I did not see the iwi kūpuna¹, but their presence hollowed my bones.
Beside me in the cramped backseat of a minivan, beneath the exhausted light of a New England autumn afternoon, beneath layers of carefully wrapped black cloth, beneath a box, lie the mandibles and teeth of unnumbered, unidentified kanaka maoli². The gray sky framed by the car window becomes my imaginative canvas for the iwi; the cultural protocol of traditional Native Hawaiian repatriation prohibits wahine³ from any direct interface with them. Josh, who is able to handle the iwi, describes them to me as cold, stripped of humanity by the scientific method, displaced for the sake of museum archival preservation. I consider it a blessing that cultural protocol shields me from seeing this forced displacement from all axes of existence, though I persist to imagine their vitality.
On October 4, 2022, Hiʻilei Hobart, Assistant Professor of Native and Indigenous Studies, participated alongside undergraduates Kalaʻi Anderson ’25, Joshua Ching ’26, and I in a Native Hawaiian ceremonial repatriation of iwi kūpuna housed in the Yale Peabody Museum since the eighteen-seventies. We could not have completed this repatriation without the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, which, by U.S. federal law, mandates “the return of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of patrimony to lineal descendants, Native American tribes, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiian organizations.” In 2014, the Peabody intended to repatriate these specific iwi to Hawai‘i; however, they were unknowingly separated from their larger shipment and remained in museum storage. Eight years later, Professor Hobart found the iwi during a Peabody tour and, decisively, held the museum accountable to initiate another repatriation.
October’s repatriation comes from a lineage of contemporary Native Hawaiian repatriation work that aims to heal the wounds of a violent colonial past. In their essay “Ka Huaka‘i O Nā ʻŌiwi: The Journey Home”, Native Hawaiian repatriation scholars Edward Halealoha Ayau and Ty Kāwika Tengan write that colonialism has alienated kanaka maoli from their lands, histories, and gods. At the epicenter of this alienation is the desecration of gravesites, through which iwi are collected. Ayau and Tengan outline common justifications for the collection of iwi kūpuna: use in eugenic studies and anthropological studies of a “disappearing race,” sales to collectors or educational institutions, and removal as a consequence of urbanization. Preceded by the repatriation work of contemporary Native Hawaiian leaders, October’s repatriation is indebted to the strength and perseverance of all the kanaka maoli who have repatriated before us.
Although the seed of a lineage, this repatriation was the first at Yale to be led by the kanaka maoli of the University’s community. The increase in kanaka maoli involvement during this repatriation compared to those past is not only reflective of Professor Hobart’s leadership, but also of the unprecedented number of kanaka maoli now at Yale. The four of us kanaka maoli met daily to learn lyrics, practice reciting our moʻokūʻauhau4 for as many generations back as we knew, refine intonation and pronunciation, and most importantly, harness our voice. Preceded by a dense week of cultural programming—including the memorization of anchor pule5 and oli6 that totaled over eighty lyrical lines of ‘ōlelo7—the completion of October’s repatriation is indebted to the teachings of cultural practitioners Mana Caceres, Kalehua Caceres, and Halealoha Ayau.
It is the day before repatriation, and I am the only customer in Atticus Bookstore Cafe. I trade out my annotated copy of Aeschylus’ Oresteia for the twelve pages of repatriation cultural protocol that I need to have pa‘a8 in a matter of hours. Though a plurality of identity is stitched into my seams, it threads the distance within myself. Every line of Greek tragedy I read spins a web between New Haven and Hawai‘i, and every missed diacritical and mispronounced word in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i bares my entanglement. I mouth Pule Ikaika—the first prayer of the ceremony, which asks for the strength of our ancestors to support the work of repatriation—in a hushed voice, like a secret. E ho‘ōla iā mākou i nā mea Hawai‘i kūpono / E ho‘āla iā mākou i ka na‘au pono no kēia hana / E ho‘ohui iā mākou i ho‘okahi mana‘o. Grant life to us in the true Hawaiian sense / Awaken within us the true depth of this work / Allow us to become one in mind.
The irony is not lost on me. Plurality is self-canceling. Plurality is paradoxically alienating.
I am silent, but returning to my corroded mother tongue provokes sobs that can be heard from Hawai‘i. I am the words I don’t speak. I am the memories of home I don’t remember. I am the logical gaps of my freshman year philosophy, yearning for a satiating ontological proof in a college whose history is antithetical to my own existence. I am the negative space of my lineage, lost somewhere between my future and past.
