your ancestors, you’re calling specific individuals, those who will give you the ikaika (strength) you need, the ‘ike (knowledge) you need, the ones that will give you the courage frankly to do some of the work that we had to do. 

First was the training, then was the 30-years of implementing, first under U.S. law with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, as well as the National Museum of the American Indian Act; then we started to venture into the international arena. Our first cases went well, the museums were willing to give them back, and then we encountered the British — they are not the master colonizers of the world for nothing! A lot of their colonial ways are still apparent in their thinking. The second longest case involved the Natural History Museum in London. When we first found out that our ancestors were there, we tried to get some information and they told us to stop communicating with them. They would never give them back, it would take an act of Parliament; it would never happen: these materials (in reference to 154 of our ancestor’s skulls) are the legitimate property of the museum. They would not entertain any discussion about whether they had acquired them lawfully. We tried to engage these museums in this discussion, but we also point out to them that even if there wasn’t a law, you don’t need a law to show them that what they did was wrong when they took grandma’s head. The central issue in this undertaking of repatriation, the bottom line is consent. We’d tell the museums: “You prove that the family said ‘Please take our grandma’s head; we don’t need it anymore, she doesn’t need it, go ahead take it’; if you can prove that then you can keep her head. But if you can’t prove consent, then the act of collecting it is de facto theft, and theft cannot form the basis for continued possession. And besides, I’m pretty sure that we’re all human beings and that our Hawaiian humanity has taken a big hit from colonialism. You have taken our kingdom, taken our land, taken our resources, and you even took our grandmothers; who does that?”

I should make a clarification by the way. Some view me as an expert because I’ve been at this for so long. But with respect to my relationship to my kumu, I’m not an expert; I’m a haumana (student). You don’t become an expert when your kumu are still alive; that comes later. But expert in terms of the law and in terms of being strategic to get them home? Absolutely. Just recently we successfully did a repatriation from Cambridge University. This is the first repatriation from this 800-year old institution of higher learning. It was rough, we got into full-on fights with them but I don’t mind that part because that’s the part I excel in! [laughs] When we started off in the 1990s, because we were all young and angry Hawaiians, the thing we took pleasure in doing was fighting. A museum, like the Cal Berkeley Hearst Museum, wanted to take us on, well we took them on. They had a famous physical anthropologist there named Dr. Tim White and we had a NAGPRA hearing challenging the museums’s refusal to repatriate two skulls and during his testimony he said: “Reburial is analogous to going to the Library of Congress, taking a book off the shelf and burning it, because they both represent the destruction of knowledge. Reburial represents the destruction of knowledge.” As soon as he said it, I pounded both my fists on the table and interrupted him: “There’s one key difference, right?! The key difference is that we do not descend from books!” What a horrible analogy! He took an inanimate object, and he compared a person to it. 

A few years later, in the early 1990s, I was at the University College in London, and I had been invited by a very dear friend of mine, Dr Cressida Fforde, — she was a grad student back then — to speak at an international repatriation symposium. The first three speakers all spoke against repatriation, very eloquently — they were either a museum director or head of an anthropology department — and I realized that I was the only pro-repatriation speaker. I became unhappy with my friend thinking she was setting me up but she corrected me, “No, I’m actually setting them up!” And while they were talking, I scribbled two words on my notepad: the first was “intellectual” and the second was “savage.” And I came up with the term “intellectual savagery” defined as using one’s intellect to deny another their humanity. Because to me, when I was listening to them talk, it was highly intellectual — citing very intelligent reasons for not giving back people’s ancestors — and it was a very savage in that you can go to another culture and impose your will over a family’s burial practices. How worse can that be? It’s like if in the middle of a funeral, somebody walks up and takes grandma’s head. This would not happen in real life, why let it happen in the cover of darkness? So I gained what I know from actual experience, and I would dare say that I’m battle-hardened. I should add that one must maintain a wicked sense of humor if you’re going to last in this work! [laughs]

LL: When it comes to settler colonialism (and if we think of the articles we have been ourselves publishing about the fight for Hawaiian sovereignty), we tend to think of the efforts to oust things (the occupying military, colonial infrastructure, settlers unwilling to lose their colonial privileges, telescopes even, etc.), but we rarely talk how efforts that imply movements of bodies and objects back to the Kingdom. A few days ago, you told me how this 30-year-long struggle of repatriation was somehow initiated by something your grandmother told you when you were a young graduate from law school. Would you mind telling this story to a broader audience?

