Artifacts' sale investigated

Federal agents say that several items returned to a Hawaiian group were offered to collectors

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Wednesday, August 11, 2004

By Sally Apgar

Federal agents are investigating the alleged black market trafficking of valuable Hawaiian artifacts that Bishop Museum had turned over to a native Hawaiian group, according to several sources close to the ongoing probe.

Federal investigators said the artifacts, which include several water gourds, at least one priceless hand-carved bowl and pieces of burial kapa from the well-known J.S. Emerson collection, were secretly offered for sale within the past few weeks to private collectors and at least one antique dealer on the Big Island.

Federal agents with the U.S. Department of the Interior declined to identify suspects to the Star-Bulletin.

Over the past seven years, the allegedly stolen artifacts had been repatriated, or legally transfered, to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei. Hui Malama is a native Hawaiian organization founded in 1989 for the purpose of repatriating human remains and other artifacts and reburying them in burial caves in accordance with ancient ancestors.

The objects from the Bishop Museum had been sold to the museum in the late 1880s by Emerson and repatriated to Hui Malama in 1997. The investigation also includes possible items linked to the Peabody Museum in Salem, Mass., that were sold by Emerson in 1907, and repatriated to Hui Malama, with the help of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, in 2003.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, spokesman for Hui Malama, did not return telephone calls yesterday for comment. In the past, Ayau has said that items repatriated from the museum were sealed and hidden in burial caves.

The sale of such artifacts is illegal under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was established so that native Americans and Hawaiians could have a procedure for recovering human remains and sacred objects on display in museums.

"We are conducting an investigation into the trafficking of Hawaiian artifacts," confirmed Michael Kingsley, an assistant special agent in charge of the regional office in Sacramento, Calif., for the Interior Department, the federal agency that oversees NAGPRA.

Kingsley would not name suspects or describe the extent of the black market trafficking.

"We are conducting an investigation, and we're going to the end of where this investigation takes us," he said.

Bishop Museum Director Bill Brown said yesterday, "This is a critical moment to remember the great significance of Hawaiian cultural heritage and to reflect on what stewardship that heritage genuinely requires."

DeSoto Brown, a Hawaiian, scholar and collection manager of the museum's archives, was more blunt: "This is why we have museums: to preserve, safeguard, and keep valuable artifacts. Additionally, when artifacts are in museums, others can see them and have access to appropriate levels and learn.

"It's unrealistic to say that it's in the cave where the ancient Hawaiians wanted and that therefore we've done right and it's all finished," DeSoto Brown added. "The items in cave are subject to natural deterioration, which I know is what Hui Malama said should be their fate. But people can get into those caves and take things and they are not safe. This case brings this point into the open; the caves are not safe."

The investigation into black market trafficking comes at a time of bitter debate at the museum over who should be in charge of such remains and artifacts.

In 1990, NAGPRA was passed so that human remains and artifacts that had shown up for centuries in museums' display cases would be handed back to native American tribes and native Hawaiians.

DeSoto Brown, who is not related to the museum's director, said that even 50 years ago native Hawaiians did not openly question Bishop Museum's right to having human remains and sacred objects in its collection for safekeeping and study.

The museum was founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop as a memorial to his wife, Princess Pauahi Bishop, the last of the Kamehameha line of ruling chiefs. The princess and other alii wanted the museum to safeguard items so that future generations could know their heritage. The museum's core collections included items owned by Pauahi, Princess Ruth Keelikolani, Queen Emma and Queen Liliuokalani.

DeSoto Brown said there's been such a re-emergence of pride among Hawaiians that the staff felt shame, not pride, in having preserved bones, artifacts and history. "Acting in atonement," the staff repatriated many items over the last 14 years, he said.

But in 2004, museum Director Bill Brown said he determined that the museum had its own place in deciding what items would stay in the museum for the study of future generations and what would be hidden in burial caves.

In a controversial decision last month, the museum's board announced an "interim guidance policy" that said it was a native Hawaiian organization, owing to its founding mission, just like Hui Malama or any other Native Hawaiian organization.

Hui Malama has fought the museum's policy as an act of "institutionalized racism" that says Hawaiians cannot take care of their own ancestors.

Hui Malama has said that making the museum a native Hawaiian organization defeats the intent of NAGPRA and lays open many opportunities for abuse by the museum.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei

Bishop Museum

U.S. Interior Dept. -NAGPRA

© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --

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