The morning of the ceremony, I dress in all black. Josh and I eat breakfast together in silence. We meet Kala‘i and Professor Hobart. There is not much said between us kanaka maoli, but I know we are together. The outside is bright, and the inside is dark. We enter the room at the Peabody West Campus where the iwi are housed. All the lights are off. The day is young, and the room is ageless. Kalaʻi immediately flicks pī kai9 containing ‘olena10 sea salt from Hawaiʻi onto us and all. Drops of home trickle down my forehead. We begin. Kala‘i and Josh together cut the cloth that will be wrapped around the iwi to keep them in Pō11. We recite the oli and anchor pule. We recite our individual moʻokūʻauhau to tell the iwi kūpuna whom we come from. Josh and Kala‘i take inventory of the iwi kūpuna, and there is an error. Inconsistent labeling. But because we are all together, we are calm and we continue. Kalaʻi and Josh together clarify the error with the Peabody staff. They, together, wrap the iwi. Kalaʻi flicks pī kai again onto us and all that surrounds us to cleanse the space. We leave together as one, iwi in hand.
From New Haven, we drive to Poughkeepsie, New York, inbound to Vassar College. There, we will perform the repatriation ceremony again with Halealoha Ayau and another kanaka maoli student, so they can return the iwi back to Hawai‘i. In the backseat of the van, I try to imagine the iwi kūpuna. Restless in a small city called New Haven, an ocean away from home, they were here centuries before I could even fathom my existence in the Northeast. Their remains are also in Vassar College. And in Harvard University, Dartmouth College, the Smithsonian Museum, and more institutions spanning continents. It is only my sixth week at Yale University, and the iwi kūpuna, a devastating testament to my institution’s colonial history, are tightly strapped in a seat belt next to me.
And for the rest of fall semester, I struggle to commit to that world. The tragedy that repatriation was predicated upon permeates my consciousness, alienating me from academic work at Yale. Reading the Western canon has become a dispossession of identity, but on a rare November afternoon, I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses on a bench overlooking Science Hill until I can no longer see the pages. Mortal Hyacinthus dies to Apollo’s discus like a broken flower, his head snapped down so he faces the earth—it is through the nature of his death that the namesake flower emerges. A name immortalizes death, what’s more, a story: Ovid writes, “a valiant hero shall be known by the same marks upon its petals.” In complete darkness, my feet crunch the dead leaves below. The great are buried, and their afterlife of greatness buries what’s native. Here in New Haven, all of my heroes are fading, and I do not know how to forgive myself for my complicity.
In my literature seminar the following morning, Assistant Professor of Classics Erika Valdivieso explains how burials in the epic tradition mark privilege. The burial of Hyacinthus, like many others in Virgil’s Aeneid, memorializes male heroes in place. Even the exceptional female warrior Camila in the Aeneid is bereft of this memorialization in place. Professor Valdivieso cites an article by Dr. Georgia Nugent entitled “The Women of the Aeneid–Vanishing Bodies, Disappearing Voices” and points, “Where do the bodies of women go?” This is a question that exists beyond epic myth, an unresolved reality for which marginalized communities demand an answer from the world.
Instead of our usual fall semester morning seminars, it is a spring afternoon—a new sunlight is upon us in the Humanities Quadrangle courtyard. Professor Valdivieso and I discuss ways to read the epic tradition resistantly, an empowering mode of literary reception that her academic career in the classics and colonial early Americas has inspired me to uphold. A text’s longevity doesn’t come from language, but rather its reception: “close reading allows you to see the sutures, the slips, the bumps, in the fabric of texts,” she tells me, “…you as a reader, work to unstitch the ideological projects of texts.” Reinterpretation brightens what greatness has shadowed—even in the dark, one can still imagine.
For what is absence if not a search for relationality, loss if not a presence of duty?
The vanishing bodies of women in the Roman epic remind me of the reasons for repatriation—to unstitch and restitch the narratives of marginalized communities that history has failed in doing––and I hear Pule Nā Kūpuna12 echoing back. Na mākou e mālama i nā iwi o ko mākou kūpuna / Na nā mo‘o e mālama i ko mākou iwi / A ho‘omau ka lōkahi o kākou no laila / E hō mai ka‘ike. We will protect the bones of our ancestors / And our children will protect our bones / As we continue this interdependency, thus / Grant us knowledge. Unlike close reading, however, unstitching history is predicated upon community. Restitching history is predicated upon a generation.
For who are kanaka maoli today, if not a rope of lineage, realizing our future together is intertwined with our predecessors?
Interdependency is a continuum, and it is this powerful Indigenous relationality that heals. It has sustained my vitality at Yale and has been my proof of existence. In the parking lot of the Peabody Museum’s West Campus, Kala‘i ties my kīhei13 tightly before the repatriation ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, the six of us kanaka maoli share two bowls of fresh ‘ahi14 and rice on the floors of Vassar College in relief. A month later, Josh and I race to the shore at Lighthouse Point Park, our bare, shriveled palms touching sand for the first time since leaving Hawai‘i. Another month later, he strums my ‘ukulele in my suite, and we sing into the winter night until it no longer tastes bitter. When New Haven freezes over at the start of February, Professor Hobart hosts Pacific Islander students in her apartment, and together, we eat her homemade saimin on a roundtable. In this transitory period that is college, I measure my life in these beautiful moments of interdependence, because they point homeward.
