Group has history of protecting graves

Hui Malama's strict stance on burial traditions has caused some controversy

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Thursday, August 12, 2004

By Sally Apgar

In 1988, a small group of Hawaiian activists banded together to fight the construction of the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Maui and the desecration of an ancestral burial ground.

After a 24-hour vigil at the state Capitol, then-Gov. John Waihee approved a settlement that moved the resort hotel back from the shoreline and the burial ground. The remains of about 1,100 ancestors were returned to their burial grounds.

Today, the group, which claims about 100 members, is known as Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii ("group caring for the ancestors of Hawaii").

From idealistic beginnings and strong political ties to Sen. Daniel Inouye, Hui Malama has grown controversial over the years as it spearheaded the repatriation (legal return of possessions) and the physical disposition of human remains and other artifacts from museums around the world to burial caves.

"Hui Malama grew out of the tragedy and gross exhumation of 1,100 ancestors and was born out of the enlightenment that came with that pain," Edward Halealoha Ayau, a spokesman for Hui Malama, said last week in an interview.

"If someone had removed 1,100 bones from Punchbowl (National Cemetery), it would've been a crime, but to build a hotel on an ancient burial ground was not."

Ayau said the grave desecrations at Honokahua during construction of the Ritz Carlton "made it blatantly clear that we were not empowered to be responsible for our ancestors (and their bones) legally." Ayau said they also realized "Hawaiians had lost touch with our practices of caring for our ancestors."

Ayau, who was a young law student at the time, said that during the fight over Honokahua, he came to know two kumu, Edward and Pualani Kanahele, "who changed my life." The Kanaheles also became the spiritual foundation and conscience of Hui Malama.

"I listened to them talk about the responsibility we had to our ancestors. They enlightened us and made us aware of the high level of commitment required to our ancestors. And they trained us in the right (burial) protocols," said Ayau.

Hui Malama's Web site explains the relationship between the living and ancestors as "one of interdependence: As the living, we have a kuleana (responsibility) to care for our kupuna (ancestors). In turn, our ancestors respond by protecting us on the spiritual side. Hence, one side cannot completely exist without the other."

Edward Kanahele, who died in 2000 at 57, was a professor of history and social sciences at Hilo Community College. His wife, Pualani, a master chanter, comes from a long line of kumu hula including her mother, Edith Kanakaole, the legendary kumu hula, Hawaiian scholar and chanter whose name graces the stadium on the Big Island where the Merrie Monarch Festival is held each year.

Pualani and her sister, Nalani, are kumu of a hula halau, Halau O Kekuhi, that their mother founded in 1953. The sisters both work to perpetuate some of the oldest Hawaiian cultural traditions including mele oli and mele hula, which are complex forms of an ancient art combining dance, music and literature.

Pualani Kanahele did not return numerous telephone calls to her home, the Edith Kanakaole Foundation and to her daughter, Kekui, who is a chanter and teaches at Hilo Community College.

When asked where the Kanaheles learned about burial protocols, Ayau did not answer.

Some native Hawaiian groups have taken issue with Hui Malama's absolute certitude about burial traditions. Some older kupuna in particular caution that there is no one way to bury, rebury or care for ancestors and that traditions varied from island to island, family to family and even between generations.

DeSoto Brown, who is also the collection manager for the Bishop Museum's archives, referred to Hui Malama's burial protocols as "very dictatorial in nature."

Brown said: "In hula we not only accept, but we celebrate various styles from different halau. Yet in this situation, they say it's the Hui Malama way or no way. If a single kumu hula were to proclaim his or her way as the only true teaching or source or interpretation of hula, no one would accept it. We acknowledge there are many sources."

Hawaiian activist Van Horn Diamond agreed, saying: "Hui Malama came about when there was a void, an absence of families coming forward to assume responsibility for the internment of iwi kupuna (ancestral bones). But time has elapsed, and Hui Malama should assume a different posture. They should take a step back and give support to families and not assume they can pre-empt or override them."

In 1990, when federal legislation was written so that human remains and burial items on display in museums could be repatriated to American Indians and Hawaiians, Hui Malama was considered one of the only groups with the needed expertise.

Sen. Daniel Inouye chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that wrote the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Ayau and another founding member of Hui Malama, Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu, both worked on Inouye's legal staff during that time.

Lurline McGregor, another former Inouye staffer who worked on NAGPRA, said forums were held in Hawaii to discuss the bill.

"At the time, Hui Malama was the single organization that was dealing with remains, so their name was specifically written into the bill (along with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs) as a native Hawaiian entity," McGregor said.

Hui Malama's biggest controversy with other native Hawaiians has been over the reburial of 83 items stolen in 1905 by David Forbes from the Kawaihae, or Forbes, Cave on the Big Island and sold to the Bishop Museum.

Initially, there were four native Hawaiian groups with claims on the items.

In February 2000, two museum employees, Betty Tatar, then vice president of museum collections, and Valerie Free had the items crated. They handed the crate over to Hui Malama with an invoice that listed each item and classified them as a one-year "loan." Ayau said he and others reburied the items in Kawaihae Cave.

During the next year, nine other native Hawaiian groups emerged as claimants to the artifacts. Some asked for the artifacts' return so they could agree on what should be done with them. The museum asked for the return of the "loan."

"We never intended to give them back," said Ayau. "We reburied them."

Ayau also said that some of the museum staff knew that the items would not be returned.

Museum Director Bill Brown, who was hired after the loan, has said the loan was "a mistake." He has also said that the museum violated its own procedures and NAGPRA guidelines when it made the loan.

In May 2003 the NAGPRA Review Committee agreed. The committee found that the museum erred and should reclaim the artifacts for the 13 claimants so they could work out an agreement on their fate. Hui Malama has refused to return the items.

Some of the claimants and the museum have argued that if Hui Malama is not willing to return the artifacts, it should at least offer some proof that the items are in the cave.

Ayau said: "All people need to know is that they are back and secured, and we have permission from the landowner (the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands) to conduct periodic security checks. All the evidence anyone will ever get (that the items are in the cave) is our word."

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei

Bishop Museum

U.S. Interior Dept. -NAGPRA

© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --

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