Court halts removal of Hawaiian items

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

By Leila Fujimori

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday suspended a federal judge's order to have 83 native Hawaiian objects dug up from a Big Island cave and returned to the Bishop Museum by Friday.

The appeals court will hear arguments on the judge's order in December.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawaii Nei's attorney, Alan Murakami, said the decision was a great relief to the group. "What would have had to happen would have been really major," he said, adding that it would have been impossible to have removed all the items from what is known as Forbes Cave by Friday.

On Sept. 7, U.S. District Judge David Ezra ordered Hui Malama to return the buried items by Friday. They were to be held by Bishop Museum until 14 native Hawaiian claimants can decide on their disposition.

Hui Malama contends the objects are moepu (funerary objects) and the group must honor the wishes of the kupuna (elders) who put them there. But others contend most items are not funerary items and were kept in a cave for safekeeping and should be returned to the rightful parties.

In 1905, three men, including David Forbes, discovered the items and sold them to the Bishop Museum.

Last month, Laakea Suganuma, an expert in the Hawaiian martial art of lua, or "bone breaking," and Abigail Kawananakoa, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, filed a federal lawsuit against Bishop Museum and Hui Malama, a group formed in 1988 to repatriate native Hawaiian remains and funerary objects from museums and when discovered elsewhere, such as construction sites.

They said Hui Malama's decision to rebury the objects ignored other native Hawaiian claimants' rights and violated the museum's loan policies and procedures of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (a federal law governing the repatriation of native Hawaiian and American Indian remains and artifacts from museums to indigenous peoples).

Suganuma said the 9th Circuit Court's order was not a judgment on "who is right and who is wrong," rather, "it's just buying a couple of months of time.

"Perhaps because of the controversial nature of the case, they took a conservative opinion," he said.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, director of Hui Malama, said that while the group is pleased, "what still remains is that there is a pending case that seeks to cause the removal of moepu from the kupuna themselves, and until that case is resolved and any efforts to disturb them, they've lost.

"We cannot truly be happy about the situation," he said. "There's a long road ahead."

LindaLee Farm, attorney for Bishop Museum, refrained from commenting on the portion of the order that halted the return of the cave items, but did appreciate that the order expedites the scheduled briefing.

In court papers last week, Bishop Museum supported the retrieval of the items and its director said the museum's previous administration had erred in making the loan.

In a written statement, Kawananakoa said: "We are gratified by the 9th Circuit Court's decision to expedite the appeal of the injunction order. The court's decision to schedule the hearing for the first week of December -- the earliest possible date -- recognizes the importance of this case to the people of Hawaii."

Suganuma stressed the importance of stepped-up security because of the possible danger of a break-in at the cave.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei

Bishop Museum

U.S. Interior Dept. -NAGPRA

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