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More ancestral remains returned to Office of Hawaiian Affairs in repatriation journey

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  • Rueckgabezeremonie von Human Remains (menschlicher Ueberreste iwi kupuna) an Hawaii im Auditorium der James-Simon-Galerie durch die Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) in Berlin. Feb. 11, 2022.
  • Rueckgabezeremonie von Human Remains (menschlicher Ueberreste iwi kupuna) an Hawaii im Auditorium der James-Simon-Galerie durch die Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) in Berlin. Feb. 11, 2022.
  • Rueckgabezeremonie von Human Remains (menschlicher Ueberreste iwi kupuna) an Hawaii im Auditorium der James-Simon-Galerie durch die Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) in Berlin. Feb. 11, 2022.
  • Rueckgabezeremonie von Human Remains (menschlicher Ueberreste iwi kupuna) an Hawaii im Auditorium der James-Simon-Galerie durch die Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) in Berlin. Feb. 11, 2022.
  • Rueckgabezeremonie von Human Remains (menschlicher Ueberreste iwi kupuna) an Hawaii im Auditorium der James-Simon-Galerie durch die Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) in Berlin. Feb. 11, 2022.

SPK returns 32 iwi kūpuna to Hawaii OHA delegation

The Berlin State Museums of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), in Germany handed over 32 iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) to representatives of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs on Friday. The ancestral remains have been in the keeping of the SPK Berlin since 2011.  

This is the largest collection of iwi kūpuna the Hawaiian delegation is receiving on its five-stop journey in Germany and Austria. The final repatriation ceremony will be held on February 14 at the Vienna Natural History Museum. The delegation will return home to Hawaiʻi on February 15. Arrangments have been made with the appropriate parties to rebury the iwi kūpuna on their islands of origin, so they may finally return to their moe loa (eternal sleep).

In addition to Berlin, the Hawaiian delegation is also traveling to three other institutions in Germany and one in Austria to bring back to their homeland a total of 58 iwi kūpuna that were unlawfully brought to Europe.

In the latest exchange, the ancestral remains from Hawaiʻi are part of the anthropological collections that SPK took over from the Charité in 2011 and whose origins it is researching step by step. The bones at SPK were acquired by the collector and naturalist Hermann Otto Finsch around 1880, during his first voyage to the South Pacific (1879–1882), and sent to Berlin, where they became part of the Luschan collection.

Most of them are probably several hundred years old, according to OHa. They have been traced to Waimānalo, Oʻahu, where Finsch collected them on the beach. This is thought to have been an old burial site even at that time, where the bones had been partly exposed by the wind and the sea. Two further skulls come from a place that can no longer be identified exactly, but they are definitely from Hawaiʻi, according to OHA.


The circumstances of acquisition also spoke in favor of repatriating the funerary items kept by the Ethnological Museum, which the SPK has also decided to return. They come from the collection of Eduard Arning who removed the iwi kūpuna from burial caves in Hawaiʻi around 1885. In his diary, Arning records that he entered the caves secretly, taking special care to avoid being seen by Hawaiians, who would evidently have disapproved of his actions. These funerary items, too, shall be returned to Hawaiʻi later this year. 

The SPK and OHA have held discussions about the repatriation of the ancestral remains since the end of 2017.

Three iwi kūpuna returned in Jena, Germany

Earlier this week on Thursday, at a ceremony at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany, three iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) handed over to a Hawaiian delegation representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The iwi kūpuna came to the university in the 19th century and are to be reburied in Hawaiʻi.

Kalehua Kamohali’i Caceres (links) und Mana Kamohali’i Caceres bei der Zeremonie zur Übergabe der Iwi kupuna an die Hui Iwi Kuamo’o des Office of Hawain Affairs am Feb. 10, 2022 in der Aula der Universität Jena. Foto: Jürgen Scheere/Universität Jena

According to OHA, the iwi kūpuna at Jena came from the possession of the evolutionary researcher Ernst Haeckel and were handed over to the Hawaiian delegation this week. Haeckel received them as a gift from Dr. 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, OHA reports that “there is no doubt that they were taken illegally from Hawaiʻi by Europeans during the colonial period.”

