Moepu are not for our eyes to see

Honolulu Advertiser
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

Mai lawe wale i na mea i ho'omoepu 'ia
— Don't want only take things placed with the dead.

That saying is included with the definition of "moepu" in Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert's "Hawaiian Dictionary." The idea of leaving burial items undisturbed is inherent to the meaning of moepu. They were not meant for our eyes or for our world.

In every culture, not just that of ancient Hawaiians, items left in the resting place of a loved one are sacred.

Can you imagine war medals being dug up from Punchbowl and put on display for school kids to see? The mere suggestion is stomach-turning and ire-provoking. Those medals belong where they are.

The items taken from burial caves in Kawaihae are no different.

These items do not belong to everyone. They don't even belong to all Hawaiians or the keiki of the future. They belong to the people who were buried in that cave. Their direct descendants may have a claim to the pieces, but if their ancestors wanted them to have these things, they probably wouldn't have buried them. They would have passed these pieces down with instructions to keep them in the family.

There are federal laws, and then there's what's right. Hui Malama i na Kupuna o Hawai'i Nei may have acted outside the American structure of property law, but they were acting on a belief of what is pono. Taking belongings from the cave again after they were returned hardly seems pono. Three wrongs don't make a right.

There are federal laws, and then there are the intentions of those who first put those 83 objects in that cave. Those people didn't intend for these things to end up in a museum for all eyes to pay money to see, nor did they intend for the pieces to be handled or studied or argued over in a far-removed time of different values and incomplete understandings.

Who is Hui Malama to decide where moepu rest? It can be argued that Hui Malama did not decide, but only acted on the decision of the ancestors.

There is not this kind of fuss over bones. No family members are fighting over whether Hawaiian bones in far away museums should be reburied. The fight there is with the museums, or the Wal-Mart, and not within the families, and when those bones come home and go back to rest, there is great relief in the 'ohana.

But bones don't have the Western monetary value of "artifacts."

There is a rip current of Hawaiian and Western values here, of Hawaiian and American law. Western values and American law see Western graves as sacred and untouchable, but Hawaiian graves as "priceless archaeological finds."

These items are not finds. They should not have been found. They were hidden and should remain so.

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or

© COPYRIGHT 2005 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

Original article URL:

Return to News page

Return to Bones & Burial Artifacts page

Ho`iho`i Mai