Panel to hear artifacts dispute

A national advisory committee is in town to help settle thorny repatriation issues

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Sunday, March 13, 2005

By Sally Apgar
sapgar@starbulletin.com

A national review committee will spend the next three days in Honolulu hearing testimony to help decide several controversial issues involving the repatriation, ownership and disposition of some highly valued native Hawaiian artifacts.

The review committee has only advisory power in such disputes under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was enacted to set up a procedure for artifacts and human remains in museum collections to be returned to Native American and native Hawaiian claimants.

The three-day hearing, which begins this afternoon at the East-West Center on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus, will bring together representatives of the Bishop Museum, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and various native Hawaiian groups who have been at odds over the repatriation of items from the Kawaihae, or Forbes, cave on the Big Island and some artifacts originally found on Molokai. Many of the items are highly prized among some native Hawaiians for the mana, or spiritual power, they are believed to possess.

Of the four disputes that will be heard, Kawaihae is perhaps the most long-standing and bitter.

In February 1990, Bishop Museum crated 83 artifacts from its collection that were collected from Kawaihae cave in 1905 and handed them over to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, a group founded in 1989 to repatriate human remains and artifacts and rebury them to honor ancestors.

The inventory list accompanying the crate labeled the transaction "a one-year loan." The items were never returned despite repeated requests from the museum.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, a spokesperson for Hui Malama, has said the items were reburied. Ayau has repeatedly said the organization never meant to return them, the museum staff knew that and the repatriation is final.

La'akea Suganuma, who represents the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, questions the "loan" of the Kawaihae cave artifacts.

The dispute with Suganuma's group and the Bishop Museum arose because another 12 claimants said they wanted to review the repatriation, and some of those claimants wanted the items returned. Ayau has repeatedly said that if there is any dispute among the 13 "owners," it should be resolved in court, not by NAGPRA.

The NAGPRA review committee heard the dispute at a meeting in May 2003 in St. Paul, Minn. The committee found in a 6-to-1 decision that the repatriation was "flawed" and "incomplete." It said the museum was still responsible for the repatriation and therefore recommended that it renew the consultation with all claimants, recall the loan and have the items made available to all claimants.

Since the May 2003 decision, the review committee's membership has partly changed, and last fall members voted to rehear the case in Honolulu. The lone dissenting vote in St. Paul, Rosita Worl, is now chairwoman of the review committee.

Worl, who was traveling, could not be reached for comment.

Suganuma alleges favoritism among some review committee members.

"There are political alignments between Hui Malama and some on the board. People have orchestrated and fabricated reasons for rehearing a case that was already decided, with the intent of reversing the decision. It's a total travesty," Suganuma said.

Ayau could not be reached for comment.

Dr. Charman Akina, a member of the museum's collections committee, said, "Most aboriginal culture has been lost, and what remains is in the Bishop Museum. When it comes to artifacts, not human remains (which should be reburied), they should be available for the public to see."

Akina added, "Some of the organizations that have gotten involved with these issues have become more emotional than realistic. And they are not looking at the needs of the general native Hawaiian population."

Akina also voiced the opinion that NAGPRA's definitions for different classifications of artifacts that determine repatriation and ownership are useful to Native Americans, who have tribes and tribal governments, but do not fit with native Hawaiian culture.

The review committee will also hear disputes involving:

Hui Malama and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park over five items from Kawaihae cave that reside in the park's collection.

Ayau has said he has written three claims for the items since November 1999 and that they have been ignored.

The five items are: a 27-inch-high carved wooden statue of a woman, a konane game board with legs made of carved wooden figures; a cutting tool that incorporates a human collar bone and a shark's tooth; a gourd with a shell stopper and a button.

At least one other claimant, Suganuma, has filed a claim for the same items.

Hui Malama and the Bishop Museum over artifacts found in burial sands of Moomomi Beach on Molokai and later donated to the museum.

The items include: a hook-shaped pendant about 5 inches long; a cowrie shell and a kii, an 8-inch stick figure with human face carved in a dark wood. The kii and pendant in particular are considered by some to be imbued with strong spiritual powers.

Hui Malama contends that the museum got the items from "grave robbers" and therefore has no legal "right of possession." The museum disagrees.

Hui Malama and Bishop Museum over footprints in three sandstone blocks that were found on Molokai, put into the museum's collection and then recently restored to the beach and placed in a structure so that they can be viewed.

The story of the footprints stems from a prophecy made by a young woman, Kuuna, several hundred years ago. She drew footprints in the sand of square-toed boots and said that foreigners would arrive who make such footprints rather than the barefoot prints of her people. She said the foreigners would hurt Hawaiians. Afraid of her prophecy, people stoned her to death.

The museum has retained legal ownership to the footprints, arguing that they are items of "cultural patrimony" under NAGPRA, meaning they belong to all native Hawaiians and not a particular group. The museum argues the items should be on display for the education of current and future generations.

Hui Malama claims that current museum director William Brown struck a private agreement with another native Hawaiian group that nullified an earlier NAGPRA finding under the museum's previous administration.

Hui Malama claims it has legal ownership.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei

Bishop Museum

U.S. Interior Dept. -NAGPRA

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