Man charged in artifact trafficking

Honolulu Advertiser
Saturday, March 18, 2006

By Ken Kobayashi and Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writers


Late 1800s, early 1900s: Joseph Swift Emerson collects about 40 cultural objects from Kanupa Cave on the Kohala side of the Big Island. They are made part of the Emerson Collection, which is later divided and sold to the Bishop Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

1990: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the federal law commonly known as NAGPRA, takes effect, setting up a process for returning remains, burial objects and other cultural treasures to indigenous groups.

1997: Under NAGPRA rules, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei receives custody of the Emerson artifacts that had been in the Bishop Museum.

2001: The first set of Emerson Collection objects housed by the Essex Museum is handed over to Hui Malama. A second set is repatriated in 2003.

November 2003: Hui Malama reburies the items, about 40 in all, in Kanupa Cave.

August 2004: Hui Malama reports a break-in to authorities.

August 2005: In a separate case, two Native Hawaiian groups Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa and the Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts sue Bishop Museum and Hui Malama, seeking the return of 83 cultural objects from the Big Island's so-called Kawaihae or Forbes Cave. Hui Malama officials maintain they buried the objects and consider the matter closed, but other groups claim that Hui Malama's actions denied them a say in the final disposition of the items, which range from carved wooden statuettes of family gods, or 'aumakua, to gourds decorated with human teeth, and pieces of feather capes. The case is ongoing.

Yesterday: Federal authorities charge John Carta for allegedly trafficking Native Hawaiian objects, which he and an unnamed individual allegedly took from Kanupa Cave.

More than a year and a half after Hawaiian artifacts were plundered from a South Kohala burial cave, federal prosecutors yesterday filed the first criminal charge, accusing a man of taking the objects knowing they would be sold for profit.

A misdemeanor charge against John Carta of the Big Island is the first here involving Hawaiian cultural objects that had been reburied under the federal Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act.

Carta is charged with transporting, for sale and profit, cultural items obtained in violation of the federal law.

Federal authorities opened the investigation, which they say is ongoing, after the artifacts were found for sale at a Big Island shop in June 2004. No arrests or charges had been brought until yesterday.

Carta is accused of going to Kanupa Cave with another individual who was not named in court papers. Carta took the cultural objects from the site sometime before June 16, 2004, knowing that they recently had been reburied, court papers state.

Carta was arrested Thursday on the Big Island and appeared briefly yesterday before federal Magistrate Barry Kurren, who approved his release on a $10,000 signature bond to reside with his daughter in Kona.

Handcuffed and wearing an aloha shirt, Carta said little during the hearing, except to confirm that he reviewed the indictment and understood the charge.

His court-appointed lawyer, Rustam Barbee, later said that it's too early to say what the defense will be. "Mr. Carta is presumed to be not guilty by the laws of the United States and he'll have his day in court," Barbee said.

The charge of violating the federal law protecting the cultural artifacts carries a jail term of up to a year.

U.S. Attorney Ed Kubo declined to discuss Carta's case, the number of items allegedly taken or details on how they were taken.

But federal prosecutors are working on the prosecution of a second man. The case remains confidential, but First Assistant Federal Public Defender Alexander Silvert, who represents the man, said his client has been "fully cooperative with law enforcement."

The sale of artifacts from a cave that was supposed to be secure from intruders was disturbing to Native Hawaiian groups and helped fuel the controversy in a separate federal civil case over artifacts reburied in another Big Island cave, in Kawaihae.

In both cases, the artifacts were reburied by Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, an organization dedicated to overseeing the perpetual care of Native Hawaiian remains and burial items.

The issue of whether burial artifacts should be returned to burial caves or placed in museums has generated acrimonious debate recently. Abigail Kawananakoa, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, along with a group known as the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, sued Bishop Museum and Hui Malama, charging that they and other groups had not agreed to the repatriation of 83 cultural objects in Kawaihae Cave.

The case is still pending.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, executive director of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, said yesterday that he was pleased with the arrest. "We have faith that federal investigators did their job and we look forward to a successful prosecution," Ayau said.

"Through NAGPRA, we are the legal owners of these items," Ayau said. "When this prosecution is completed, those items must be returned to us."

The investigation amounted to "trying" times for Hui Malama members, Ayau said, because federal authorities gave them no information about the items.

Federal authorities cited the ongoing investigation for not disclosing the information.

Ayau said: "We understand that; we don't want to compromise their investigation. But at the same time, we are the owners of sensitive burial items. We would have hoped for at least some kind of explanation as to where the items are being kept, what items they were able to retrieve, what items they were not able to retrieve."

Even as activists praised the federal case, they took the opportunity to criticize the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the attorney general's office for not investigating the break-in.

Kanupa is "a burial cave in an historic site located on state property," Ayau said.

The state, he said, should be investigating violations of disturbance of a burial cave, looting and trespassing. "Those are state law violations," he said, adding that NAGPRA provisions pertain only to trafficking of the items.

Kawananakoa agreed with Ayau that the state should have done more in the Kanupa case.

In a brief statement, Kawananakoa said: "I hope that Gov. Lingle will take note that federal intervention was required to carry out the duties of DLNR."

Attorney General Mark Bennett said the state made a decision to allow the federal investigation to proceed first and to cooperate with that effort. "We do not have the ability, given our double jeopardy laws, essentially to prosecute the same people for the same crimes that the federal government does," he said.

When the federal investigation is complete, however, "we are going to review all of the facts and make a determination as to whether or not to have other types of prosecution," he said.

La'akea Suganuma, head of the Royal Hawaiian Academy, said the Kanupa case underscores the need for culturally valuable items to be held in museums for safekeeping.

"These things were safe until they were taken and allegedly reburied and sealed in a cave, and then showed upon the black market," Suganuma said. "These things need to be in a safe environment."

Hui Malama's Ayau said that "under the circumstances, that's fair criticism coming from people who don't do reburials."

"For us," he said, "it's a lesson learned that when we do reburials of this nature, we have to seal them in a manner that will prevent looting that can happen."

Reach Ken Kobayashi at and Gordon Y.K. Pang at

© COPYRIGHT 2006 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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