Battle lines of belief drawn in artifact war

Claimants clash over whether reburial was justice, theft or a loan

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Tuesday, March 15, 2005

By Sally Apgar

Dressed in a long black ceremonial gown, EliRayna Adams of the Daughters and Sons of Hawaiian Warriors sat before a microphone yesterday afternoon to testify before a federal committee that is in Honolulu this week to rule on several disputes over treasured native Hawaiian artifacts.

"Today we withdraw our support from Hui Malama," said Adams, who is kuhina nui of the royal order, "and we would like to be recognized as a native Hawaiian organization in our own right."

Her quiet statement was part of an emotional struggle among native Hawaiian groups that erupted for hours yesterday afternoon during a hearing at the East-West Center over the issue of repatriation and ownership of artifacts from Kawaihae, or Forbes Cave, on the Big Island.

The review committee was created by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which 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 Kawaihae debate highlights the clash of Western and native Hawaiian notions of ownership and law. It also underscores divisions between Hawaiians who identify themselves as Christians or as native practitioners. And it challenges beliefs in how ancestors used caves and whether items were part of an ancestor's death ritual or something stored for safekeeping.

The debate also colors the Bishop Museum, which held the Kawaihae artifacts in its collection for almost 100 years. There are those who said yesterday it "was acting as a fence" and helped "grave robbers" who stole precious possessions from burial caves for personal profit. Others argue the museum's efforts preserved knowledge of Hawaiian culture.

Yesterday, Adams, like others at the hearing, chose sides when she withdrew support from Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, a group founded in 1989 to repatriate human remains and artifacts from museums around the world and rebury them to honor ancestors. Adams feels there is too much fighting and that Hui Malama has overstepped its bounds.

Others supported Hui Malama.

Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, a professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii, testified in favor of Hui Malama, saying she respected their work and how they "fight with museums all around the world."

Kame'eleihiwa was among those critical of Bishop Museum, calling it "a receiver of stolen goods" that "aided those who robbed our ancestor's caves."

She asked, "Why give our kupuna treasures back to them?"

Hui Malama has dominated the repatriation movement in Hawaii for 15 years and has fought with Bishop Museum, but recently the group has been criticized by other native Hawaiian groups.

The Kawaihae controversy began in 1905, when David Forbes took artifacts from the cave complex on the Big Island. The artifacts eventually were obtained by the Bishop Museum, and several are also still held by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The park, which has its own dispute with Hui Malama that is being heard this week, has said that it is still in the consultation process of determining ownership among 46 competing claimants.

But the Bishop Museum staff under former director Donald Duckworth decided the items should be repatriated.

In February 1990, Bishop Museum crated 83 artifacts from its collection and handed them over to Hui Malama. The inventory list accompanying the crate labeled the transaction "a one-year loan." The items were never returned despite repeated requests from the museum.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, a spokesman for Hui Malama, has repeatedly said the organization never meant to return them and that the repatriation is final.

Yesterday the review committee grilled Ayau on the loan, for which he signed. When asked what the loan was, Ayau said, "The purpose was to facilitate the repatriation."

Pressed further, Ayau said: "Our understanding was that it was to facilitate the repatriation. It was not our intent to return them and not our understanding that the museum intended return."

Ayau defended his actions, telling the committee, "Nothing good comes from stealing from the dead."

Others attacked Hui Malama's role in Kawaihae.

In a statement, Hailama Farden, president of a royal society called Hale O Na Ali'i O Hawaii, said Hui Malama "should be held responsible for the theft of these items if the group refuses to return (them)."

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

In dramatic testimony, Suganuma attacked Hui Malama's "theft" of the artifacts and the political alignments of the review committee.

Suganuma alleges that Hui Malama was unable to get other claimants to go along with them, so they devised a way "to borrow" the 83 artifacts from the Forbes collection through a museum employee whom he says was not authorized to make such a loan.

This afternoon, the review committee, which is an advisory body only, is expected to make recommendations in the four disputes. It is expected that the Kawaihae matter will go to court.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei

Bishop Museum

U.S. Interior Dept. -NAGPRA

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