Does museum have valid claim to native antiquities?

The Honolulu Advertiser
Sunday, August 8, 2004

Does museum have valid claim to native antiquities?

On May 27 of this year, the board of trustees of the Bishop Museum formally approved a "guidance" document asserting that the museum is a qualified Native Hawaiian Organization under a federal law governing repatriation of Native American and Hawaiian human remains and other objects.

That law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, was enacted in 1990. It allows, among other groups, qualified Native Hawaiian organizations to make claims for the return of objects. By defining itself as such an organization, the museum places itself in the position of being a claimant, equal to others, for Hawaiian objects and antiquities now in its possession.

This decision has created a fair amount of controversy. Some Hawaiian groups, active in the effort to return objects, say it makes no sense for the museum itself to be a claimant.

Others argue that there is no better place for many of these objects than the Bishop Museum, which has cared for such objects for decades.

On Sept. 17 and 18, a high-level NAGPRA review committee composed of both scientific and cultural experts will meet in Washington, D.C.

Among other items on its agenda is an informational briefing on the Bishop Museum's finding that it is a qualified Native Hawaiian organization.

Neither the NAGPRA review committee nor the Department of the Interior will make any judgment on that finding based on the September meeting. Such a judgment would come only when and if there were a dispute between the Bishop Museum and other claiming entities over specific objects.

And even in that case, the review committee might simply conclude that while the museum is legitimately a Native Hawaiian organization, its claim to a particular object is less persuasive than another group's.

The excerpts are from the museum's finding that it is a qualified Hawaiian organization, laying out the philosophy and history that go into that decision. Accompanying that is an article by a number of Hawaiian leaders and activists who insist the museum has no right to be a claiming organization.

Museum is a steward of Hawaiian culture

Excerpts from the Interim and proposed Final Guidance for the Bishop Museum under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act:

"I remember when I started working at Bishop Museum and the old Hawaiians came and brought their grandchildren. They saw the wooden images, feather capes, kapa and much more. They wept with joy to see that some things remained from the old days, and they thanked the ali'i for having kept them. They had great aloha for Pauahi's legacy."

Patience Namaka Bacon, museum staff since 1939.

The Bishop Museum opened to the public on June 22, 1891. The museum had been founded in the name of the High Chiefess Pauahi Bishop and included her collections and those of Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani and Queen Emma. Lili'uokalani was queen when the museum opened and was its first official visitor. A reporter attending the event wrote: "Many aged Hawaiians recognized among the large collection of idols which their ancestors reverenced with fear and awe. The god of Kamehameha I, and a god of rain attracted a large share of their attention."

More than a century later, the Bishop Museum remains steward of these treasures. Kuka'ilimoku, Kamehameha's war god, still looks fiercely on those who stand before it, and some tremble. In the last year, when the Pleiades rose and the annual Makahiki festival began, the wooden image of the god Lono was dressed as in days gone by and turned in the museum vestibule as the trade winds filled its kapa sails. This wooden image is the last of its kind: None other remains from the days when the ancestors lived the old ways. The Bishop Museum keeps the old for those who live now and who will live later.

The guidance discussed below addresses responsibilities of the Bishop Museum under a federal law concerning responsibilities for Native Hawaiian cultural items.

The guidance document is a legal analysis. The Bishop Museum will honor the law and has prepared this guidance with that objective. However, long before this law, the Bishop Museum was conceived and made real by the ali'i and other people of the Hawaiian kingdom. We remember and honor the vision and love of Bernice Pauahi Bishop. We believe that her dream and our responsibility have always been and will remain to be a bridge to the past so that the living will remember whence they came.


This document sets forth interim and proposed final guidance of Bishop Museum in respect to key provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted on Nov. 16, 1990.

Over the past three centuries, many Native American human remains and funerary objects have been taken from burial sites and placed in museums or held by federal agencies. NAGPRA provides a mechanism for return of Native American human remains and other cultural objects to Indian tribes (including Alaskan Native villages) and Native Hawaiian organizations.

Since NAGPRA's enactment, Bishop Museum has taken many steps to comply with the act's requirements, including completing repatriations of human burial remains. ...

This Guidance addresses in particular Bishop Museum's dual role as a steward of Native Hawaiian culture as well as a museum with repatriation responsibilities defined by the act.

This Guidance is prospective only. The museum does not intend to revisit completed repatriations. Furthermore, the museum does not intend to apply this Guidance in its efforts to complete repatriation in the matter of 83 items from the Kawaihae Cave Complex.

Tribes and Native Hawaiian Organizations

NAGPRA defines Indian tribes by reference to Bureau of Indian Affairs policy, which provides for general recognition of the tribe by BIA and requires a petitioner to have continuously existed as an Indian tribe since historic times.

