Reclaiming history

Hawaiian groups decry the Bishop Museum's new "native" status

The Honolulu Advertiser
Monday, August 2, 2004

By Sally Apgar

In a dark room at the Bishop Museum, the bones of 1,500 Hawaiian ancestors lie in stacked cardboard boxes, waiting to be returned to the earth.

Whether they were stolen from sacred burial caves or scientifically collected from construction sites, "the Mokapu bones" are now locked away from further desecrations or indignities in accordance with the wishes of their living descendants.

But with many of the old Hawaiian ways lost as oral traditions broke and went unrecorded, these ancestors wait as about 20 different native Hawaiian groups fight over how to rebury them. They argue over rituals and proper protocols, according to several members of the groups.

During the last 14 years, the museum said it has repatriated more than 2,500 items -- from bones and tusk necklaces to bowls with human teeth and the satin slippers buried with Queen Liliuokalani -- to native Hawaiian organizations. Some repatriations and cultural affiliations are clear; others, like Mokapu, are more complex.

But in a recent decision, the museum that has preserved and repatriated these items has touched off an emotionally charged controversy by proclaiming itself a native Hawaiian organization that can act as a claimant for sacred and funerary objects on an equal footing with 130 recognized native Hawaiian organizations. The board has said that while it might try to prevent some objects from leaving the museum, it will not keep any human remains.

Some native Hawaiian groups are outraged at the museum board's decision, and a few activists are calling for the resignation of museum Director William Brown.

"It's ludicrous. It creates a conflict of interest and the opportunity for abuses to block repatriations," said Edward Ayau, a spokesman for Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, founded in 1988 to care for ancestral remains, sacred objects and burial sites.

Charles Maxwell, of the Maui Island Burial Council, a senior member of Hui Malama, is also critical. "Bill Brown is trying to hold our culture and not let it out by not returning items to the burial caves," said Maxwell. "There are numerous things the museum doesn't own and have purchased from people who have stolen moepu (burial objects) from caves 100 years ago."

Last month, the museum board approved an "interim guidance" policy that defined the museum as a native Hawaiian organization under the terms of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), which was enacted to provide procedures for museums to return ancestral bones and four classes of objects to American Indians and Hawaiians.

The museum is taking public comments and is expected to make a final decision on its interim policy in September.

NAGPRA's National Review Committee is also expected to review the legality of the precedent-setting policy.

Brown said that the museum's founding mission fits within NAGPRA's legal definition of a native Hawaiian organization.

The museum was founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop as a memorial to his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last of the Kamehameha line of ruling chiefs. The museum's core collection included items owned by Pauahi, Princess Ruth Keelikolani, Queen Emma and Queen Liliuokalani. The museum was charged with being a steward of the collections for future generations.

Based on its founding mission, Brown said the museum is a native Hawaiian organization under NAGPRA because it "serves and represents the interests of native Hawaiians" and "has expertise in native Hawaiian affairs." In 2003 the museum also amended its bylaws to cover another criteria of NAGPRA that such an organization has as a "stated purpose the provision of services to native Hawaiians."

Lurline McGregor, a former member of Sen. Daniel Inouye's staff who worked on the Senate committee that drafted NAGPRA, said: "I am appalled the museum would consider itself a native Hawaiian organization when it is clearly not. The museum was not contemplated as a recipient of repatriated items."

McGregor said when the law was written, "there was this battle between the native Americans vs. the museums. The museums felt their scientific purposes exceeded the native American's spiritual concerns. There was never agreement between museum officials and native American points of view."

Hui Malama's Ayau said the museum board's decision "defeats the intent of the law to undo years of mistreatment of native Americans by non-native people that resulted in the desecration of ancient burial sites and the removal of cultural objects and ancestral remains."

Ayau said the board's policy also defeats "the point of NAGPRA to allow certain classes of items to be removed from museums because they should never have been collected in the first place."

"This is institutional racism," said Ayau, adding the policy implies the museum believes that native Hawaiian groups cannot take care of these items.

"This is paternalistic and colonial," he said. "They believe these are works of art that should be in a museum, not a dusty cave."

Brown said the policy was changed because "the museum had become too passive" in repatriations and was "listening only to the most aggressive voices."

Brown said the guidance "is more protective of the museum as an organization founded by the alii to preserve the cultural heritage of Hawaii."

He added: "Aren't the people who are maintaining the legacy of Pauahi, Liliuokalani and Queen Emma sufficiently Hawaiian to deserve a place at the table with Hui Malama when repatriations are discussed?"

Brown also said that it is not always clear whether objects found in caves were burial items intended to accompany the dead or were sacred objects placed there for safekeeping from missionaries who wanted them destroyed.

Ayau argues that the museum is placing itself in a position to block all repatriations. Brown contends that the museum is on an equal footing.

DeSoto Brown, who is both Hawaiian and the collection manager of the museum's archives, said the policy "puts the museum in a position of equality rather than subservience" to other groups.

"We are not stopping repatriation. But I think that Bishop Museum, based on its history and heritage and roots, has the right to be in an equal position," said Brown, who is also a historian and collector.

He noted that 50 years ago, "few Hawaiians would have felt pain or anger that human bones were in the Bishop Museum." Then during the last few decades, "Hawaiians' perceptions of their place in society and role in their culture evolved hugely so that what was once accepted behavior (collecting and displaying bones and artifacts) by the museum became a source of anger."

He said by the time NAGPRA was enacted, the museum was viewed "as a symbol of theft" and that many on the staff felt it was necessary to repatriate as much as possible "to atone for having human bones in its collection."

Today, Brown said, the museum has earned the right to be on an equal footing with any other native Hawaiian organization.

Van Horn Diamond, with the Oahu Island Burial Council said: "I don't consider the museum a threat. They have to contend for recognition (as a native Hawaiian organization) just as we do."

He added, "If they become the keeper of an item, we can always appeal the determination under NAGPRA, or we can always go to court. So what's the problem?"

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