For myself and other kanaka maoli at Yale, this recognition of interdependency as essential to ourselves began with repatriation. Six months after the repatriation ceremony, Josh and I are alone in the Stiles Buttery on an April night. We ruminate here often together. “Repatriation,” he says, “in a very surface level sense, is the definition itself of giving and helping out without any expectation of receiving because there is no physical way to receive something when it is returning the dead.” Though now relieved from repatriation’s distress, recovering these memories is cathartic, and he believes it will always be.
“Despite being a culture and a people who have experienced so much loss, losing those relations to each other through all of the history Hawaiians have had to endure, it is that grounding in our responsibilities to each other that have kept us going,” Josh tells me. Repatriation has blessed me with a beloved friend whose soul is native soil, and whose voice replenishes it.
And I am most replenished in the presence of my Native heroes. In an academic panel hosted by New York University’s Asian Pacific American Institute that I attended during spring break, Dr. Mary Tuti Baker prefaced her segment by asking the audience to tell their neighbor whose spirit they have brought with them to the panel. I tell the unfamiliar NYU student next to me that the spirit of my deceased great-grandmother Leina‘ala Poepoe is with me, the oldest relative in my mo‘okū‘auhau with koko Hawai‘i15 I knew and will ever know in my lifetime.
She has followed me across Moananuiākea16, across state lines, and subway lines she had never crossed. Her spirit was with me during the repatriation ceremony, in the car ride watching over my shoulders as the iwi kūpuna are beside me, finally in Pō. When I was three years old, she held my hand as we walked through her garden on the lush mountains of Puna, Hawai‘i. Fifteen years later, I reach out for her palms in the withering autumn. I do not know what the iwi kūpuna look like, but she eases my imagination.
Despite my authorial attempts, any image of the iwi kūpuna is four times removed—once by colonial dispossession; twice by the osteological work of the Yale Peabody Museum that sterilized and shelved the iwi away from history; a third time by the dialogue between Professor Hobart, Josh, and Kala‘i, who all saw or handled the plasticized iwi, and myself who had not; and a fourth by my own language in this piece to you, the reader. In spite of—or precisely because of—this chasm that separates our existence from our history, there is a demand for us to imagine.
Through imagining my iwi kūpuna, my way of knowing is no longer linear, but circular.
My backbone is no longer rigid, but spiral. My selfhood is no longer a stitched thread, but a woven rope. And the ending is no longer a burial, but a revival.
—Connor Arakaki is a first-year in Morse College.
* Translation Note: ʻŌlelo Hawai‘i is a multivalent language that engenders layers of context, rendering the English language insufficient to wholly capture and convey meaning. For the sake of clarity, English definitions and contextual explanations of the ʻōlelo Hawai‘i used in this essay will be provided. Unless otherwise noted, translations are from scholars Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert for Hawaiian Dictionary.
¹ Iwi kūpuna means “ancestral bone.”
² Kānaka maoli refers to “any descendant of the seafaring people who arrived nearly two thousand years ago at ko Hawai‘i Pae ‘Āina (the island chain known today as the Hawaiian Islands). Over hundreds of generations, our language and culture evolved, shaping us into a distinct people referred to today as Hawaiians” (Brown, Marie Alohalani. “Kanaka Maoli.” Facing The Spears of Change: The Life and Legacy of John Papa ʻĪʻī).
³ Wahine means “women.”
⁴ Moʻokūʻauhau means “genealogy.”
⁵ Pule means “prayer, magic spell, incantation.”
⁶ Oli means “chant that was not danced to, especially with prolonged phrases chanted in one breath, often with a trill at the end of each phrase.”
⁷ Ōlelo means “language.”
8 Paʻa means “finished, learned, kept permanently.”
9 Pī kai means “to sprinkle with sea water or salted fresh water to purify or remove taboo.”
10 ‘Olena means “turmeric.”
11 Pō means “night, darkness, obscurity; the realm of the gods.” In her doctoral dissertation entitled, “Theorizing Pō: Embodied Cosmogony and Polynesian National Narratives,” Dr. Joyce Pualani Warren explains that “Polynesian epistemology and cosmology dictate that all life and existence come from Pō, generative, liminal darkness. Pō can be temporally expansive, producing a view of time that is spiral rather than linear. Within Pō, time and space are not necessarily discrete categories.””u003cbru003eu003cbru003eu003csupu003e12u003c/supu003e “
12 Pule Nā Kūpuna translates to “prayer of the ancestors.”
13 Kīhei means “shawl, cape, afghan.”
14 ʻAhi means “Hawaiian tuna fishes.”
15 Koko means “blood.”
16 Moananuiākea means “Pacific.”