Museum returns remains to Tonga
The Hawaii collection included a princess from about 1400
The remains of Princess Fatafehi, the daughter of a royal dynasty that ruled Tonga more than 600 years ago, will return home today after 85 years at the Bishop Museum.
Along with the princess, the remains of about 20 other individuals from Tongan burial sites will be escorted home by a delegation of high Tongan officials and Maile Drake, the museum's cultural collections manager, who is also Tongan.
"This is a great and right thing to do," said Drake. "In the Tongan way, they are still people. They are mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters -- all returning home in dignity."
Each set of remains has been carefully wrapped in tapa supplied by women in the Tongan community here.
"I believe, as many Tongans believe, that when people die they live on in spirit, and we connect to them in our own way," Drake said.
Princess Fatafehi probably lived in the 1300s or 1400s. Hers could be the oldest known remains of Tongan royalty.
Betty Kam, the museum's vice president of cultural collections, said that while the museum has repatriated hundreds of native Hawaiian remains, this is the first time Tonga has received repatriation.
"There were no precedents or protocols for doing this," Kam said. "We all feel the ancestors need to go back, and it's nice to all be in agreement. There's this joyful feeling among the staff and the delegation."
At Drake's direction, Kam wrote to King Taufaahau Topou IV more than a year ago to tell him that the museum had the remains in its possession and wanted advice on how best to go about returning them.
The delegation arrived from Tonga last week. They will consult with the king upon their return about the final disposition.
The remains were found as part of a large expedition to Tonga in 1920 and 1921. The Bishop Museum was the center of Pacific study at the time, Kam said. Museum staff were on the Bayard Dominick Expedition with other anthropologists and conducted an excavation with the permission of the queen and the participation of Tongans. The anthropologists studied burial sites and food remains in kitchen areas to determine the local diet.
Drake said they were given permission to excavate two known but long-abandoned "langi," or chiefly burial sites, believed to be the oldest in Tonga. One stone vault was empty and the other contained the princess.
With the permission of Tongan officials, Drake said, the bones were brought back to Bishop Museum, where they were studied and cataloged but not displayed.