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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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 Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u

Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


Despite the thousands of miles of ocean between them, there are many parallels between Māori and Hawaiians, with commonalities in language and tradition, that includes stories of Maui pulling different islands from the sea floor.  “We Māori and Hawaiians are beginning to bridge both worlds, in the spirit of self-determination and independent governance,” Crabbe says.


Marques Hanalei Marzan is a cultural resources specialist who has worked for Bishop Museum for 14 years and made the journey to New Zealand. 


“Te Papa has been at the forefront of that idea of proactive returning things to their appropriate homes and people,” Marzan says, “but this is the first time that they are sending something other than their Māori cultural things back to their tribal homelands.” 


Te Papa officials have said they don’t intend to bring back the items to New Zealand, even though they are considered a long-term loan. But Marzan explained it will take time to make that official because “the cloak and helmet is a high-value asset to their institution, they can’t just willingly give it away.” 


That spirit of repatriation has Bishop Museum examining its own collections to determine if any Māori artifacts should be sent back to Te Papa in the spirit of returning items to their homeland.


Marzan says there’s no simple swap for these rare items: “We tried to look through our collections to see what could be an appropriate thing to return in exchange but there’s nothing as significant as those two pieces in our collection that has the same kind of weight and gravity.”


Of course, the delegation did not come empty-handed. Marzan is also a Hawaiian fiber artist, so he expressed his thanks by weaving a traditional fan as a gift to Te Papa with the design of the cloak woven into the handle. 


 Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u

RARE HULA: This dramatic shark hula pahu celebrates the prowess of Kalani‘ōpu‘u and may not have been performed for 200 years.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 

The return culminated in two formal presentations: The first at Te Papa in a Māori pōwhiri (ritual ceremony of encounter) began the historic journey, while the formal ceremony at Bishop Museum capped it on March 17. 


In between, Hawaiian Airlines made special arrangements to carefully transport the crates, helping to safeguard them on the journey, even placing them in a section of the cargo hold where the temperature would not dip lower than 70 degrees.


At Bishop Museum, the audience of invited guests was dominated by Hawaiian societies, leaders of the ali‘i trusts, as well as OHA, and included performances, chants, songs, speeches and hula performed by some of the most acclaimed hālau in the state: including Mapuana de Silva, Victoria Holt Takamine and kumu hula Snowbird Bento and the men of Ka Pā Hula o Ka Lei Lehua, who performed a dramatic shark hula pahu (drum) that celebrates the military prowess of Kalani‘ōpu‘u. Organizers said this may have been the first performance of this hula in 200 years.


For many, the items are symbols of rebirth and reconnection to the first Hawaiian sovereign to begin international relations. Even the size of the large cloak hints at the powerful leader who once wore it. Crabbe says: “He gives us great inspiration to strive to be bold and courageous.” Crabbe believes  Kalani‘ōpu‘u would approve of his gifts’ return as something for all to treasure: “all, not only Native Hawaiians, in uplifting not only our heritage but the history of these Islands.”


Robert Lindsey made the journey as the chair of the trustees of OHA, the driving force behind the return. He’s also a lineal descendant of Kalani‘ōpu‘u.


At Te Papa, Lindsey explained the special value to Hawai‘i’s first people of royal garments which contain Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s spiritual, political and cultural mana and represent a time when others saw Hawai‘i as isolated from the rest of the world. 


“When Capt. James Cook touched upon our shores in 1778, he altered our world. When Kalani‘ōpu‘u gifted Cook this feathered cloak and feathered helmet in a demonstration of goodwill in 1779, little did he know that he was thrusting us into a new time, a time of great change,” Lindsey said. “We went from isolation to globalization. When as a sovereign country and people we would move from a culture and economy based on fiber, stone and subsistence to one based on iron, competition and consumerism.”


OHA community engagement director Mehanaokalā Hind, who is also a lineal descendant of Kalani‘ōpu‘u, sees the treasures as symbols of hope. 


She was inspired by UH Hilo associate professor Hiapo Perreira, who challenged those gathered in Hawaiian: “Now that they’re home, what are we going to do as a people? If we don’t do anything, then that’s just a hat and a cape.”


Hind feels the swell of excitement, the shares on Facebook and Instagram, and the opportunity, sees people building on the inspiration of these cultural items: “They’re making ‘ahu ‘ula, they’re studying genealogy, people are chanting.”


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