Items stolen from cave must be retrieved, reburied

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Sunday, August 29, 2004

By Edward Halealoha Ayau and Kunani Nihipali

During the past two weeks, Native Hawaiians have been distressed by media reports that Kanupa Cave may have been disturbed. The cave contained iwi kupuna (ancestral bones) and moepu (burial objects) repatriated from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum to four Hawaii organizations in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The four groups are Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, Ka Lahui Hawai'i, the Hawai'i Island Burial Council and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Hui Malama initiated these repatriation efforts and reburied the kupuna and moepu in Kanupa.

Upon the first such media report Aug. 11 in the Star-Bulletin, Hui Malama members immediately went to Kanupa Cave to conduct a security check. However, federal agents from the Office of the Inspector General who were investigating the matter turned them away. The OIG has still not briefed any of the four aforementioned organizations about the investigation, although via NAGPRA the four organizations are the legal co-owners of the items central to the investigation.

Hui Malama last week hired its own private investigator to determine whether the cave was disturbed. After acquiring authorization to access Kanupa Cave, we discovered that our worst fears had come true -- Kanupa Cave had been broken into. Apparently highly motivated thieves worked their way through multiple protective measures that we put in place at the entrance and throughout the cave to secure the iwi kupuna and moepu in Kanupa. While Hui Malama has reburied the iwi of more than 2,500 kupuna (ancestors) at close to 100 separate reburial sites throughout the islands, this is the single instance of such a burial being disturbed.

The looting at Kanupa Cave is no different than the original theft of these same items by J.S. Emerson and the robbing of sacred iwi kupuna and moepu from the Kawaihae caves by David Forbes, William Wagner and Kenneth Emory in the early 1900s. The same greed and callous disregard for Hawaiians and Hawaiian cultural values that led Emerson and others to loot Hawaiian burial caves is shockingly still with us today.

Whoever desecrated Kanupa Cave violated Hawaiian kapu (sacred law) regarding the sanctity of a burial site and state laws regarding historic burial sites and must be apprehended. Though we do not yet know the thieves who committed this crime, they are well known to the robbed kupuna who will seek their own justice.

Under the laws of the living, those who disturbed Kanupa violated separate federal and state statutes. The ongoing federal investigation involves a violation for trafficking illegally acquired burial objects. Hui Malama and Ka Lahui Hawai'i have formally communicated to the OIG their desire to assist with that effort and their request to be briefed on the status of the investigation. We call upon the Office of the Inspector General to work with us as the co-owners of these cultural items under federal law and to fully investigate the trafficking of these cultural items.

Hui Malama has also repeatedly asked state officials at the Department of Land and Natural Resources to begin their investigation into the disturbance of Kanupa Cave, a violation of HRS section 6E-11, a statute aimed at protecting historic sites, including burials.

A primary reason for our requests for a DLNR investigation was so that the cave could be resealed. We did not resecure Kanupa Cave because it is a crime scene, and we did not want to be accused of tampering with it, and because the DLNR has not initiated its investigation. However, as of last Thursday, the state has taken measures to secure the cave.

At the county level, we urge the Hawaii County Prosecutors Office to investigate the criminal aspects of the Kanupa Cave disturbance as provided by HRS section 6E-11 and section 711-1107(b) and fully prosecute all responsible parties.

Federal investigators have not yet contacted the four Native Hawaiian organizations. The state and county of Hawaii have yet to launch their own investigations into this matter, though leaders of the four organizations are hopeful that this will change as officials are brought up to speed on this case. We stand by to assist federal, state and county investigators.

When the investigations are completed and responsible parties are apprehended, fined and prosecuted, we expect the confiscated moepu to be returned to the four organizations for proper reburial. We are thankful that the state took action to protect Kanupa Cave from further intrusion and wish it had acted to prevent Star-Bulletin reporter Sally Apgar from photographing Kanupa Cave and publishing it on the front page of the Star-Bulletin. This act was extremely distasteful and offensive. In the future, permission from Natives Hawaiians should be acquired before publishing photos of wahi kupuna (ancestral places).

The leaders of the four Native Hawaiian organizations strongly urge all persons who have knowledge of the Kanupa Cave disturbance to contact the federal Office of the Inspector General, the state Attorney General's Office and the Hawaii County Prosecutor's Office. We must all stand together in support of the kupuna (ancestors) and their sacred burial places.

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