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Feather cloak and helmet gifted to Captain Cook to return permanently to Hawai‘i

The ʻahu ʻula (feather cloak). Photo / Te Papa

An ʻahu ʻula (feather cloak) and mahiole (feather helmet) gifted to Captain Cook in 1779 are being permanently returned to Hawaiʻi by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

These cherished items were gifts from Hawaiian Chief Kalani‘ōpu‘u to Captain James Cook and have been in Te Papa’s collection since being gifted to the museum in 1912.

In March 2016, the items returned to Hawaiʻi to Bishop Museum in Honolulu on long-term loan. Today it was confirmed that the ‘ahu ʻula and mahiole will remain in Hawaiʻi in perpetuity, being held in trust for the people of Hawai‘i by Bishop Museum.

These stunning feather garments are among the most significant cultural treasures in Hawaiian society, and have an incredible story to tell about the history of the Pacific.

This historic repatriation is the result of a close partnership between the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. It is also supported by the descendants of Lord St Oswald, who donated the items to New Zealand’s Dominion Museum in 1912.

Arapata Hakiwai, Kaihautū (Māori co-leader) of Te Papa, said it was an honour to be able to return these taonga permanently to the people of Hawai‘i.

“These priceless treasures have so much to tell us about our shared Pacific history. We are honoured to be able to return them home, to reconnect them with their land and their people,” said Dr Hakiwai.

“Woven into these taonga is the story of our Pacific history, with all its beauty, challenges and complexity. When I see these treasures, I’m reminded about the whakatauki or proverb, ‘He Toi Whakairo, He Mana Tangata’: ‘Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity.’

“Te Papa was founded on the principle of Mana Taonga, which recognises the deep connections of taonga to their source communities. Returning these taonga to Hawai‘i is a powerful example of that principle in action.”

Te Papa Kaihautū Arapata Hakiwai speaks at the ceremony to return the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole, 2016. The cloak lies flat while a replica is draped on a mannequin. Photo / Te Papa

“For nearly 250 years, these mea makamae (cultural treasures) have been abroad, illustrating the amazing story of our kūpuna (ancestors) and their superlative craftsmanship,” said OHA Ka Pouhana (Chief Executive Officer) Sylvia Hussey.

“We were honoured to be part of the effort to permanently return these beloved items home, where they will continue to inspire future generations of Native Hawaiians. We extend a warm mahalo (thanks) to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Bishop Museum, former OHA CEO Kamanaʻopono Crabbe, and all of those, past and present, who made this possible.”

“After more than a century in Te Papa’s care, we are humbled to accept the kuleana (responsibility) of caring for the ʻahu ʻula and mahiole of Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Together with our partners at OHA and members of our community, we have witnessed these precious pieces of our cultural heritage return home,” said President and CEO of Bishop Museum Melanie Y. Ide.

“With their extraordinary presence, they give the people of Hawai‘i a tangible connection to the past, and to ancestors whose mana remain strongly rooted. The impact of this gift will be felt for generations, and we will honor Te Papa’s inspirational act of leadership and generosity with our commitment to strengthen the kinship between our peoples and institutions. We offer our deepest gratitude and aloha to our friends in Aotearoa, and look forward to all that we will do together as a Pacific community.”

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

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