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Rooted in Native Soil

By Edward Halealoha Ayau

In Hawaiian, the word kanu means to plant, to cultivate. It is a Native Hawaiian belief that from this planting comes ulu (growth), both physical and spiritual. The bones of our ancestors nourished the ground from which our food grows, which, in turn, nourishes our bodies. Secure in the knowledge that our ancestors are where they belong, in Hawaiian earth, free from harm, our spirits are nouriched as well.

When speaking of one's ancestors, it is appropriate to recite one's mo`oku`auhau (genealogy). By reciting the names of my ancestors, I am reminded that but for their existence, I simply would not be. I am humbled by this reminder and duty bound to care for those who came before me.

In 1988, on Maui at a place called Honokahua, a private landowner obtained permits to develop a Ritz Carlton hotel. During construction, more than 1,100 ancestral native Hawaiians were archaeologically removed and examined, over many protests. Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, which means "group caring for the ancestors of Hawai'i," was born from the anguish of Honokahua. The group, founded by Edward and Pualani Kanahele, was established to return the bones of native Hawaiians to their families, to replant them and to protect sacred burial and reburial sites. Eventually, Native Hawaiians pressured the state to purchase land at Honokahua and appropriate funds for reburial. The ancestors were ceremonially replanted and the reburial site sealed.

One lesson learned from Honokahua was that, even though it was our sacred responsibility as descendants of these ancestors, we did not have the legal authority to determine the proper treatment of their burial sites. Nor were many of us trained in the protocols related to the handling of ancestral burial objects. Much had to change.

In July 1990, state legislation was enacted creating island burial councils, made up of a majority of Native Hawaiians, to decide whether to preserve or relocate burial sites on state and private lands. I administer the councils as director of the burials program which is part of the state historic preservation division in the department of land and natural resources. On the federal level, the National Museum of the American Indian Act specifically authorized Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei to conduct repatriation of remains and burial objects from the Smithsonian. In July 1990, the group coordinated the first of three repatriation from the Institution's National Museum of Natural History. These efforts, culminating three years later, resulted in the return of approximately 229 ancestral Native Hawaiians and burial objects.

Funds for the first repatriation came from our own pockets -so strong was the inspiration, the calling, by the ancestors to be brought home. What Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei began to understand from this first repatriation experience is that we are merely vehicles to conduct the work and that it is really the ancestors, who are directing us, guiding us to them and returning them home.

To listen to the calling, the group maintained pule (prayer) requesting assistance and inspiration from God and the ancestors. We ask,

In November 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act provided the legal means to return ancestral remains and burial objects to Hawai`i. The new law represented an attempt to make things pono (correct; right) for these ancestors.

By learning the language of NAGPRA, and more importantly, by spiritually reconnecting with na kupuna, we have been inspired to repatriate and rebury ancestral Native Hawaiians held at federally funded institutions ranging from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to the Field Museum in Chicago. Internationally, Hui Malama has returned ancestral Hawaiians from as far away as the University of Zurich Institute of Anthropology.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei firmly believes that the repatriations and reburials were a direct result of intervention by God and the ancestors to inspire and energize us. For us, pule is reality, for through pule spiritual help is requested to affect the physical world. And so the relationship between ancestors and descendants is one of interdependence-the living have a duty to care for the dead. In turn, the ancestors respond by protecting us on the spiritual side. One cannot completely exist without the other.

At the same time, the members of Hui Malama have been subject to the pain suffered by the ancestors as a result of the taking. By acquiring knowledge of past mistreatment, we relived anguish and frustration. This motivated us to accept the responsibility of caring for the ancestors and ultimately seeking what is right.

In Hawaiian thought, sense of place is a very strong value-that which is above remains above, that which is below remains below. The proper place for ancestral Native Hawaiians is not on a museum shelf or display, but rather planted in Hawai'i. Absent consent from families, ancestral remains should never have been removed. Such actions have disturbed the balance of things.

For the most part, our experiences with repatriation have been positive. We offer museums two paths. The first is one of peace. We say treat us as partners, as natives, as human beings, and follow the NAGPRA law. We hold much aloha for those institutions who have, and share our hospitality with staff whenever they visit Hawai'i.

The second path is confrontation. We prefer the former; however, it does not matter which path is selected. In sharing aloha or going to war, we maintain a balanced perspective. Our experience with the Hearst Museum followed the second path. In September 1995, the museum repatriated two incomplete sets of ancestral Hawaiian remains to Hui Malama, refusing at the same time to release two additional sets. We asked the NAGPRA review committee to help resolve the dispute.

At issue was testimony by members of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei regarding a ceremony conducted at the museum. The members said they were clearly inspired by the spirits of the ancestors to take them all home. Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei asserted that to rely solely on physical evidence would discriminate against us as a spiritual society. The committee decided to hold hearings in Hawai'i on the matter. For the first set of remains, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei established their cultural affiliation with ethnographic, archeological, and osteological data-in addition to spiritual evidence. However, with regard to the second set of remains, the skull of "a Polynesian," the committee was unable to make a finding of cultural affiliation. Nonetheless, the committee recognized that the remains were clearly from Hawai`i and recommended they be returned to a museum there to help clarify the issue.

The museum accepted both recommendations. In August 1993, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei returned to the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where the museum is located, to conduct repatriation. Upon return to Hawai'i, the second set of remains were turned over to the Bishop Museum, which conducted physical examination and confirmed that the remains were indeed that of a kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian). Soon thereafter, both sets of remains were replanted.

Our efforts, then and now, are guided in part by a belief that the ancestors may exact retribution for failure to protect them from those who would steal their mana. We advocate against scientific study. In our view, such actions amount to desecration-handling bones without prayer, without protocol, and with the intent to take without permission. We wonder how an act that desecrates the dead could possibly benefit the living. Moreover, we wonder what benefits accrue to the ancestors.

For those who advocate osteological examination of Native Hawaiian remains, I say the following. Osteology begins at home. Study the bones of your ancestors first, before touching ours.

In my grandmother's last days, she never told me that my lessons in Hawaiian culture would continue beyond her death by digging up her bones and subjecting them to examination. This is not a Hawaiian custom. Instead, without saying, my grandmother's teachings continue through my prayers and dreams. The point is that science is not the only means to define man's existence. Spirituality is the necessary balance.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei members have been taught by our kumu (teachers) that:

Hopefully, if we teach our children right, barbaric acts of grave robbing will not happen again and our own bones can be planted, grow, then disintegrate and return to Papahanaumoku (Papa the earth mother). I close with the words of the Kohala chief Kamehameha, who united the Hawaiian islands under one rule:

Mahalo (Thank you).

Return to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei


For more information, Edward Halealoha Ayau can be contacted at: