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A delegation from Hawaii is on a five-city tour to bring human remains home, some of thousands of such remnants in Europe taken from around the world.
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BERLIN — Edward Halealoha Ayau, a lawyer from Hawaii, remembers a mission his grandmother gave him over 30 years ago: Bring your ancestors home.
“She told me the house couldn’t stand again unless the foundation was firm,” he said. “She told me to go and get them, and I did.”
It’s a quest that has taken Ayau to the other side of the world. This week, he is leading a delegation to collect human remains that European explorers and researchers removed from Hawaii more than a century ago. Ayau and representatives of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency for native Hawaiians, are receiving the remains in four German cities — Berlin, Bremen, Göttingen and Jena — and Vienna.
Ayau leads Hawaii’s efforts to recover its plundered heritage abroad, and his job has become easier over the years: Museums that once resisted repatriation claims are now taking on the delicate task of investigating human remains stolen in the colonial era and returning them to their places of origin.
German museum officials “were very respectful of Hawaiian values and humanity in handling these claims,” Ayau said. “Everyone recognized the need to do the right thing.”
The Hawaiian delegation will collect 58 skulls — known as “iwi po’o” — that will be buried when they return home. “In our culture, exposing iwi to light is considered highly offensive,” Ayau said. “Removing them, subjecting them to examination, putting them on display — those are all examples of exposure.”
The remains from Hawaii are among thousands of skulls, scalps, shrunken heads, skeletons, mummies and other vestiges acquired from all over the world by European anthropological museums and university collections in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As public museums in Europe face increasing pressure to reckon with the colonial past, including returning looted items, human remains are often named as a priority. Once prized collectibles, they are now an anachronistic source of shame to many institutions.
The International Council of Museums’ ethics code says requests for the removal of human remains from display, or for their repatriation, should be “addressed expeditiously with respect and sensitivity.”
Germany’s culture minister, Claudia Roth, said in a statement this week that human remains had “no place in our museums and universities,” adding that she welcomed the return of the skulls to Hawaii.
Eight were handed back on Tuesday by the Übersee Museum in the northern German city of Bremen during a simple and solemn ceremony. After speeches, Ayau and two of his colleagues sprinkled the people present with salt water as part of a traditional Hawaiian cleansing ritual.
Wiebke Ahrndt, the director of the Übersee Museum, said by phone before the ceremony that the museum’s leaders “must take responsibility for the misdeeds of our predecessors.” She added, “We can’t undo the wrongs, but we can try to make amends.”
Museums began returning human remains to Hawaii in the early ’90s, and since then, 123 repatriations have taken place from institutions in the United States and the Europe, according to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Germany first returned remains to Hawaii in 2017, when the Dresden State Art Collections transferred the remains of four people that had been stolen from graves.
“In the early years, some things were difficult,” said Kamakana Ferreira, an Office of Hawaiian Affairs official. “A lot of museums were set in old ways,” he added, noting that the Dresden repatriation came 26 years after the first request.
In contrast, Göttingen University is transferring 13 Hawaiian remains less than six months after receiving a claim, Ferreira said. “It’s an impressive timeline — because they want to do the right thing,” he said.
One of the largest German collections of human remains is in Berlin. In 2011, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees several major Berlin museums, said the Hawaiian skulls were among about 7,700 such remains it had received from the city’s largest hospital. Many were in a bad condition.
Hermann Parzinger, the foundation’s president, said its researchers were examining the skulls to identify their origins and return them. As well as identifying the remains from Hawaii, they had also traced more than 1,000 of the skulls to parts of East Africa that had been under German rule, he said.
It would, however, be more difficult to figure out the origin of some other skulls in the collection, said Bernhard Heeb, a scientist working on the project. The only surviving documentation for the Hawaiian remains appeared to be ink handwriting on each skull, giving an inventory number, a date, the place where it was found and the name of the researcher who removed it from Hawaii: Hermann Otto Finsch, a 19th-century naturalist.
Finsch said he discovered most of the remains on the beach at Waimanalo on the island of O’ahu in about 1880. His journal, which Heeb tracked down in Vienna, suggests he stumbled across an ancient burial ground that was exposed in an earlier archaeological excavation.
“The skeletons were lying, or originally lay, a few feet deep, under the grassy soil, and, when the sea rose, they were exposed,” Finsch wrote in the journal. “I took almost everything in the way of usable skulls and just left broken ones, as well as perhaps a dozen without lower jaws. But careful excavations might yield many more.”
Heeb said researching other skulls from West Africa and the South Pacific would “certainly keep us busy for the next 10 years,” or maybe longer. “Our main goal is to do this work in cooperation with the societies of origin and with respect for their wishes,” he said.
Ayau, too, said his quest was far from over.
“We have no way of knowing how extensive the problem is, so we are left to keep searching,” he said. “But every time we bring ancestors home and replant them, we restore integrity, courage and love to our families and restore our ancestral foundation.”
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