Panels to review artifacts case

A federal committee also defers ruling on Bishop Museum's Hawaiian status

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Sunday, September 19, 2004

By Sally Apgar

A federal review committee and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs plan to travel to Hawaii in the next few months to hold separate hearings to help resolve two explosive issues involving the repatriation of sacred objects from the Bishop Museum to native Hawaiian groups.

The Review Committee for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act voted yesterday in Washington, D.C., to defer any ruling on the potentially precedent-setting issue of whether the Bishop Museum can be recognized as a native Hawaiian organization under NAGPRA's legal definitions.

NAGPRA Committee Chairwoman Rosalita Worl said to museum representatives at the conclusion of the meeting, "You might fit the legal definition under NAGPRA, but you don't meet the intent of NAGPRA" to undo the wrongs to native Americans in the past.

In a separate hearing yesterday, the committee also decided to re-examine its 2003 advisory decision that the museum should recall its controversial loan of 83 items for repatriation to the Kawaihae, or Forbes, cave on the Big Island because the procedure was "flawed" and 13 claimants to the items had not been properly heard before the committee.

The committee plans to come to Hawaii, possibly as early as this spring, to hold meetings on the issue.

NAGPRA is a federal law passed in 1990 as human-rights policy to help native Americans and Hawaiians repatriate the bones of ancestors and other sacred objects from the display shelves of museums. The intent of the law is to right what native groups feel are past wrongs when sacred objects and bones are displayed, objectified and therefore desecrated in museums.

The Star-Bulletin monitored both hearings, which ran more than six hours, by a telephone link.

After hearing testimony on the Bishop Museum's designation as a native Hawaiian organization, the committee found that any ruling on its part would be "premature" since the museum has been taking comments since July on its proposed policy and since its board is still expecting to create a final policy at its October meeting.

The committee also noted that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, of which U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye is vice chairman, recently decided that it would travel to Hawaii over the next few months to hold hearings on the issue.

Inouye has said publicly that the museum should not be recognized as a native Hawaiian organization.

Sources said the Senate committee hearing pegged for Honolulu was pushed by Inouye, who also has overseen federal funding to the museum. The meeting could force the ultimate decision made by the museum's 38-member board of directors, which includes 10 native Hawaiians.

Bill Brown, president and CEO of the museum, who answered questions at the hearings yesterday for almost an hour, declined to comment on either issue.

The hearing on Kawaihae cave became so explosive at one point that Kunani Nihipali, executive director of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, a native Hawaiian organization, blasted Brown for his "unprofessionalism" and said he held "a racist attitude that is a throwback to the dark ages when white was right."

If native Hawaiian status is granted, the museum hopes it would be on equal footing with other native Hawaiian organizations in claiming objects in its collection.

Critics have said that would be a conflict of interest because the museum would be both claimant and arbiter, undermining the intent of NAGPRA to right the wrongs of the past.

Brown has argued that the museum is a Hawaiian organization because it was founded by Charles Reed Bishop in 1889 on behalf of his alii wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and other alii. They gave him personal treasures and sacred objects so they could be preserved and displayed for the education of future generations of native Hawaiians.

At the second hearing, which was even more emotionally charged, the NAGPRA review committee backed off from making a decision on the fate of 83 items that Hui Malama has said it obtained from the museum and resealed in Kawaihae cave.

The committee said it wanted to hold hearings in Hawaii "as soon as possible" on what it previously had condemned as a "flawed" repatriation of the Kawaihae cave items.

One weekend in February 2000, two museum employees crated the 83 objects and handed the crate to Hui Malama with an invoice that said the items were on a one-year "loan."

Eddie Ayau, a spokesman for Hui Malama, has repeatedly said the items were reburied in the cave to honor the intent of ancestors and that the group never intended to return the "loan" because it was a permanent repatriation.

Ayau yesterday also cited the history of the grave's robbings from 1906 when David Forbes first found it through the 1930s. He said of reopening the cave: "Let's stop the history of looting."

In 2003, the review committee ruled the Bishop Museum's repatriation of the objects from the cave was a "flawed" process and recommended that the items be returned to the museum so that 13 claimants could decide among themselves what to do.

To date, Hui Malama's Ayau has refused to return the items and has argued that the museum effectively repatriated the items through the loan and therefore legally has relinquished any role in demanding their return or arbitrating among claimants. He told the committee yesterday that the issue is an "internal" matter to be decided among native Hawaiians.

Ayau also testified that NAGPRA has no legal authority on the issue of reopening the cave and further noted that it was "an advisory opinion and not legally binding."

Ayau said that as a result of the committee's "advisory" findings and recommendations, the debate on Kawaihae cave had escalated, dividing native groups and damaging Hui Malama's credibility. He said federal agents had come to his house in March saying they wanted to reopen the cave.

As part of the committee's decision yesterday, any federal probe of what is in the cave has been suspended.

The hearing comes while federal agents are investigating the alleged black-market trafficking of items that were repatriated to Hui Malama and three other native Hawaiian groups. Hui Malama critics told the committee that alleged theft from Kanupa cave on the Big Island puts doubt on the security at Kawaihae cave.

La'akea Sugunuma, of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, has fought Hui Malama for years in part because he feels the group tries to be the absolute arbiter of what are diverse burial customs that should be handled by different groups or families.

Sugunuma told the committee that their 2003 findings and recommendations were well-founded. Sugunuma said he represents the "majority of the 13 claimants" who want the items returned from the cave. He said there were no procedural problems with the committee's findings and that all claimants knew about the meeting.

"Whoever disagrees with Hui Malama is ridiculed," he said.

One review committee member said of the Kawaihae repatriation: "We have been told untruths have been said. I don't want to be in the position of determining who told the truth. ... We need a new hearing."

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