Institutional Responsibility: Repatriation @ Vassar

On Monday, October 3rd 2022, I was honored to share a conversation and dinner with Uluwehi Cashman and Halealoha Ayau, folks here to take their family members home. For hundreds of years ancestral remains and artifacts have been stolen from the Kingdom of Hawai’i without their consent. Our campus is one, among plenty of institutions that has, one way or another, come into unrightful possession of iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian remains) and their moepū (funerary artifacts).
This is certainly not the first time institutions, like Vassar, have prospered from the displacement and dehumanization of Indigenous populations. Vassar College is built on land belonging to the Delaware Nation, Delaware Lenape Tribe, and Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans. As members of this institution’s community we have benefitted from the colonial practices that have gotten Vassar College to where it is today. Now, this is not an issue specific to Vassar; universities, colleges, museums, archives, and other collections across the world are holding ancestors hostage and contribute to the cruel mishandling of Native land. But, as historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists, we must contextualize our own studies in the broad global framework of colonialism, including the actions of our own institution.
For over 30 years Halealoha and other activists have pressured institutions and museums across the world to repatriate stolen cultural artifacts and ancestral remains. These collections and archives, which have been created in the name of ‘science,’ have kept families apart for hundreds of years, and their slow/complicated journey home is telling of the policy and philosophy that trapped them here in the first place. Halealoha described the language and ceremonial revitalizations that have occurred through the repatriation processes. He has been met with some community conflicts throughout his work, but often some of Halealoha’s most harsh critics became his loudest supporters. There should be a grater understanding that this is not just a political issue, that this is a matter of humanity, family reunification, and decolonization.

Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole, Edward Halealoha Ayau, Mana Caceres and Kalehua Caceres at the Berlin State Museums of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. (Retrieved from

As Archaeologists, we are not removed from the colonial history of archaeology nor the actions of the institution we have chosen to study at. Colonial violence that not only infridged upon sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawai’i but with every second iwi kupuna and their moepu spend in our possession is another second they are not at rest. Along with repatriation, we should take the time to acknowledge the historical and ongoing perpetrations against Indigenous peoples, not only in academia, but internationally. This disrespect is not just a product of national educational systems, but a result from greater global philosophies which repeatedly disregard and abuse aboriginal populations.
In the 30 plus years since NAGPRA, repatriation processes have been slow and difficult, leaving much of the responsibility to Indigenous groups, themselves, to have to ask for their family members back. Cultural sites have been violated time and time again due to racist philosophy legitimized under the guise of ‘scholarship.’I fear we may be too desensitized to the colonialism in our own lives, and the careless abuses of Indigenous bodies, minds, and culture. The fact that ancestors and artifacts are anywhere that they are not supposed to be (including our campus), is a clear sign of corrupt colonial practices academically and globally.
This was not ‘one bad person,’ but the collective responsibility of the institution, administrators, professors, and students who have benefitted off of the objectification of native land and native bodies in academia. We are all complicit, whether we were aware of it or not, in the exploitation indigenous peoples and continue to be an extension of international colonial violence, unless we enact real substantive change. This really shouldn’t be an issue of legalities and institutional policy, but one of humanity and recongnition of aboriginal personhood.

Kūpunas ready to return home from the Natural History Museum in London. (Retrieved from

Bosman, Julie and Mitch Smith. September 15, 2022. “Congress Told Colleges to Return Native Remains. What’s Taking So Long?” The New York Times.

Ayau, Edward Halealoha. April 1, 2022. “Searching, Tracking and Finding Stolen Ancestors: An Insight.” Ka Wai Ola.

Leonard, Lucy, Jessica Moss, Aena Khan, Frankie Knuckles. February 20, 2020. “As College works to comply with NAGPRA, community interrogates institutional, academic history.” The Miscellany News.

Further Reading

The Mission: Bringing Home Native Hawaiian Remains

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