Thousands of bodies dug up in Hawaii still awaiting reburial

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Skye Razon-Olds’ family has been battling to bury her ancestors since before she was born. Now 32, she, too, has become a warrior, part of the long fight to get thousands of iwi kupuna, or Native Hawaiian ancestral remains, out of the hands of colonizers and into graves where they belong.

An untold number of native burial sites have been desecrated since the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. Some were disturbed as the result of land development, but many were intentionally disinterred by white anthropologists and sent to the Bishop Museum, where scientists who considered Hawaii a “racial laboratory” studied them to further bigoted psuedosciences, including eugenics, the so-called “science” of creating “perfect” human beings.

For decades, the Bishop Museum, still Hawaii’s preeminent cultural history museum, was a collector of iwi kupuna, many of them from the Mokapu Peninsula, now most widely known as the home of Marine Corps Base Hawaii. The museum’s director even offered bounties for the remains of Native Hawaiians, effectively turning grave robbery into a scavenger hunt. The sand dunes on the beaches of Mokapu soon proved to be a bountiful playground for the scavengers.

All told, the iwi, or skeletal remains, of as many as 3,000 babies, teens and adults were taken from Mokapu and given to the Bishop Museum between 1915 and 1993. For much of that time, the museum lent the collection out regularly to anthropologists for study, including eugenicists and other race “scientists.”

“Our black and brown bones were not treated as human remains,” Razon-Olds told SFGATE. “It was just a fun way for archaeologists to see and learn, and you know, it was like a reward for them to dig up our family.”

The shoreline of the Mokapu Peninsula, on the Windward side of Oahu, is the location of the largest burial site desecrated in Hawaii. More than a century later, the iwi kupuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains) that were taken from their final resting places are still waiting to be reburied.

©Mark A Johnson/www.markjohnson.com

Mokapu is the largest burial site to have been desecrated by Americans in Hawaii, but such grave robberies are hardly isolated. That history of systematic dehumanization is an ongoing source of anger, frustration and grief for native communities. In 1990, spurred by the tireless efforts of Indigenous activists, the federal government passed landmark legislation demanding that universities, museums, government agencies and other institutions return their collections of native remains and cultural artifacts, “repatriating” people’s skeletons to their descendants for reburial.

The work has moved slowly. Between 1990 and 2020, American institutions reported owning the remains of nearly 200,000 native people; 116,857 of those have yet to be given back.


Razon-Olds is part of a new generation pushing for burial of the Mokapu iwi; her great-aunt first became an advocate for the cause in the 1980s. Officially, the bodies found on the Mokapu Peninsula are among the 82,000 returned to their descendants: In 1998, much of the Bishop Museum’s collection of iwi was legally relinquished to a group of 21 Native Hawaiian organizations that include cultural organizations and descendants, such as Razon-Olds’ family.

But efforts to rebury the iwi have been hindered by disagreements between the 21 groups, and with the military. Under the law, all legal claimants must come to an absolute consensus on what to do with the remains; no one person or group can make a decision for all. Now, two decades into those negotiations, the remains of thousands of people still sit in boxes around the Marine Corps base.

“All of the iwi kupuna there, we’re connected to, because we have a connection to Mokapu,” Razon-Olds told SFGATE. “It’s a responsibility that’s incredibly heavy.”

‘Nothing more than hewa and desecration’

The Bishop Museum was founded in 1889 by Charles Bishop, an American businessman and Hawaiian Kingdom citizen, in memory of his late wife, the Hawaiian Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop.

The museum offered payment for native remains in 1912, but it was museum director and Yale anthropologist Herbert Gregory who, after beginning his tenure in 1919, began offering the museum’s resources to visiting anthropologists. At the time, many scientists — a significant number of them eugenicists — found Hawaii fascinating for its unrestricted multiracial population, often referring to it as a “racial laboratory.”

On the Windward Side of Oahu, more than 1,500 iwi kupuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains) were unearthed from the sand dunes of the Mokapu Peninsula’s shoreline between Kuau (aka Pyramid Rock) to Ulupau Crater. The remains of babies, teens, adults and elders were taken from their final resting places in a series of excavations and isolated finds from 1915 to 1993.

On the Windward Side of Oahu, more than 1,500 iwi kupuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains) were unearthed from the sand dunes of the Mokapu Peninsula’s shoreline between Kuau (aka Pyramid Rock) to Ulupau Crater. The remains of babies, teens, adults and elders were taken from their final resting places in a series of excavations and isolated finds from 1915 to 1993.

DAGS Hawaii

Visiting scholars often wanted to use the museum’s collection of remains, along with physical measurements of island natives, to try and solve the “Pacific problem,” a faddish term for understanding where the Polynesian race originated and defining a “pure” Native Hawaiian. Such “research” was popular with mainstream anthropologists for decades; the Bishop Museum received funding from and established partnerships with premier cultural institutions, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Yale, the University of Hawaii and the Carnegie Institution, to work on the “problem.”

