By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hawaiians and others concerned about the state of cultural objects Ñ whether they're on display in museums or buried in a cave Ñ will gather today for the start of a three-day federal hearing weighing what to do with artifacts in several cases.
But beyond the wrangling over how specific objects should be treated, the heat in these debates arises from a more basic question: Where should these objects be kept and who should make that call?
A review committee meeting today serves as an advisory group in disputes that arise from the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the 15-year-old federal law that extends to native groups a way to reclaim human remains, burial objects and other cultural items housed in federally supported institutions.
In Hawai'i, the institution called on most often to "repatriate" or return such objects to native ownership is the Bishop Museum, which receives federal money and is the largest repository of Native Hawaiian cultural treasures.
Museum officials will be among speakers in these cases; they emphasize that the arguments don't concern the human remains, which everyone agrees should be reburied.
What they concern is the objects, some of which the museum asserts that it owns and should be made available for viewing and study.
The debate traces a sharp divide among Hawaiians, with some saying the objects should belong to Hawaiians, living and dead.
The opposition from one group in particular does not represent the majority view among Hawaiians, said Isabella Abbott, the University of Hawai'i botanist and chairwoman of the museum's collections committee.
"I think it is an aberration," said Abbot, herself a Native Hawaiian. "It's ambition gone wild."
The group she refers to is Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, the nonprofit organization that has been most active in repatriation cases. Its president, Maui resident Charles Maxwell, said most Hawaiians today have been changed by Christianity and Western influences and can't understand the values of the people who created the objects.
"Isabella has let her scientist take over," Maxwell said. "If you listen to what the kupuna say, anything in, around and associated with a grave is kanu (planted). It was meant to be there ... that's the way I was taught by my kupuna."
The repatriation movement has been going on for more than a decade, but it was only in the past five years that it has become burned into the wider consciousness. The precipitating event was the disposition of 83 contested artifacts that in 2000 Hui Malama took on loan from the Bishop Museum and later announced had been reburied in a cave at Kawaihae.
That issue continues to sizzle, and the final case the committee will consider is the Kawaihae repatriation, which, competing claimants charge angrily, was not handled fairly.
Other contested cases have emerged, in which the museum has claimed ownership of objects such as a wooden ki'i, or figure, from Moloka'i. William Brown, museum president and CEO, said he feels confident in the museum's legal analysis of its ownership claim and added that the review committee isn't equipped to make a decision on legal questions.
However, this doesn't mean that the museum wants to deny Native Hawaiians access to the objects, Brown said. The mission is to encourage a greater connection to cultural treasures, either at the museum or in secured loan arrangements.
Legal arguments over ownership may drive such disputes increasingly into federal court. But it's the cultural divide that seems more difficult to bridge.
One hui supporter, Hawaiian scholar and activist Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, said that Hawaiians who believe artifacts belong to the general public have adopted a Western view, that cultural practitioners more intimately schooled in the traditional ways are the more appropriate stewards.
"For the Hawaiians who say that, ask them if they're Christian or not," Kame'eleihiwa said. "That's where the divide is. It's a religious one."
But Abbott and others maintain that there is evidence Ñ scientific as well as cultural Ñ to suggest that not all objects asserted to be funerary items are, in fact, burial objects. Abbott said some are found in circumstances suggesting they had become buried by natural erosion and that they were things used in ordinary living, and not moepu, burial objects.
Charman Akina, another Native Hawaiian on the museum's collections committee, said it was common practice to stow treasured items in burial caves for safekeeping, retrieving them at appropriate times.
Because of introduced insect species and other pests that didn't exist at the time, the caves have become unsafe places for such objects, Abbott and Akina agreed.
"If there are any artifacts mixed in with remains, they should stay with the remains," Akina said. "But other artifacts that have been discovered, the public should be allowed to see these things and learn about them.
"We as Hawaiians no longer have our primary culture," he added. "We need to learn more about our aboriginal beginnings. When artifacts are discovered, a good place for them to go is the museum."
Hui Malama's Maxwell disputed that.
"I hope they're realizing that the intent of people back 200 years when these objects were carved, they believed they belonged to eternity," he said. "That's the ignorance of modern man to treat ancient objects. It was carved for people back then, not for us today."
Akina acknowledged the Hui Malama view, but said one group can't speak for the whole.
"To begin with, NAGPRA really fits for the continental American people, but Hawaiians are not tribal," he said. "I don't see where there is going to be any one organization representing the Hawaiian population ... to me, they can only represent themselves."
Reach Vicki Viotti at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8053.
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