Native Hawaiian organizations (NHOs) are, alternatively, defined by NAGPRA to mean: "any organization which (A) serves and represents the interests of Native Hawaiians, (B) has as a primary and stated purpose the provision of services to Native Hawaiians, and (C) has expertise in Native Hawaiian affairs, and shall include the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei."

More than one hundred NHOs have been recognized by museums and federal agencies. Two recognized NHOs are agencies of the state of Hawai'i (OHA and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands).

Bishop Museum clearly meets NAGPRA's definition of an NHO, and Bishop Museum here recognizes itself to be a Native Hawaiian organization. The museum's articles of incorporation were amended in 2003 to state that the purposes of the corporation shall include "as a primary purpose providing services to and in general serving and representing the interests of Native Hawaiians ..."

In fact, for over a century, the museum has served this purpose and developed enormous expertise in Native Hawaiian affairs through work to preserve cultural objects and to study and tell the stories of Native Hawaiian culture. The core, original collections were comprised of Native Hawaiian items that the ali'i High Chiefess Pauahi (whose collections included those of Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani) and Queen Emma wished to preserve and exhibit for their people. Pauahi and Emma's collections were augmented in the museum's first decade by the collection of the Hawaiian National Museum (which Bishop Museum replaced).

The museum now cares for over 1,470,000 Hawaiian objects. ... Bishop Museum has the right of possession of unassociated funerary objects in its collection if the museum is the owner under Hawai'i stPosted on: Sunday, August 8, 2004

Museum policy further threatens artifacts

By Edward Halealoha Ayau

Also signed by Kunani Nihipali, Pualani Kanahele, Kehau Abad, Kekuhi Kanahele-Frias, Huihui Kanahele-Mossman, 'Ahi'ena Kanahele, Kaumakaiwa Keali'ikanaka'ole, Ulumauahi Keali'ikanaka'ole, Kauila Kanahele, Luka Kanahele-Mossman, William Aila Jr., Billy Fields, Pele Hanoa, Keolalani Hanoa, Kaleikoa Ka'eo, Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, Pu'uhonua Kanahele, Kahu Charles Maxwell, Jimmy Medeiros Sr., Jon Osorio, Konia Freitas, Mehana Hind, and Ho'oipo Kalaena'auao Pa.

An interim guidance policy on the repatriation of Hawaiian cultural items adopted by the Bishop Museum would do serious harm to Hawaiian values and practices if it is allowed to stand.

The policy was proposed by museum director William Brown under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

If this policy stands, it would:

  • Defeat the intent of Congress in enacting NAGPRA, which sought to redress harms to Native people caused when their human remains and other cultural objects were taken from them and put into museums. This policy would deny the human rights goals of NAGPRA and contort it into a shield to block us from caring for our kupuna and their possessions.
  • Represent a conflict of interest, in that the Bishop Museum would be able to claim cultural items from its own collections while at the same time hold responsibility for repatriation of such items under NAGPRA. How could Bishop Museum maintain objectivity in reviewing NAGPRA claims when it is one of the claimants?
  • Undermine the repatriation of funerary objects not now associated with human remains, because the proposed policy would declare Bishop Museum the lawful owner of all such "unassociated" funerary objects in its collections.
  • Obstruct the repatriation of sacred objects that were unlawfully acquired, because the policy inaccurately declares that the museum does not now have any items that meet the NAGPRA definition of sacred object. Especially disturbing about this declaration is that NAGPRA defines as sacred objects those needed by a Hawaiian religious leader to continue or renew traditional religious ceremonies.
  • Allow the museum to claim cultural items as a Native Hawaiian organization, and hence counter claims of such bona fide organizations. Since NAGPRA allows a museum to hold on to claimed items until resolution is reached among claimants, the museum as a claimant could forestall repatriation indefinitely by disagreeing with other claimants.
  • Allow the museum to prevent the repatriation of all Hawaiian cultural items from museums and federal agencies by filing a claim under NAGPRA and disagreeing with repatriation.
  • Undermine the ability of Native Hawaiians to provide proper care of our cultural items through repatriation. Rather than be a mechanism for healing old wounds, the interim guidance would open new ones.

The proposed policy is insulting, paternalistic and colonial, reflecting the mindset of current leadership. There is no need for Bishop Museum to claim cultural items except to undermine Native Hawaiian efforts to do the same.

There is nothing in NAGPRA or its legislative history to indicate that Congress intended for museums to claim cultural items. U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai'i, has inquired with the Department of Interior about the propriety of the Bishop Museum's self-designation as a Native Hawaiian organization and the legal effect on its obligations to comply with NAGPRA.

Amendments to NAGPRA that would prohibit Bishop Museum from qualifying as claimant are being considered. Concern also has been raised among Native Americans and museum professionals.

All of this points to a need for a leadership change. We insist that the museum's board of directors repeal the interim guidance, remove Brown and undertake efforts to identify a qualified Native Hawaiian to serve as the new director of the Bishop Museum.

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