University of Göttingen: Sacred remains: ancestors return home

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 9 February 2022, thirteen 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 acknowledge the anguish experienced by our ancestors, and take responsibility for their well-being (and thereby our own), by transporting them home for reburial,” 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. 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 OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey. “Today, these actions allow us to heal, not only as individuals, but as a lāhui (Hawaiian nation).”

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