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For the First Time in 237 Years, A Hawaiian Chief’s Royal Treasures Return Home

You can see Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s priceless Ali‘i feathered cloak and helmet at the Bishop Museum.


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Ahuula, Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u

Photo: courtesy of te papa tongarewa


On a cloudy Friday morning in Wellington, leaders of the Native Hawaiian and museum community marched up the steps of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to greet their Māori hosts in a welcome that began with a ceremonial challenge and ended with two priceless Hawaiian artifacts packed in custom wooden crates to fly home to Hawai‘i.


Some dressed in traditional malo and kīhei despite the 57-degree March weather and the chill wind blowing  off the harbor, others wore business attire.


Neither the weather nor the clouds dimmed the spirits of the delegation of more than 20 who had trekked nearly 5,000 miles to bring back the feathered cloak and helmet of a long-dead Hawaiian ruler. A bank of New Zealand media jockeyed for position near those of us who’d flown in with the delegation to witness the chicken-skin electricity of the historic hand-off. Chants, speeches and song rang out along with haka and hula performances once the group entered the brightly colored interior of the museum marae (cultural meeting place). First in Māori, then in Hawaiian, rarely in English, the ceremony continued for hours, with at least one of the TV crews conducting follow-up interviews in Māori.


SEE ALSO: Hawaiian Chief Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s Treasured Helmet and Cloak, Made From Feathers of 20,000+ Birds, is Coming to Hawai‘i


 The historic occasion began with formal ceremonies in New Zealand that returned the feathered treasures to Hawai‘i. Both items departed the Islands in 1779, when Kalani‘ōpu‘u reigned over Hawai‘i Island. English explorer Capt. James Cook visited Kealakekua Bay and so impressed the powerful chief that Kalani‘ōpu‘u gave his own intricately woven feathered cloak—‘ahu ‘ula—and helmet—mahiole—to the visitor.


History tells us that Cook returned weeks later, battered by storms and seeking provisions to restock his ship, only to be killed in a fight. The garments left with his crew and it would be another 237 years before they returned to Hawai‘i together. 


Despite their age, dramatic history and extensive travels, the royal garments remain remarkably intact, vibrant red and yellow with no bare spots. They have been recognized as significant Pacific cultural treasures for more than the century that they were in the care of Te Papa Tongarewa (which translates literally from Māori as “container of treasures”). Some estimates have placed the dollar value of the cloak alone at $6 million.


 Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u

Photo: Robbie Dingeman 


Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO Kamana‘opono Crabbe played a key role in helping return the items for what is officially a 10-year loan to the Bishop Museum. 


For Crabbe, the journey home resonates both as a way to celebrate the past and plan for the future. “It’s about finding ourselves and being able to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors,” he says.


Kalani‘ōpu‘u inspires through his own story, although he is less known today than his nephew, Kamehameha I.  Says Crabbe: “He was courageous. He stood for tradition and he stood for protecting his people; protecting our cultural heritage. Yet, even though he was introduced to foreigners, he continued to demonstrate great compassion as a diplomat, as a global leader, as a political leader.” 


Returning the items to Hawai‘i took a confluence of forces: a shift in international museum philosophy toward repatriation of cultural items to their homelands, relationships built over time, goodwill and coordination among many. Crabbe’s first efforts came before he joined OHA as he built strong relationships in New Zealand. 


The return of these royal garments was made possible by a partnership between the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, The National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Bishop Museum with the support of Hawaiian Airlines.


Former Bishop Museum president and CEO Blair Collis who resigned last month, also traveled to New Zealand for the transfer, says he found the spirit of collaboration throughout the journey uplifting.


“It’s not a normal or typical thing to have a museum reach out to another and be so warmly accepted in the idea of being able to bring treasures that are important to our people home,” he said.


Te Papa runs under a bicultural leadership, where a Māori Kaihautū (co-leader) makes decisions jointly with a non-native CEO. On the day before the treasures were packed to travel to Hawai‘i, Kaihautū Arapata Hakiwai met with the delegation from Hawai‘i to plan the ceremonies. Hakiwai stood, smiled and said, “this is a great day,” as it marks a continuing mission to reconcile grievances of the past by returning important items.


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