Though the Hui Mālama group did not realize it at the time, the kūpuna were beyond the door, through a hall, down a stairwell, and in a basement sitting on rows and rows of shelves.
The sympathetic museum manager who led them to the doorway was part of a growing international movement among academics to develop a more balanced, meaningful relationship with their native subjects—a movement Hui Mālama helped to shape in their many interactions with museum officials.
Hui Mālama also agreed to numerous symposia presentations, including one at the University College of London, “Moving Forwards with Indigenous Peoples into the 21st Century,” where Ayau held the attention of a packed room.
“I wanted them to understand that Britain—compared to other maturing nations—was ignoring a fundamental human right to be laid to rest unmolested, and that their digging up our ancestors’ heads for curious scientific ‘needs’ was nothing short of barbaric. I tried to share our perspective and have them understand the ‘eha (hurt) they caused,” said Ayau.
On the heels of that presentation, Hui Mālama became one of only four native entities specially invited by the Parliament-established British Working Group for Human Remains to offer testimony to their group “on the potential return of human remains” from British museums.
Hui Mālama’s 24-page testimony became part of the record Parliament relied upon in passing in 2004 the Human Tissues Act, which enables institutions “to transfer human remains from their collection if it appears to them appropriate to do so for any reason.”
Upon the Act’s passage, Hui Mālama renewed its repatriation request. However, the Museum would address requests in historical order, and the Australian Aborigines were first. The Aborigines’ decision to sue the Museum took years to resolve—during which Hui Mālama’s claim waited.
In this period, the Museum continued archival research to ensure that iwi included in the potential repatriation were indeed Native Hawaiian, and forwarded their findings to Hui Mālama.
Ayau and his daughter Hattie created a spreadsheet of those records. As she read to him and as he typed the data into his computer, a 20-year-old question was answered.
Hattie said, “…Beasley No. 525 Cranium…Malakai…I think they mean Molokai…” And indeed they did. The Beasley Collection originated at the Cranmore Ethnographic Museum in Kent, England. It was the kūpuna that was transferred from the Bishop Museum in 1910, the kūpuna that started Ayau’s inquiry of the Natural History Museum in 1989.
“I sat there and the tears wouldn’t stop. I thought I’d never find her. And now I realize she was guiding me all along. I couldn’t wait to bring her home. I look out from my hale at Mo‘omomi every day. I’ve thought of her countless times,” recalled Ayau.
With energy renewed, Ayau checked and triple checked the records, and sent yet another repatriation request to the Museum. With the Aborigines’ lawsuit coming to closure, Hui Mālama’s request was finally brought before the Museum’s trustees.
“The day they met in November 2012 was nerve racking. They could have denied our request. It hinged on whether our plea to mālama our kūpuna outweighed the scientific “need” for them as “specimens.” And then I finally got the email with a scanned copy of their decision. I read the beginning of it and was really anxious because they were talking about the scientific value of the iwi. But three paragraphs in, I read the sweetest line: ‘The Trustees have decided to return the remains…to your organization.’”
“It still took nearly a year to negotiate with them all of the specifics of how and when the repatriation would occur. But it happened. On August 29, 2013, 145 kūpuna returned home.”
Each of them are back on their home islands, reburied and at rest today—in Puna and Kona on Hawai‘i, in Ko‘olaupoko and Kona on O‘ahu, and in the sands of Mo‘omomi on Molokai.