EHA: I was studying for the bar exam, spending the summer on Molokai, and I went to visit my paternal grandmother for dinner. She had my high school graduation picture on her dinner table and I kind of laughed and told her “Oh, did you bring that out because we’re having dinner tonight?!” and she answered “No, it’s been on my table since you left home. I would say hello to you everyday and I pray that you’ll be safe.” I left Hawai’i to study on the continental U.S., I got my undergraduate degree and then my law degree; I left for seven years and then I came home. So I told her “Grams, I graduated from law school and I studied Federal Indian Law, and what that taught me was something called ‘sovereignty.’ Do you understand what sovereignty means?” She said “Yes, sovereignty has to do with our Kingdom, with our ability to govern ourselves.” I was like “Wow!” — kind of surprised — “Yes Grams! That’s what it means!” And then what she said next ended up changing my life — talk about a wicked curved ball! She said to me along the lines of “A house cannot stand strong unless its foundations are firm.” First when she said that, I thought that she was just rambling and so she repeated it again and I was like “You lost me! What are you talking about ?” And she said “I’m talking about ‘sovereignty.’ If you want to restore the Hawaiian Kingdom, that’s the work that you have to do: that’s the house. Before you can do that, you have to restore the foundations.” I was like “Okay, that’s the part where you lost me! What are the foundations?” And she replied “Our ancestors. They’ve been taken from us.” I realized later that she was not talking about all of Hawai‘i but about a specific case in Molokai in a place called Mo‘omomi. An anthropologist from the Bishop Museum had come over and made Hawaiians think that they were part of something great, but they were actually helping him dig up these bones from the sand dunes and then carrying them back to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. She was talking about that and when she was thinking about lāhui, our nation, she was actually thinking about our island. But it made me realize that the best work that I could do for Hawaiian sovereignty was to commit to the restoration of our ancestral foundations. 

You know earlier, I talked about the training that we went through; part of this training involved how to research journals. What we started to realize is that our kūpuna had been taken to all parts of the world. History tells us which colonial powers were in Hawai‘i in the early periods of contact and so we targeted our searches for institutions in those countries. We knew that French, Germans, British, Japanese, Australians, and of course the Americans were here, so we targeted these countries. We methodically looked up museums state by state, and then country by country. In fact every month, just out of habit, I would write to five or so museums anywhere in the world — just randomly — and every once in a while one of them would come back and say, “Yes, we do have some Hawaiian skeletal remains’’ and then we’ll engage them in consultation and get the kūpuna back. That little statement from my grandma, it changed my life. Instead of practicing law, I became a repatriation advocate. Although I worked for the State of Hawai‘i, my passion in terms of what I’d rather be doing is repatriation because it requires the skills of a hunter. I had to track down the ancestors. Follow up on leads, read as much materials as I can put my hands on, and try to find them.This work eventually led us to Paris, where you’re at, to a museum there. For some of these repatriations, the initial museum response was to lie to us. Some people have been extremely kind and some of them were horrible — they wanted nothing but to make sure that they maintain possession of these remains at any cost, regardless of the pain it caused us. And after a while, for some it became more about power than science. And yet we were still able to convince them that they had to repatriate.

LL: Originally, I wanted to ask you something I thought was crucial, which was the spiritual and ritual dimension of repatriation, through the dialogue you are engaging with the kūpuna themselves when you come to take them home, but you already mentioned it. Would you like to add something? 

EHA: Yes, what we learned during our training was to treat the dead as if they were alive. Someone who had their head removed, with that comes shame and anguish and so, in the prayer, we ask the kūpuna to let their anger and their pain be appeased by our humility to take care of them. Telling them that we are willing to serve them, track them down to advocate for them, to prepare the traditional materials that we use to rebury them, and undertake these efforts to bring them home so that we restore their place in the family. We would tell museums that this is really about our respective humanity. If we had your ancestors’ remains, we would give them back because they don’t belong here and they should have never been disturbed. We would also apologize that this ever happened, but we would never insist that an act so intimate, so spiritual, would be invaded, desecrated by someone. They would say “in the name of science!” but science is a privilege, not a right; you don’t get to just come to Hawai‘i and declare “Hey! I’m a scientist! Let me have a go at your cemeteries!” And our answer is “No! We are fellow human beings, we feel the same as you about our ancestors.” We had to learn how to manage these different kinds of energy so it did not overwhelm us. The main thing was returning our kūpuna, not just to the land for reburial, but also, spiritually, to their families so that they can heal. The belief is that because our ancestors got disturbed, it has weakened us and one way to build our courage, commitment, and steadfastness, is to return the iwi home. We make a point in letting the ancestors know that this disturbance may have happened two centuries ago, but today it’s being undone, and soon they will be reburied and we as a Hawaiian people, will collectively be better for it. 

