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Tuesday, April 30, 2024
Largest repatriation in Hawaiian history completed with cultural items long held at UC Berkeley
By News Release @ 12:00 PM :: 1001 Views :: Hawaii History, Higher Education

Halealoha Ayau and Mana Cáceres bend to look and gesture toward a large tan-colored 'umeke nui, a type of storage container that has a woodgrain-style finish..

Halealoha Ayau (left) and Mana Cáceres (Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo) admired the craftsmanship of an 'umeke nui (large calabash) before it was transported to Hawaii. The object was among more than 300 that UC Berkeley recently repatriated to Native Hawaiians. --  Courtesy of Dane Uluwehi Maxwell

Largest repatriation in Hawaiian history completed with cultural items long held at UC Berkeley

"It was really refreshing to see humans trying to be the best they can be in this situation," said Mana Cáceres, a Native Hawaiian who works on repatriation cases around the world and helped facilitate the one with UC Berkeley.

by Jason Pohl, UC Berkeley, April 29, 2024

Stored for decades at UC Berkeley, 335 items — 34 of them sacred objects — now are back in Hawaii after a collaboration between Native Hawaiians and the campus. Native Hawaiians said the effort demonstrates how significantly repatriation processes have improved, signaling a more positive chapter in museums returning ancestors and objects to their Indigenous homelands.

The recently-repatriated sacred objects, which had been kept at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, included an `opu`u (pendant), `umeke (bowl), `ihe (spear), lei niho palaoa (human hair necklaces with whale tooth pendants), lei lauoho (human hair necklaces) and lei hulu (feather necklaces).

An additional 301 objects were voluntarily deaccessioned, removed from the museum’s holdings, in recognition of their significant cultural importance to Native Hawaiians.

Combined, this is believed to have been the largest single repatriation of cultural items in Hawaiian history.

"It was really refreshing to work with people who recognize the healing that could be done for everybody in the room — not just on our side," said Mana Cáceres, a Native Hawaiian repatriation specialist who works around the world to return ancestral remains and objects to the islands. "It was really refreshing to see humans trying to be the best they can be in this situation."

The repatriation also marks a milestone for Berkeley, which is working to correct decades of wrongs perpetrated against Indigenous groups. The process could foreshadow a more collaborative future for Indigenous people, who often face resistance on the frontlines of repatriation and encounter pushback from museums holding sacred objects, said Kalehua Cáceres, Mana Cáceres's wife and repatriation colleague. 

"I felt comfortable, and I've never felt comfortable in a museum," she said of her visit to Berkeley to inspect objects in the collection. "Not just comfortable, but welcomed into the space."

Three people look at objects that are on a cart, next to shelves that hold hundreds of additional items.

Leslie Freund (UC Berkeley), Kalehua Càceres (center) and Uluwehi Cashman (Hui Iwi Kuamoʻo) verified the inventory of objects to transport to Hawaii and and revised mislabeled items. -- Courtesy of Dane Uluwehi Maxwell

It hasn't always been that way. During decades of unethical and harmful anthropological practices, the museum — which was moved to UC Berkeley's campus in 1931 and later renamed after Phoebe A. Hearst — amassed a vast collection of sacred objects and human remains from tribes, indigenous nations and peoples around the world.

Laws passed more than 30 years ago, including California's version of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), require universities to protect and return Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.

“We were finally heard as Indigenous human beings.” -- Halealoha Ayau

But that process has long been plagued by delays and legal challenges. For example, in the 1990s, former Berkeley faculty curators and attorneys opposed the return of ancestral remains to Native Hawaiians. After impassioned testimony and evidence presented by the Native Hawaiian delegation, the National NAGPRA Review Committee recommended the Hearst Museum to return ancestral remains to Native Hawaiian organizations.

That history was top of mind for Edward Halealoha Ayau when, three decades later, his Native Hawaiian team of people working on repatriation projects in Hawaii contacted the campus. He has advocated for and conducted the repatriation of ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains and funerary objects for over three decades.

Ayau, who goes by the name Halealoha, said the recent repatriation with Berkeley was a marked improvement in how Native Hawaiians were consulted and respected by campus leaders.

"We were finally heard as Indigenous human beings," he said.

Berkeley officials are conscious of the long shadow cast by exploitative researchers and the conflicts between Indigenous communities and academic institutions. Simply put, there's a long way to go, said Sabrina Agarwal, professor and chair of the campus’s anthropology department and a special adviser to the chancellor on issues of repatriation.

"But we hope that this is a demonstration of our commitment, that it's something that we're willing to work at as long as we need to in order to acknowledge the harm that we've done," Agarwal said. "And really, that we're trying to find ways to begin to repair those relationships."

Researching Hawaii's history from 2,300 miles away

Mana and Kalehua Cáceres refer to themselves as being "responsible moʻopuna," or grandchildren of their elders. Through their work, they're paying respects to Hawaiian ancestors and also teaching their grandchildren how to care for their own remains and belongings.