At the end of 2021, the SPK Board of Trustees decided that ancestral remains from the collection of the Museum of Prehistory and Early History and funerary items currently in the collection of the Ethnological Museum should be returned to Hawai‘i. Now, as the first step, the iwi kūpuna are being repatriated.   

  • Repatriation Ceremony Göttingen University. PC: OHA Feb. 9, 2022 Universität Göttingen übergibt in einer öffentlichen Zeremonie im Tagungszentrum Alte Mensa am Wilhelmsplatz Gebeine aus Sammlungen an hawaiianische Nachfahren. Feb. 9, 2022
  • Repatriation Ceremony Göttingen University. PC: OHA Feb. 9, 2022
  • Repatriation Ceremony Göttingen University. PC: OHA Feb. 9, 2022
  • Repatriation Ceremony Göttingen University. PC: OHA Feb. 9, 2022

Göttingen University hands over 13 iwi kūpuna to OHA delegation


When the anatomist Georg Thilenius excavated a number of skulls and skeletons on the island of Maui in 1897, he violated the prevailing Hawaiian laws that prohibited the removal of human remains from burial sites. Nevertheless, the stolen iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains) reached the University of Göttingen via the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology in 1953. 

On Wednesday,  Feb. 9, 2022, 13 iwi kūpuna were returned to their descendants from Hawaiʻi during a ceremonial event.

“With this return, we express our deep respect for and solidarity with the Hawaiian culture,” said the President of the University of Göttingen, Professor Metin Tolan. The iwi kūpuna were identified by scholars working on the Volkswagen Foundation-funded research project “Sensitive provenances: human remains from colonial contexts in the collections of the University of Göttingen.” The focus was on the Blumenbach Collection and the Anthropological Collection.

“Our investigations enabled us to determine where at least some of the remains came from and how they ended up in the two collections,” explains Dr Marie Luisa Allemeyer from the Centre for Collection Development of the University of Göttingen. 

For example, in the mid-19th century, a ship’s doctor sent four iwi kūpuna to the Institute for Anatomy and Surgery in Braunschweig. Via the founding director of the State Natural History Museum in Braunschweig, they finally came into the hands of a Göttingen medical student, who gave them to the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Göttingen in 1934.


“We are glad to be able to lead our ancestors back home and restore their dignity,” says Edward Halealoha Ayau, a representative of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), who has been campaigning for the repatriation of the iwi kūpuna for years. Ayau adds, “In doing this important work, we also acknowledge and celebrate our respective humanity – Germans and Hawaiians together in aloha – as we write a new chapter in our historic relationship as human beings.”

Ayau along with cultural practitioners Mana and Kalehua Caceres are the members of the Hawaiian delegation representing OHA. 

Representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, cultural practitioners Mana Caceres, Kalehua Caceres and Edward Halealoha Ayau share oli (chant) at a “handover ceremony” of iwi kūpuna from the Übersee-Museum Bremen. This is the first of 5 stops on the repatriation trip that will bring home the ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains of 58 people. Photo Courtesy: OHA

Übersee-Museum Bremen returns eight ancestral remains to Hawaiʻi

At a solemn handover ceremony on Feb. 8, 2022, eight iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) from the collections held in the Übersee-Museum Bremen were returned to representatives of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

OHA applied to the Übersee-Museum Bremen in August 2019 to have the remains returned. The museum then worked with the Senator for Culture and OHA to undertake a comprehensive investigation and documentation of the matter using the sources available and on the basis of ethical standards; this work was funded by the German Lost Art Foundation. After a thorough examination, the Übersee-Museum recommended to the Senate of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen that the ancestral remains be returned. The Senate approved the application at its meeting on Feb. 1, 2022.

“In recent years, Europe has witnessed the development of a distinct awareness that for ethical reasons in particular, it is absolutely imperative to thoroughly investigate the circumstances under which the collections held in museums were created. This relates especially to collections of human remains. The assessment of whether a scientific interest can justify bringing human remains from another culture to Germany to then exhibit and investigate them is now fundamentally different to how it was in colonial times. Questions as to the legitimacy of this supposed ownership are also fortunately answered in a different way today. We therefore have the responsibility, the moral duty, and the historic opportunity to put an end to the wrong that has been done. We cannot make amends. We can only sincerely ask for your forgiveness and express our remorse for what was done to your people and your ancestors,” said Bremen’s Mayor, Dr. Andreas Bovenschulte, addressing the delegation from Hawaiʻi.

