HONOLULU — The human remains of a Native Hawaiian man and woman are being returned to Hawaii after they were taken by a U.S. Air Force airman to his Texas home more than 50 years ago.
The two skulls are now in the possession of the University of Texas at San Antonio but are expected to be handed over to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for reburial on Oahu.
The skulls were apparently found at an undetermined Oahu hotel site eroding near or on the beach sometime between 1940 and 1960, according to the university's Center for Archaeological Research.
Cynthia Munoz, a UTSA archaeologist, said apparently the airman wound up taking the skulls to his home in San Antonio. After the man died, his son found the remains in a box while cleaning out his father's garage, she said, and he donated them to the center last year.
No identifying information or other objects were found with the skulls to help with identification, Munoz said.
The teeth of both individuals are worn, suggesting a diet containing abrasives, which is typical of native remains, she said.
Native Hawaiians traditionally believe that the mana, or spiritual essence and power, of a person resides in their bones, or iwi. For Native Hawaiians it is important for the bones of a deceased person to complete their journey and return to the ground to impart their mana.
Kai Markell, an archaeologist with OHA's Kia'i Kanawai Compliance Enforcement Office, said his office will consult with OHA's Historic Preservation Council and work with the State Historic Preservation Division and the Oahu Island Burial Council in an effort to properly rebury the remains.
The return of native remains by U.S. museums and federal agencies is overseen by the National Park Service under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which aims to protect unmarked graves and requires American institutions to repatriate human skeletal remains to descendants.
Markell said his office handles similar kinds of repatriation efforts once or twice a year.
In August, for example, OHA helped to repatriate 145 kupuna iwi, or ancestral remains, from a London museum following a 23-year effort spearheaded by Hui Malama i na Kupuna o Hawaii Nei.
Hui Malama Executive Director Edward Halealoha Ayau tracked down the remains in the British Natural History Museum in 1990 and then launched a letter-writing campaign and lobbying effort that spanned two decades and resulted in an act of Parliament paving the way for their return home.
After more than a century in museums, the kupuna iwi were reburied last year in Puna and Kona on Hawaii island, Koolaupoko and Kona on Oahu and Moomomi on Molokai.
OHA provided support letters and much of the funding for the London repatriation effort.
Notice of the UTSA's "inventory of human remains" was listed on the Jan. 8 meeting agenda of the Oahu Island Burial Council. No action was taken by the board because the notice indicated OHA was being consulted, said Deborah Ward of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
UTSA's Munoz said no other claims to transfer control of the remains were received from any potential descendants or from representatives of any other Native Hawaiian organizations other than OHA.