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News Release

Office of Hawaiian Affairs

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, February 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 the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. On this trip they will travel not only to Göttingen, but also to Bremen, Jena, Berlin, and Vienna to repatriate a total of 58 iwi kūpuna.

“There has been much change in the last decade amongst museum professionals and anthropological scholars that demonstrates a better understanding of Indigenous peoples and the past injustices committed against us. We certainly acknowledge this and applaud the re-humanization of these individuals and institutions,” said Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey. “Today, these actions allow us to heal, not only as individuals, but as a lāhui (Hawaiian nation).”

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs’s policy is to protect and promote the reverence and cultural importance of the proper care, management and protection of iwi kūpuna. Office of Hawaiian Affairs has been involved in 120 repatriation cases over the last 30 years. In its Mana i Mauli Ola Strategic Plan 2020–2035, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs aims to empower communities to take care of iwi kūpuna. Locally, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs supported this initiative in 2021 with its new Iwi Kūpuna Repatriation and Reinterment Grants providing $167,298 to four community organizations. Nearly $33,000 will go toward facilitating the reburial of 700 to 900 iwi kūpuna and moepū disturbed at Kawaiahaʻo Church grounds. The remaining iwi kūpuna grants will provide education in communities throughout the state to empower Native Hawaiians to protect and care for iwi and provide training on the proper treatment of iwi.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs delegation’s journey continues today (February 10, 2022) with the repatriation of three iwi kūpuna from Friedrich Schiller University Jena. The “hand over” ceremony will be livestreamed at: https://www.uni-jena.de/en/all-news/ancestors-return-to-hawaiian-homeland.

About the Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Established by the state Constitutional Convention in 1978, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is a semi-autonomous state agency man-dated to better the conditions of Native Hawaiians. Guided by a board of nine publicly elected trustees, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs fulfills its mandate through advocacy, research, community engagement, land management and the funding of community programs. Learn more at www.oha.org.

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