Hawaiian group says court fails in dispute

Hui Malama believes federal judges do not understand traditions and cannot rule fairly

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Saturday, Dec. 17, 2005

By Sally Apgar

A native Hawaiian group decried yesterday that "deeply felt cultural issues" involving 83 artifacts reburied on the Big Island are being decided "in a Western court" that has no understanding of Hawaiian traditions.

Pualani Kanahele, a founding member of the group, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, said the escalating dispute over the artifacts has pitted "Hawaiians against Hawaiians and, sadly, even family against family."

At an emotionally charged press conference held yesterday at the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii, Hui Malama, a group founded in 1988 to repatriate and rebury Hawaiian bones and artifacts from museums and construction sites, presented its side in an ongoing legal dispute in federal court.

Charles Maxwell, another member of Hui Malama, said, "Federal law does not give Hawaiians justice. It is difficult for Hawaiians to get justice in their own land."

Hui Malama supporters talked passionately about topics ranging from demanding the resignation of Bill Brown, president of the Bishop Museum, who they said started the battle over the Kawaihae cave items, to a unanimous declaration from the directors of Hui Malama that it would no longer "give answers or information" to reporters or editors of the Star-Bulletin "because of past treatment."

Edward Halealoha Ayau of Hui Malama said, "We are in a Western court of law trying to explain to Western-trained judges and lawyers our deeply felt cultural values. We are in an inappropriate forum."

The long-standing dispute over the artifacts spilled into federal court in August when two of the 14 claimants to the artifacts filed a lawsuit asking that the 83 items be retrieved from the cave so that the claimants could review them and decide their final resting place.

On Sept. 7, U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra ordered the physical retrieval of the items so that other claimants could review the artifacts in the course of deciding their final disposition.

Earlier this week, a three-judge panel at the 9th Circuit upheld Ezra's order.

Hui Malama argued against retrieval, saying that retrieving the items would desecrate a sacred burial cave and thereby violate their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Yesterday, Alan Murakami, an attorney with Native Legal Hawaiian Corp. who is representing Hui Malama, said that he will soon file a motion in Ezra's court "to give a full picture" of the case. Murakami said that there are three issues Ezra needs to understand.

First, he said that a mason who helped bury the items has said that anyone entering the cave will need to use jackhammers to penetrate the cement and rebar securing the cave from grave robbers. The mason, George Fields, said in a court statement that the cave could collapse.

Second, Hui Malama says that it has a majority, or seven of 13 claimants, arguing that the items should not be retrieved from the cave.

However, Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kawananakoa, one of two claimants filing the lawsuit, says there are 14 claimants, and therefore seven is not a majority, but a deadlock. Kawananakoa was recognized by the Bishop Museum as a claimant.

Hui Malama also intends to argue that the court needs to review new evidence about what a federal committee charged with making recommendations about repatriations has said about the Kawaihae case.

At the press conference, Hawaiian-studies professor Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa said in part the dispute "has to do with the divide between Hawaiians following traditional practices" and those Hawaiians "who are so colonized and Westernized that they no longer know how to take care of their kupuna."

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