By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hawaiians with a claim on the 83 artifacts reburied in a Big Island cave yesterday urged a federal committee to assert once again that the reinterment was premature and violated the spirit of a law that is supposed to treat claimants fairly.
After witnessing a sharp split in the Hawaiian community on this issue, that committee today will decide whether to act or leave it for a court to decide who owns those cultural objects.
The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act is the federal law that gives Native Hawaiian organizations a way to reclaim ownership of funerary remains and objects and some other cultural treasures held by federal agencies and federally funded museums.
Various disputes have been brought before the committee for resolution before the five-member panel adjourns today. However, none have caused the uproar of the "Forbes Cave" case, in which 83 artifacts from the Bishop Museum's Forbes collection were considered for repatriation, or ownership transfer, to Hawaiians.
Almost five years ago, the group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, one of the 13 claimants for the objects, signed the objects out for a one-year loan from the museum. Rather than return them, the group quickly reported that the artifacts had been reburied in the Kawaihae cave from which, a century earlier, the Forbes expedition had taken them.
Group members Ñ especially the leader, Edward Halealoha Ayau, who signed the loan agreement Ñ were taken to task yesterday by other claimants who said they were cut out of the process.
La'akea Suganuma, spokesman for one of the claimants, the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, recapped the developments of the past two years, in which the federal committee found that the repatriation had been flawed and that the loan should be recalled. It was a finding later put on hold until the issue could be reheard in Hawai'i.
"The question is, did proper and legal repatriation take place?" Suganuma said, and then listed all the claimants whose answer over the years has been "no."
"Many, many others in our community, both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians, say 'no,' " he added. "What does this committee say?"
Ayau acknowledged that "some may disagree with what we did," but maintained that "we didn't create this problem, we inherited it."
The items should not have been stolen to begin with, he said, and the loan was initiated by museum officials, not the hui, as a way to "facilitate repatriation." The hui has argued that museum officials declared during the loan period that the ownership of the objects had been conveyed to all 13 claimants, and that this ended the terms of the loan.
He and other Hui Malama members pointed out that the reburial was undertaken to right the century-old wrong of the Forbes expedition that "looted" the cave; hui member William Aila described the expedition as "thieves" and the museum officials at the turn of the century as "fences" who knew they were stolen.
"We were trained to believe that nothing good comes from stealing from the dead," Ayau said. Committee members, however, pressed Ayau on the particulars of the loan. When asked if he signed the loan with the concurrence of the other claimants, he said he believed they agreed with the idea of reburial, that concerns over security of the objects in the cave was the sticking point.
When asked whether he would have returned the items if the museum had asked, he conceded that he would not.
Others claimants made it clear they did not agree to the terms.
"How can one claimant make the removal decision for the other claimants and not be held responsible?" said Emalia Keohokalole, who appeared with her two brothers before the committee.
The NAGPRA controversies have drawn a widening circle of Hawaiian families and organizations into the fray, including a new group founded by Abigail Kawananakoa, who asserts her descent "from all the ruling chiefs of every major island" with ties to the artifact sites in dispute.
Her employee, Lopaka Mansfield, read her written testimony that the committee seems to "endorse the notion that NAGPRA permits the use of a fraudulent scheme to acquire Hawaiian cultural artifacts.
"I wonder whether this would be the committee's position if the artifacts were those of another indigenous people," she wrote.
The schism that divided opinion on the basic issues was noted by committee member Garrick Bailey, a cultural anthropologist by profession. He acknowledged that the law does not work so smoothly in the absence of a centralized authority such as those governing tribes.
"The law doesn't even work that well with the eastern tribes," he said. "And it's even more of a disaster with the Hawaiians."
Reach Vicki Viotti at email@example.com or 525-8053.
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