In 1920, Gregory threw open the museum’s doors to the eugenicist Louis Sullivan, who worked at the American Museum of Natural History under Henry Osborn, one of the founders of the American Eugenics Society. With Osborn’s guidance, Sullivan measured and cataloged upwards of 10,000 Native Hawaiians, living and dead, including taking blood draws and measurements of the skulls of children at a school associated with the museum. The museum also provided Sullivan with an expert to help in “handling the natives” and talk them into being part of his studies.

The Bishop Museum continued to collect human remains for decades, often loaning them out to anthropologists trying to racially characterize Native Hawaiians. Indeed, the majority of the Bishop Museum’s collection of iwi from Mokapu was unearthed between 1938 and 1957, when the Bishop Museum and the University of Hawaii conducted large-scale excavations. (More graves would be disturbed when the military began using the dunes as a commercial sand mining operation.)

The Bishop Museum faced its role in promoting racism at a “(Re)generations” exhibit last year. It displayed the different tools used in the pseudosciences of phrenology and anthropometry, as well as some photos and busts from Sullivan’s collection.

The Bishop Museum faced its role in promoting racism at a “(Re)generations” exhibit last year. It displayed the different tools used in the pseudosciences of phrenology and anthropometry, as well as some photos and busts from Sullivan’s collection.

Bishop Museum

In the 1940s, anthropologist Charles Snow took over much of the research on the Bishop Museum’s collection of Mokapu remains. He and his team separated the iwi into piles of teeth, skulls, spines and pelvises, to be measured and categorized. That intermixing of bones would later cause debate about how many individuals were included in the collection; experts believe the bones come from the remains of somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 people, or even more.

“The recovery of skeletal material from the sand dunes of Mokapu afforded the opportunity for scientific investigation of the physical characteristics of the Hawaiians who lived and died before European contact, thereby adding a chapter to our knowledge of their racial heritage,” Snow wrote, in his 1974 book, titled “Early Hawaiians: An initial study of skeletal remains from Mokapu, Oahu.” The book discussed what the people of Mokapu looked like, how long they lived and what diseases afflicted them, while comparing them to other “races,” including “Mongoloids” and “American Negroes.”

“The images within this book are really hard for me, seeing the piles of bones being thrown and tossed together on different tables with different measuring tools,” said Razon-Olds. “It’s nothing more than hewa [sin, offense] and desecration.”

For Native Hawaiians, the trauma of this kind of scientific cruelty goes beyond the dehumanization of human bodies. They believe that ancestral remains contain mana, a spiritual power that can be found in both people and objects; that power, they believe, is stolen when the iwi are taken.

“Damaging the bones to take measurements or DNA samples, these are the things that happen when people want to study our kupuna,” or ancestors, Razon-Olds said. “Our iwi, our ancestral remains, should never touch the light.”

Native Hawaiians lived on the Mokapu peninsula for 500 to 800 years prior to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778. The Native Hawaiians who lived at Mokapu thrived on the bounty around them, including taro and sweet potato crops, and their own sustainable fishponds. Now known as Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Mokapu is inaccessible to the general public.

Native Hawaiians lived on the Mokapu peninsula for 500 to 800 years prior to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778. The Native Hawaiians who lived at Mokapu thrived on the bounty around them, including taro and sweet potato crops, and their own sustainable fishponds. Now known as Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Mokapu is inaccessible to the general public.

©Mark A Johnson/www.markjohnson.com

‘The living cannot agree’

The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, was signed into law in 1990, with the goal of returning human remains and artifacts to their descendants all around the United States. The law gives priority to lineal descendants who can prove an unbroken genealogical tree. This is nearly impossible for Hawaiians, who preferred anonymous — and sometimes secret — burials. They believe mana remains in human bones after the person dies; historically, many were buried in unmarked graves, without identifying objects, to stop competing chiefs or families from stealing the mana of a specific individual.

“It was really drafted for Native American tribes and Alaska Natives,” says June Cleghorn, senior cultural resources manager for the Marine Corps base on Mokapu, which repatriated the museum collection under NAGPRA. Cleghorn is of Native Hawaiian descent. She and two of her staff manage archaeological sites and historic buildings around the base.

NAGPRA has enabled Edward Ayau (second from left) and various other Hawaiian organizations, such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, to bring home iwi kupuna from museums and universities from around the world. Also pictured is Mana Caceres next to him. On this trip earlier this year, they brought back 58 iwi kupuna from Europe.

NAGPRA has enabled Edward Ayau (second from left) and various other Hawaiian organizations, such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, to bring home iwi kupuna from museums and universities from around the world. Also pictured is Mana Caceres next to him. On this trip earlier this year, they brought back 58 iwi kupuna from Europe.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs

In place of lineal descendants, the Marine Corps accepted claims from individuals, families and organizations that could show they were affiliated with Mokapu in any way. Twenty-one groups came to the table; in 1998, legal ownership of the remains transferred to all of them, each with their own opinions and interests.

That was more or less the last time the majority agreed on anything. Until 2018, the Bishop Museum held onto the remains. Then, after a two decade stalemate, the iwi were handed over to the Marine Corps, which put them in storage.