The research undertaken in this case showed that the human remains found their way into the Übersee-Museum via different routes. Two of these were left to the museum by Kurt-Felix (or Kurd-Felix) Franke in 1934 and Hermann von Eelking in 1865. Two more ancestral remains were handed over to the museum by Prof. Hugo Schauinsland, Founding Director of the Übersee-Museum, most likely in 1897.

No such information is available for the remaining four ancestral remains. The labeling provided initial indications of a more precise geographic attribution for at least five of them: four of the iwi kūpuna are believed to originate from Kauaʻi and one from Molokaʻi. It was not possible to retrace which sources had been used as the basis for this information. For two further ancestral remains, the sources possibly indicates that they originate from Hawaiʻi Island.

Comments from recent Berlin Ceremony:

In the Berlin ceremony, Edward Halealoha Ayau, the lead for international repatriations for OHA, received the iwi kūpuna along with Hawaiian cultural practitioners Mana and Kalehua Caceres. Ayau said:

“We acknowledge the anguish experienced by our ancestors and take responsibility for their wellbeing (and thereby our own), by transporting them home for reburial. In doing this important work, we also acknowledge and celebrate our respective humanity – Germans and Hawaiians – together in aloha, as we write a new chapter in our historic relationship as human beings. We wish to thank all those who helped including the Consular of Cultural Affairs David Mees of the U.S. Embassy Berlin and Dr. Robert Peters of the German Federal Foreign Office.”    

Hermann Parzinger, the president of the SPK, said, “I am happy that these iwi kūpuna are now returning to their place of origin and can be buried there. I would like to thank the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Mr. Ayau for their positive and professional work with us on identification and return. At its meeting on Dec. 2, 2021, the SPK Foundation Board approved my proposal for repatriation. We are currently systematically examining the entire Luschan collection with the goal of making possible the repatriation of further remains to other communities. I am pleased that we have already achieved this goal with regard to Hawaiʻi and have found a good solution.”  

Claudia Roth, Ministry of State, said, “Human remains from colonial contexts have no place in our museums and universities; their return must be a priority. I am therefore very pleased that, in addition to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, other German museums and universities are returning iwi kūpuna to Hawaiʻi. Colonial history has left many wounds. We must do our part to help close these wounds – through restitution, through a consistent examination of our colonial past, and through greater international cultural exchange. We need a decolonizing of our thinking in all areas.”   

Researching the anthropological collection in the National Museums in Berlin  

In 2011, the National Museums in Berlin took over the old anthropological collections from the Charité. These comprise around 7,700 human remains, from almost every part of the world, and were assembled in the 19th and early 20th centuries. About 40% of them were acquired in colonial contexts, in what were then German overseas territories in Africa and the Pacific region.  

From 2017 to 2019, the origins of approximately 1,000 ancestral skulls from the former colony of German East Africa were investigated in a pilot project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. Efforts are being made to return these mortal remains as soon as possible. A further 477 ancestral skulls, brought to Germany from West Africa during the colonial era, are the subject of a three-year research project that began in July 2021, which is funded from the German federal culture budget. The SPK’s objective is to research the exact origin of all the ancestral remains, so they can be returned.  


The first return of ancestral remains from the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin took place in 2020. This concerned two toi moko (mummified and tattooed Māori heads) in the keeping of the Ethnological Museum. They were presented to Te Arikirangi Mamaku, a representative of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which the New Zealand government placed in charge of the repatriation of the mortal remains of Māori ancestors in 2003. In 2020, the SPK also decided to return the mortal remains of three people (likewise in the keeping of the Ethnological Museum) to Australia. Their repatriation has been delayed as a consequence of the pandemic.  

Protection of iwi kūpuna is a central aspect of Hawaiian identity 

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

OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey. PC: Repatriation Ceremony Göttingen University (Feb. 9, 2022)

OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey released a statement saying:

“These iwi kūpuna were taken at a time when the human remains and sacred items of Indigenous people were not respected; when their families and their descendants’ views that such actions were morally repugnant 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 kūpuna 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, one 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.”


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