By VALERIE MONSON, Staff Writer
WAILUKU - An eBay auction of a skull claimed to be from an ancient Hawaiian who was buried at Kaanapali long ago was halted Wednesday after outraged Native Hawaiians contacted legal authorities.
"If he (the seller) had proceeded, he would have been in violation of federal law," said Eddie Ayau, coordinator of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna Hawaii Nei, a group that has reburied numerous bones that have been improperly removed over the years. "We are urging him instead to do the right thing and repatriate the remains."
An eBay spokesman could not be reached, but Sara Collins, archaeology branch chief of the State Historic Preservation Division, said the company's senior lawyer immediately responded and was cooperative. Because it's against the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to traffic in such human remains, the matter has been turned over to federal attorneys in California. The seller's hometown was listed on the eBay site as Irvine, Calif.
Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., chairman of the Maui/Lanai Islands Burial Council, said it was not yet known if the seller voluntarily ended the auction of the skull or if eBay authorities pulled it off the online auction site.
"The good thing is that we got it stopped," said Maxwell. "Our main concern is to get it back and bury it where it belongs."
The skull apparently was dug up in 1969 on Kaanapali Beach by the seller, who didn't say whether he was a visitor or a resident at the time. In his pitch to get bidders to start the auction at $1,000, the seller - who was only identified by his eBay tag name of "magicjer" - wrote:
"At the time, the site was being excavated for the development of the Whaler's Village and when a 'field' of battle artifacts and human remains were uncovered, construction was halted while an historical investigation was conducted by the Lahaina Historical Society and the Bishop Museum. . . . Guards were posted at the excavation site to keep out the curious."
But one night, the seller - then a teenager - and some friends, including the son of a famous actor, "decided to sneak over . . . and see what we could find."
"While digging in the sand, we began to uncover an entire skeleton and, of course, I decided to keep the skull. For the last 35 years, I've kept this 200-year-old Hawaiian warrior as a souvenir of my youth, but now it's time to give him up to the highest bidder."
The seller said he would include a notarized certificate of authenticity of "this brave warrior's skull" with the sale.
Several photographs of the skull were also posted on the site.
The seller claimed the skull was from someone involved in a bloody battle that involved King Kamehameha in the 1790s, but both Ayau and Maxwell said no such clash took place there. Both said the skull was almost certainly not that of a warrior who died in battle.
"It was just a regular burial ground," said Maxwell. "Many people lived there. There are numerous sand burials."
However, it appeared the seller was not exaggerating the circumstances of when he found the skull. Ayau said that Whaler's Village officials acknowledged that the complex was completed in 1972 after about a three-year construction phase.
Collins said E-bay had been made aware of NAGPRA regulations and the concerns of Native Hawaiians last year when someone was trying to sell an ulu maika (a small stone used in an ancient game similar to bowling) that came from Kahoolawe.
"Because of our concerns, the senior counsel promptly amended the language of prohibited items (that can be sold on E-bay)," said Collins.
That made it clear that Native Hawaiian remains, gravesite related artifacts and burial items should not be posted, she said.
"That was very helpful to us," she said. "It's fairly easy to find (the prohibition list) and any experienced sellers should know about it, but somehow this sale was announced without knowing it was prohibited."
Hawaiians were alerted to the sale Tuesday by an anthropologist at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., who had seen the auction and knew it was a violation of NAGPRA. Ayau said the anthropologist located the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Web site and sent an e-mail, which triggered a landslide of electronic and telephone communications among Hawaiians.
Maxwell, who has repatriated countless burials, said he was nearly sick to his stomach as he viewed the pictures and read the sensational description.
Ayau said he quickly e-mailed the seller and asked him, without threats, to return the remains for a proper burial.
"I was trying to get this person to cooperate," said Ayau.
The seller did not respond, but when the skull was removed from the E-bay Web site, Ayau wrote back to say he appreciated that and hoped to make arrangements for repatriation.
"It was very hard to not express my anger," said Ayau. "This could have been someone's parent, grandparent, daughter, we don't know. What hurts is that Hawaiians are dehumanized by doing this. That's the bigger issue here."
It could not immediately be determined what penalties the seller might suffer.
Collins said the skull must now be examined for further identification.
"If these are Native Hawaiian remains, they've got to be returned to their rightful place," she said.
Copyright © 2003 — The Maui News