The couple has a family-owned consulting business in Hawaii that trains and provides cultural monitors for land owners and development projects there. Kalehua is also a preschool administrator.

Long involved in issues involving Native Hawaiian rights, the pair began studying under Halealoha several years ago. They are in a class of a half-dozen students who are learning the important, yet cumbersome, processes for repatriating Native Hawaiian human remains and sacred objects held at museums around the world. 

“We hope that this is a demonstration of our commitment, that it's something that we're willing to work at.” -- Sabrina Agarwal, UC Berkeley professor

It was a process Halealoha had led for years. Lately, he's been teaching the next generation of Hawaiian repatriation practitioners.

People like Mana and Kalehua Cáceres.

In recent years, they've traveled to London and Scotland to receive sacred items and the remains of their ancestors. Often, Mana Cáceres said, it felt like they were coming in at the "end of the story" that Halealoha had spent decades writing.

As part of the class, Halealoha tasked his student team to review the Hearst Museum's online archive. Item by item, the classmates filled in a spreadsheet and described the items that they considered sacred and ceremonial.

In early 2023, the team contacted Berkeley officials with its request. A series of Zoom meetings followed through the spring, often with campus repatriation staff moving through the collection and archives, using an iPad to show objects to the repatriation team 2,300 miles away.

While Zoom eased the research process, spending time with a collection is still essential, Mana Cáceres said. When they walked into the museum last year, the team members could examine the entire collection that spans islands throughout the Pacific.

"Just the number (of objects) alone was staggering," he said.

A group of people stand in a large, florescent-lit room at UC Berkeley, next to a number of wooden crates that are loaded with ceremonial and cultural items.

The group of Native Hawaiians and UC Berkeley staff gathered for a group photo after the hundreds of ceremonial and cultural items were packed and prepared for transport. -- Courtesy of Dane Uluwehi Maxwell

'Everything was put back where it was supposed to be'

Alexandra Lucas, who oversees Berkeley’s repatriation program, ensured the Native Hawaiian team was able to inspect the collection held on campus. When the team from Hawaii arrived for a few days in November, she and her team helped them navigate the secure storage areas in the museum's vast collection.

And on moving day later that month, Lucas accompanied the nine carefully-packed wooden crates in the middle of the night on their journey from the museum to the staging warehouse and, ultimately, San Francisco International Airport. She snapped photos on her phone as the items were loaded onto the plane for the Hawaiian repatriation team, and she accompanied them on the six-hour flight to Honolulu.

Lucas has worked with museums and collections around the world. Being able to assist the Native Hawaiian organizations was something she said she'll never forget.

"It was profound," she said. "A lot of the cultural belongings that we repatriate are so spiritually imbued, or have some sort of spirit for themselves, that it's a real honor to be able to assist in this process."

Mana Cáceres described a calm rejoicing among the Native Hawaiians who received the crates.

"It just seemed like the day was a little bit brighter," he said. "Everything just seemed like everything was put back where it was supposed to be. The world just felt like it was in a more natural state."

Over the past several months, Native Hawaiians have examined the items and worked to return them to locations throughout the islands. Among the objects were centuries-old games, including 'ulu maika, an ancient Hawaiian sport akin to bowling.

Kalehua Cáceres hopes to incorporate some of the objects into lessons with her preschoolers. She said putting those ancestral games in the hands of a child and restoring their function will remind people of the objects’ "living culture."

"And that we don't need to go to museums,” she said, “to understand who we are."

Campus staff involved in the effort agree, reiterating that it represents a culture shift in how Berkeley views items of cultural heritage and significance. It shouldn't take laws for people to do what's right, they said. 

What we did wasn't the norm. But it should be. And it can be. -- Mana Cáceres

"This represents not us doing the minimum legal obligation. That's the floor," Agarwal said. "It represents us thinking about how we can really expand to think about whose cultural heritage something is. They can define what's theirs and what needs to be returned."

Everyone is better off when that's the approach, Halealoha agreed.

"There was an unspoken understanding for reconciliation, to which all participants worked to achieve," he said. "This achievement led to a shared humanity of sorts and the respectful return of several Hawaiian cultural items. For us, this was the most important lesson."

Mana Cáceres wants universities, museums and other institutions in possession of Indigenous remains and objects to remember that repatriation efforts shouldn't be adversarial.

"I think the greatest takeaway that I would hope would come from this would be that other universities and other institutions would read (about this effort) and decide to be brave, because that's what Berkeley did," Mana Cáceres said. "What we did wasn't the norm. But it should be. And it can be. It just takes people to be in positions of authority to kind of be brave enough to say, 'This is what's right, and this is what we're going to do.'

"When you've got people who are brave, anything can happen."

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