By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
The leaders of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei say that since forming about 17 years ago, the group has taken possession of the remains of more than 5,900 ancestral Hawaiians and reburied more than 2,900 sets of remains in or near their original burial sites.
It also has reinterred hundreds of items that the group calls funerary objects — some from museums around the globe, from Australia to Zurich.
Much of this work has been done in relative obscurity.
That changed late last month, when Hui Malama leader Edward Halealoha Ayau was jailed by U.S. District Judge David Ezra for refusing to disclose the precise whereabouts of 83 priceless cultural objects that make up most of what's known as the Forbes Collection.
At the center of the dispute, which has been bubbling in Hawaiian circles for years, is the issue of a permanent home for the objects, which include a famous wooden female figure and several renowned stick 'aumakua.
To comply with Ezra's order, Ayay said, would fly against his religious and cultural beliefs.
A large contingent of Hawaiians are supporting Hui Malama. Vigils are held every morning and night across the street from the Federal Detention Center where Ayau has been locked up since Dec. 27.
Supporters say that the group was right to reinter the Forbes items and that to disturb them would be a mistake. Opponents say Hui Malama was wrong to rebury them when 14 recognized claimants to the items had not decided collectively on final disposition as required under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
A key status conference today could determine if the matter can be settled by the parties out of court and through a traditional Hawaiian form of dispute resolution.
PRAISE AND CRITICISM
Over the years, Hui Malama's efforts have drawn praise for filling a void in the Hawaiian movement and making people aware of practices that otherwise might have been forgotten. But there have also been murmurs of criticism that Hui Malama overstepped its charge and is too dismissive of groups with different views on how to honor ancestors.
The group formed in late 1988 during a controversy involving the removal of more than 1,100 sets of human remains found at the construction site of a Maui resort. Following protests by Hawaiians, a deal was worked out allowing the remains to be reburied where they were found while the Ritz Carlton Kapalua was forced to move inland away from the graves.
Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., Hui Malama president, said that first repatriation effort ranks among the greatest experiences of his life.
When it was done, "several of us couldn't sleep for days," Maxwell said. "It was such an emotional high to have helped your kupuna continue their journey. It was indescribable."
Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, head of the Nation of Hawai'i and Pu'uhonua o Waimanalo Village, is among Hui Malama's biggest supporters. He believes that the group's hard work has not received the recognition it deserves for the service it has provided for the Hawaiian community.
"Nobody wanted the job, brah, nobody even thought about it," said Kanahele, a distant relative to the late Edward Kanahele, co-founder of Hui Malama.
Kanahele said he and his two organizations, which are among the 14 claimants to the Forbes objects, participated in the repatriation of remains in Windward O'ahu and worked closely with Hui Malama members. "For me, I learned through Hui Malama how to do pohaku (hard as stone) work. I learned chants, I learned prayers that would protect the people who were doing the actual work."
Critics have also pointed an accusatory finger at Hui Malama's ability to obtain grant money for its operations and questioned what they have spent the money on.
According to annual federal 990 tax forms required of all nonprofits, Hui Malama reported total income of $1.04 million, mostly from grants, from 1993 to 2002.
Hui Malama leaders maintain that they work on a voluntary basis and receive no compensation for their time. Much of the funds go toward paying for airfare to and from where items are being recovered, materials associated with reburials such as those relating to the making of tombs, and workshops that teach others about Hui Malama's practices, they said.
The group does not get paid for every repatriation, they said.
Van Horn Diamond, a member of the O'ahu Island Burial Council, has a different take on the group.
Diamond said that eight years ago, when he and other claimants in a case involving burial remains at Mokapu on the Windward side disagreed with Hui Malama and other claimants, things got hostile. The claimants still have not agreed to a plan for final disposition.
The friction began, Diamond said, when Hui Malama tried to exert pressure on other claimants to speed up finishing a burial plan in order to meet a deadline to qualify for a federal funding source. Diamond and others seeking a slower path felt money could be found at a later date.
"One of the shortcomings of Hui Malama is they seem not to know the difference between expediting something and expediency," Diamond said. "They always seem to be in a rush. And when you get caught up in that rush thing, you're going to lose out on certain details and it's going to come back and bite you in the butt."
ARTIFACTS AND BONES
Hui Malama's current court entanglement does not involve human remains but objects that had been found in the caves with them. But the protocol espoused by Hui Malama is firm in the belief that they are one in the same.
