Provide secure shelter for Hawaiian artifacts

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Sunday, August 29, 2004


A sacred burial site where Hawaiian artifacts had been stolen has been blocked by state officials after it was shown to be accessible.

STATE officials have secured the entrance to a Big Island cave where Hawaiian artifacts are believed to have been stolen and later offered for sale on the black market. The action, taken after the Star-Bulletin's Sally Apgar visited the site and found the entrance wide open, tarnishes the credibility of a Hawaiian group that had accepted responsibility and given assurance of artifacts' security in caves. Artifacts that are properly suited for a museum should be transferred back for protection against theft and deterioration.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources says it has secured access to the Kanupa Cave in the Kohala area. The department is cooperating with a U.S. Department of Interior investigation into how the artifacts turned up being offered for sale, in violation of state and federal law.

Objects obtained earlier this month through federal search warrants of a Kona antique store and the store owner's home had been repatriated by the Bishop Museum in 1997 and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., in 2003 to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei ("group caring for the ancestors of Hawaii"), which placed them in the Kanupa Cave. Hui Malama has denied others access to that and other caves where it had placed other artifacts to prove they remain there. Spokesman Eddie Halealoha Ayau has said, "All the evidence anyone will ever get is our word."

Hui Malama now says it hired an investigator and "discovered that our worst fears had come true -- Kanupa Cave was broken into" by thieves who "worked their way through multiple protective measures that we put in place" to secure the artifacts.

The theft probably did not come as a surprise to Bobby Camara, a cave resource specialist with the National Park Service. In a 1999 letter to the Native Hawaiian Historic Preservation Council, Camara wrote that "certain unscrupulous dealers, collectors and thieves would consider gates, constructed sealing walls or other security measures a challenge, not a barrier."

Incredibly, Charles Maxwell, a Hui Malama senior board member, blamed state and federal officials for failing to protect burial caves from thieves. Other native Hawaiians point out that Hui Malama had taken responsibility for the caves' security. "These people are the self-appointed guardians or kahu of the caves," said La'akea Suganuma of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts.

Discovery of the breach of the caves and the theft comes at a time when the Bishop Museum is maintaining that it should be regarded as a Hawaiian organization with footing equal to Hui Malama and other groups to maintain possession of Hawaiian artifacts. Bones properly belong in repatriation in caves, but other artifacts such as bowls and ornaments that face deterioration and theft from caves would be better secured and preserved in a museum with climate control.

The museum's proposal will be considered next month by a review committee established by the 1999 Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act. In addition to bringing common sense to the security and preservation of these artifacts, approval of the proposal would show that NAGPRA is not an instrument of Hui Malama.

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Ho`iho`i Mai