One of the biggest sticking points is where to rebury the iwi, according to Mana Caceres, who has been on the Oahu Island Burial Council, a public agency tasked with cultural preservation, since 2016. The Marine Corps, for instance, proposed a plan for a mass burial site near the base, where descendants could visit without accessing a restricted area. Some claimants, though, said they preferred the bones be buried separately, in the land they were taken from.

There is also disagreement about what should happen when new remains are discovered on the Marine Corps base. The Marine Corps hasn’t made a public announcement about any new discoveries since 1994, although finding new iwi “has occurred and continues to occur periodically,” Cleghorn admitted to SFGATE, while saying that the military was following the law.

On the Windward side of Oahu, more than 1,500 iwi kupuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains) were unearthed from the sand dunes starting in 1915 on the shoreline of Mokapu, a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific about 4 miles long and divides Kaneohe Bay from Kailua Bay.

On the Windward side of Oahu, more than 1,500 iwi kupuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains) were unearthed from the sand dunes starting in 1915 on the shoreline of Mokapu, a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific about 4 miles long and divides Kaneohe Bay from Kailua Bay.

©Mark A Johnson/www.markjohnson.com

While Razon-Olds agrees that the military has the power to put newly discovered remains into storage with the other bones, Caceres argues that the Marine Corps is violating the law by not making new findings public.

It’s hard to know what else, exactly, the claimants and the military disagree on. For the past 20 years, negotiations have been held behind closed doors. Most of the families and organizations have agreed to a kapu, or ban, on speaking to the public about the negotiations. 

“The No. 1 reason why there are thousands of kupuna waiting at Mokapu for reburial [is] because the living cannot agree,” Caceres told SFGATE.

Hoping to bring more transparency to the process, Razon-Olds started giving updates about the closed-door negotiations at public meetings of the Oahu Island Burial Council. A few months later, the council was hit with a cease-and-desist letter from two claimant families. The letter said that public updates could lead to “legal jeopardy and proceedings,” and said it violated an “agreement with the Marine Corps.” (Cleghorn told SFGATE that the Marine Corps is not enforcing any kind of gag order.)

“I truly believe that the pride and ego of a few select claimants have stood in the way of planting our kupuna back into the aina [land],” Caceres told SFGATE. “The only thing that comes to mind is that the original claimants are shame to let the other Native Hawaiians know that it’s taken this long to bury iwi kupuna.”

Repatriation of iwi kupuna is certainly possible under NAGPRA, according to Edward Halealoha Ayau, former executive director of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei. (Hui Malama was one of the original claimants of the Mokapu iwi, but backed out 23 years ago, when the families became territorial.) Since the passage of the federal law, Ayau said, Hui Malama and other organizations have been able to reclaim 6,000 iwi kupuna.

“It’s hard that we’re going all around the world to bring our ancestors home and the largest collection of Hawaiian remains at a single site still sits waiting to be reburied,” Ayau told SFGATE.

Trauma that never ends

It’s impossible to know how many other iwi kupuna have been desecrated in all of the islands of Hawaii, but commercial and real estate developments continue to unearth them. Ayau also says he and other activists are still finding remains in museums and institutions overseas.

“Every time we celebrate bringing them home, we find out there are more and more and more. So we just keep looking,” Ayau told SFGATE.

Ayau feels great responsibility for taking back possession of iwi kupuna and giving them the dignity of a safe resting place. Because Native Hawaiians have no traditional prayers for reburial after grave robbery, Ayau’s kumu, or teacher, created new prayers, asking the ancestors to forgive their descendants for allowing desecration of their remains, and offering humility to assuage their anger.

Earlier this year, Mana Caceres took part in a handover ceremony, where eight iwi kupuna from the Ubersee-Museum Bremen in Germany were returned to representatives of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. OHA has been involved in 120 repatriation cases over the past 30 years.

Earlier this year, Mana Caceres took part in a handover ceremony, where eight iwi kupuna from the Ubersee-Museum Bremen in Germany were returned to representatives of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. OHA has been involved in 120 repatriation cases over the past 30 years.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Razon-Olds, meanwhile, feels a great deal of urgency in getting younger generations involved in the repatriation process. Many of the descendants who have been leading the charge are now elderly, she told SFGATE. But even after the Mokapu iwi are buried, there is no end in sight for the lasting trauma of colonization and development of Hawaii.

“There truly are iwi kupuna everywhere. Anywhere you develop, you have potential to disturb, to desecrate,” Razon-Olds said. “As long as there’s building going on anywhere in Hawaii, our job will keep going.”

Even if she knows there will still be work to do for her children, she truly hopes the Mokapu iwi will be buried in her lifetime, so she doesn’t pass the responsibility onto them.

“As I know my children will also be iwi kupuna advocates, I hope they don’t have to shoulder something as heavy as Mokapu,” she says. “It’s hard. It was hard on my Auntie Nalani. I know it’s hard on all the other iwi kupuna advocates.”

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