LL: Concluding with the concept of reparations. In Europe with the report put together by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy — and in the U.S. with the release of the film Black Panther and its famous museum scene! — there are a lot of discussions around the restitution of artworks and objects that were looted by European colonialists in Africa, Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. However, many of these conversations understand a framework where colonial states and museums are the ones ‘generously’ at the initiative of such forms of ‘reparations.’ Your efforts however, are totally opposite to this and for every iwi kūpuna who, thanks to you and your relatives in struggle, go back to their land of Hawai’i, it is like a wound that can start to cicatrise. When this happen, and when I think of what my islander friends (in particular from Kanaky and Aotearoa) tell me about “island time,” I wonder whether it can be somehow useful to think of colonialism as a somehow brief parenthesis in the very long history of the land and its people; a sort of inexorable defeat of colonialism — a bit like when you need to wait for 25 years to bring back some iwi kūpuna home: you’ll wait the time necessary, but the return will happen no matter what. Would you agree that perceiving colonialism this way can be a tactical optimism?

EHA: I couldn’t agree more. We were trained to start a repatriation by envisioning the result. When we are doing our repatriation from a museum, we start planning the reburials, where will it be, who is going to help to do that, etc. What comes with envisioning the result is the courage in knowing that you’ve seen what’s going to happen. And then, the easy part is making it happen. In all the cases I’ve been involved with, I tell them: “The question here is not whether they’re coming home, it’s when.” The person at Cambridge, she laughed when I said that and, 11 months later, I went to her office and she announced that the University Council had voted unanimously to repatriate our ancestors. I reminded her of what I said to her, because with these efforts, with the training, and with the prayers, I was confident. And not only do I see colonialism in the way that you describe, I actually pray for it to be just a blip in Hawaiian history. We have a kuleana (responsibility; duty; privilege) to return to who we are and one effective way of doing that, is to be spiritually healthy. Our spiritual health requires a strong relationship with our ancestors and emotionally knowing that they’re home, knowing that they were taken away but that we were able to undo those horrific acts against Hawaiian humanity.

Earlier on, I told you that when we started doing this, I loved getting into these fights. Part of it was that I wanted to practice my craft and be an advocate, but mostly I just liked to argue especially against something that I found abhorrent. That approach has now given way to one in which it is far more effective to make your opponent part of the solution, making it a win-win solution. I mean, we could have hammered Cambridge because of some of the things that their predecessors had done, but what would we gain from that? It would have made me feel good for the moment, but where does that really get us? And, more importantly, how does that help Cambridge develop into a responsible humanitarian-based institution vis-a-vis the future claims by the Maori, Aborigines, Ainu, Tahitians, and everybody else whose ancestors are there? Now, we are mindful of that when we go after an institution, especially a high-profile one, we have a duty not just to our kūpuna, but to the other ancestors who are there that we don’t mess things up — since we’re the first ones in — which would make the institution not want to deal with those Indigenous claimants who would be coming next. 

Being mindful of colonialism in this work gives you a strategic advantage, because you know what to expect, you know where they’re coming from, but most importantly, that gives you all the information you need to defeat them — but in a way that gains their respect. When I was working in the early 1990s in the State Historic Preservation Office, we were at war with the archaeologists. I would say that 80% of those people are now some of my best friends, because we were able to go at it but, in the end, recognize that we both loved Hawai‘i and Hawaiian culture and we saw culture differently but we had the courage to work out our differences and in so doing gain respect and aloha for each other.

We should all be committed to undoing colonialism and making things right so that we could get on with the real work, which is restoring our Hawaiian Kingdom. That’s what I would prefer to work on in my life but you know what? I’m happy and I’m proud that I got to work on the responsibility of restoring the ancestral foundation. ■