"Take the artifacts, you take the iwi with them," said Pualani Kanahele, Hui Malama's spiritual leader. "They go together because you're doing just as much harm to the iwi if you only take the artifacts. And it's still grave robbing."
Some of Hui Malama's critics have questioned the group's protocols and rituals.
Among them is Cy Kamuela Harris, one of the claimants to the Forbes objects who opposes Hui Malama.
Harris, who described himself as a member of the Temple of Lono, said he and others have attempted to talk to Hui Malama's leaders and have been refused.
"We have constantly asked and tried to sit down and talk and tell them 'you know, this is not right what you do; you're not following traditional Hawaiian concepts,' " said Harris. "There's nothing written in a book. It is bogus. They're making it up as they go along."
Kanahele said she and her late husband, Edward, established a set of protocols for reburials because they could find none that had been passed down through the generations.
"When we first started, we were baffled with this because the whole thing was totally new," Kanahele said. "We had to really look at what the protocol would have been if we did burials initially."
An assistant professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo and a kumu hula, Kanahele said she did research by poring through the traditional chants that had been passed down by the renowned Kanaka'ole and Kanaele families from which she is a descendant.
Oftentimes, in the absence of more precise information, decisions such as where to place remains or what type of housing material to use, if any, are determined by clues such as other older burials found in a respective area, she said.
Kanahele dismissed criticism that Hui Malama is rigid in its protocol and ignores the wishes of others. She noted that among the repatriations the group has completed are those involving remains transferred to Protestant churches with services provided by church ministers.
STORAGE DURING KAPU?
One of the primary points of contention in the Kawaihae dispute is whether all the items are funerary.
La'akea Suganuma, leader of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts which is one of the two groups that filed the suit against Bishop Museum and Hui Malama, believes that items such as wooden figures and 'aumakua would not be buried with the dead.
Suganuma and others believe they may have been placed in the caves separate from the burials, possibly for safekeeping after Kamehameha the Great died and Queen Ka'ahumanu put a kapu on Native Hawaiian religion.
But such talk draws a strong rebuke from Maxwell, Hui Malama's president.
"A theft is a theft is a theft," said Maxwell. "It wasn't taken, it wasn't discovered, it was stolen," he said of the collection.
FROM CAVE IN 1905 TO COURT IN 2006
1905: The David Forbes expedition takes cultural objects and human remains from the Kawaihae Caves on the Big Island and eventually conveys them to the Bishop Museum. The objects are known as the Forbes Collection.
1990: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the federal law commonly known as NAGPRA, is passed, setting up a process for returning remains, burial objects and other cultural treasures to indigenous groups.
February 2000: As the Bishop Museum reviews a NAGPRA claim on the Forbes Collection by several groups, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei obtains 83 objects from the collection. The museum later asks for the return of the items; Hui Malama officials refuse and indicate that repatriation has been completed.
August 2005: Two Hawaiian groups, Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa and the Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, sue the museum and Hui Malama, seeking the return of the objects to the museum so the claimant groups can decide what to do with the collection items. At least 13 groups are seeking some say in the fate of the objects, which range from wooden statuettes of family gods, or 'aumakua, to tools and pieces of feather capes.
Sept. 2: U.S. District Judge David Ezra orders the return
of the objects to the museum so discussions among the claimants can continue.
Sept. 5: Ezra sets a Sept. 23 deadline for return of the objects. In his decision, Ezra noted “serious questions” as to whether the federal law governing the disposition of burial objects was violated when Hui Malama received the items and refused to return them. In addition, he said the risk of harm to the objects from natural decay in the cave also warranted their return to the museum.
Sept. 20: The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lifts the court order directing retrieval of the objects while Hui Malama appeals Ezra’s injunction.
Dec. 12: The 9th Circuit court affirms the September injunction by Ezra calling for the return of the objects.
Dec. 20: Ezra sets a deadline of 4 p.m. Dec. 21 for Hui Malama to disclose specifically where each of the objects is buried.
Dec. 27: Hui Malama’s leader is ordered into federal custody until the exact whereabouts are revealed.
Jan. 5: Ezra suggests the parties settle the issue through a traditional Hawaiian form of dispute resolution and orders them to begin meeting. U.S. Magistrate Kevin Chang will oversee the process.
Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at email@example.com.
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