Kona man is charged in grave robbery case

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Saturday, March 18, 2006

By Mary Vorsino

A Kailua-Kona man was charged yesterday with taking native Hawaiian artifacts from a Big Island cave that turned up on the black market, becoming the first person in the state prosecuted under the federal Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act.

John Carta, who appeared yesterday before U.S. Magistrate Barry Kurren, faces up to one year in prison if convicted of the misdemeanor. He was granted supervised release after posting a $10,000 bond.

The artifacts in Kanupa Cave came from the J.S. Emerson collection and were repatriated to the cave from the Bishop Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., by native Hawaiian group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Nei.

According to a criminal complaint unsealed yesterday, Carta and a second, unidentified person entered the Kanupa Cave in June 2004.

"John Carta found and removed items from Kanupa Cave that he knew had previously belonged to the ... J.S. Emerson collection," U.S. Department of the Interior Special Agent Dean Tsukada said in a signed affidavit. "Carta believed that these artifacts recently had been reburied in the cave."

In August 2004 a Star-Bulletin reporter found that Kanupa Cave had been reopened after being sealed with boulders in a repatriation ceremony.

The Star-Bulletin also reported that U.S. Department of Interior agents were investigating accounts of artifacts recognizable as part of the J.S. Emerson collection being offered to Big Island antique shops.

U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo declined yesterday to comment on the trafficking allegations or Carta's case.

Hui Malama, which was formed in 1989 to repatriate native Hawaiian artifacts to burial sites, also would not comment.

The charge against Carta comes as Hui Malama is embroiled in a lawsuit over how the group has repatriated artifacts and human remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Fourteen native Hawaiian groups have staked claims on items Hui Malama has repatriated in caves across the state.

One of the claimants, Laakea Suganuma of the Royal Academy of Traditional Arts, said yesterday that the black market for native Hawaiian artifacts has been booming for years.

"I hope this is the beginning of a long string of people who need to be investigated," Suganuma said. "I think this is just fair warning that this kind of activity must cease. These things are precious and they belong to the people. They should not be sold on the market."

He also said that although grave-robbers are criminally responsible for their behavior, Hui Malama has a "cultural responsibility" to protect the native Hawaiian artifacts it has repatriated.

"They failed in their responsibility," Suganuma said. "How many other things have been redeposited and are gone? Spiritually, there's a level of responsibility. It's covered under another set of laws."

Under the conditions of his release, Carta is not allowed to "possess or obtain" any native Hawaiian artifacts. He is also prohibited from entering any caves on the Big Island, Kurren said.

Carta's preliminary hearing is set for 10 a.m. April 6 before Kurren.

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