Panel hears artifacts dispute

Arguments over who owns historic objects found in caves go to a U.S. review committee

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Monday, March 14, 2005

By Sally Apgar

Native Hawaiian groups and the Bishop Museum clashed on the notion of ownership and how native Hawaiian ancestors used caves and other objects at various times in history, during a hearing yesterday.

These complex cultural questions were addressed in front of a national review committee created by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Notion of ownership and the use of caves are at the heart of four disputes between native Hawaiian groups, the Bishop Museum and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park over highly valued artifacts.

NAGPRA was enacted in 1991 to set up a procedure for artifacts and human remains in museum collections to be returned to American Indian and native Hawaiian claimants. The review committee met yesterday at the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus. Testimony continues today and tomorrow. But the review committee, which plans to release its findings tomorrow, only has advisory power. Ultimately, a committee member acknowledged, a court might have to decide ownership if claimants cannot agree.

After yesterday's hearing it appears the review committee might not be able to settle the long-standing bitter dispute over the repatriation of 83 items first collected in 1905 from Kawaihae, or Forbes Cave, on the Big Island.

In February 1990 the Bishop Museum crated those items and handed them to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, a group founded in 1989 to repatriate human remains and artifacts and rebury them to honor ancestors.

The inventory list accompanying the crate labeled the transaction "a one-year loan," but the items were never returned.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, a spokesman for Hui Malama, has said the items were reburied. The organization never meant to return them, and the repatriation is final, he has said.

There are 13 claimants for the Kawaihae artifacts. For years, Laakea Suganuma, a representative of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, has led a fight against Hui Malama's possession and reburial of those items.

In May 2003 the NAGPRA review committee found that the repatriation was "flawed," and said the museum was still responsible for the repatriation.

One of the disputes heard yesterday is between Hui Malama and the Bishop Museum over artifacts found on Molokai and later donated or sold to the museum.

Hui Malama contends that the museum got the items from people who did not have authority to give them, and therefore the museum has no legal "right of possession."

The museum disagrees.

Nelson Jenks-Puaa, 16, who testified on behalf of Hui Malama, said, "Just because you take something doesn't mean it's yours. Who really owns these objects?"

Isabella Abbott, one of the seven native Hawaiians on the museum's nine-member collections board, testified that she doubted any of the items were funerary objects.

And she said that not all sand dunes or caves were for burials. For example, in the case of the kii -- a small wooden figure -- she said an unidentified native Hawaiian found it with other objects that might have been offerings for the god of canoe-making in a cave where canoes were made or stored.

She and others testified that caves had different uses at different times and were not just used for burials.

Another dispute centers on what is known as the Kalanai Wawae, barefoot and boot-clad footprints carved in sandstone that were found on Molokai. Owners of Molokai Ranch later dug out the stones and gave them to Bishop Museum for safekeeping.

The stones were returned to Molokai, but the museum retains ownership and could reclaim them at any time, which is at the heart of the dispute with Hui Malama.

"The stones are home but our job is not done. We must make sure they cannot be taken again," said Edward Halealoha Ayau, a Hui Malama spokesman.

Another dispute between Volcanoes National Park and Hui Malama centers on items also from Kawaihae cave.

Hui Malama contends the park has not turned over the items in a timely manner despite three requests dating back to 1999.

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