Bishop Museum leadership must change

The Honolulu Advertiser
Sunday, June 13, 2004

By William Aila Jr., Edward Halealoha Ayau, Billy Fields, Pele Hanoa, Kaleikoa Ka'eo, Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, Pu'uhonua Kanahele, Kahu Charles Maxwell, Jimmy Medeiros Sr., Jon Osorio, Kunani Nihipali and Ho'oipo Kalaena'auao Pa

The authors include cultural leaders, academics and others who are involved in the restoration of the Hawaiian tradition.

In an era when museums worldwide are shedding their colonial pasts by working in partnership with native people, we believe Bishop Museum director William Brown has set the museum back 100 years to a time when native sacred objects were curiosities bartered and sold, and native voices were irrelevant and ignored.

In 1905, when David Forbes broke into a Kawaihae burial cave and took sacred iwi (bones) of ali'i (chiefs) and their moepu (burial objects), then-museum director William Brigham helped conceal the theft, and later acquired many of the bones and burial objects. Brown is following in the footsteps of his predecessor in seeking to rob the same Kawaihae burial cave once more.

In 2000, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei secured the iwi and moepu back in the Kawaihae burial cave. By 2001, a legal process involving the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was concluded, resulting in the iwi and moepu remaining in the original cave and ending the museum's role in the matter.

Director Brown wants to undo this outcome. He asserts that the objects are not moepu, and therefore the museum is doing nothing morally or culturally wrong in seeking to remove them from the cave. However, the fact that these objects were placed in immediate proximity to the iwi within a single chamber of a multichambered cave leaves us with no doubt that they are moepu, personal belongings of ali'i with whom they were laid to rest, and not sterile "artifacts" devoid of cultural context and function.

This is part of a pattern:

  • Refusing to release iwi kupuna and moepu from Moloka'i against the dictates of NAGPRA even firing the museum vice president of cultural studies (a Hawaiian) for resisting plans to halt this repatriation.
  • Attempting to maintain the museum's dubious ownership of mea kapu (sacred objects) seized from 'Iolani Palace by the provisional government shortly after the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, thwarting efforts by Hawaiians to repatriate the mea kapu permanently to the palace.
  • Reversing a previous museum commitment to repatriate the Kalaina Wawae sandstones to Moloka'i pursuant to NAGPRA.
  • Forbidding Hawaiian museum staff from conducting cultural protocols they feel are necessary in the work they do.
  • Attempting to subvert NAGPRA, which defines a process that allows certain Hawaiian cultural items in museums and federal agencies to be repatriated to Native Hawaiian organizations. Brown plans to qualify the museum as a Native Hawaiian organization under NAGPRA, which would allow it to claim its own items and block their repatriation, and do the same for Hawaiian cultural items in other museums and federal agencies.

Brown has left adrift the museum's Hawaiian and Pacific Studies Department. It has no chairman, no clear direction and only a small full-time staff of three researchers, none of whom is Hawaiian and none of whom has formal training or life experiences to qualify them as Hawaiian cultural experts.

Brown's actions would go unnoticed if he were running a museum in 1905 for a colonial power that cared little about native people. But Brown directs the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, founded to honor Ke Ali'i Pauahi and her Hawaiian heritage, to house the mea kapu of the Kamehameha ruling family, to instill Kamehameha Schools students with greater pride in their culture, and operating in a time of growing Hawaiian nationalism.

If the museum's board of directors wants the museum to have a hostile relationship with the Hawaiian community, they have the right man at the helm. If the board wants the museum to become a vital part of the Hawaiian community, they must rid the museum of Brown immediately.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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