Remains traditionally sacred

The Honolulu Advertiser
Sunday, August 29, 2004

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writers

Those seeking to understand why Hawaiian burials evoke such a deeply emotional response, said Charlie Maxwell, need only consider this: The word for burial kanu is the same as the word that means "to plant." The ancestors are put in the earth in a specific place to convey their mana, or spiritual power, to their descendants.

"You give forth of your essence. You go back to the earth," said Maxwell, a member of a group whose mission is the care of ancestral remains. "Part of the essence is still in the bones, and where it's buried, it's sanctified."

This sanctity is violated, Native Hawaiians believe, when remains and artifacts are removed from the sacred caves, whether by grave robbers or archaeologists. So outrage erupted over reports of looting the Kanupa burial cave and trafficking of funerary objects on the Big Island.

The reports sparked a federal investigation, more debate about how to best care for the remains and concerns about what groups should have custody.

Those questions have been central to the reburial movement, which entered the broad public consciousness in the late 1980s. The watershed event was the unearthing of more than 1,000 burials at Honokahua, a Maui site originally proposed for the Ritz-Carlton resort hotel that eventually was moved so that the remains could be reinterred.

Partly to address similar situations, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, better known as NAGPRA. The act has enabled Hawaiians to reclaim remains, and the objects that were buried with them, often a century after they were removed from graves and stored in museums or other institutions.

Maxwell's group, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, is among the few groups specifically identified in the law as having the right to reclaim artifacts, although other Native Hawaiian groups also may file claims.

More recently, the Bishop Museum has proposed a new policy asserting itself as a Native Hawaiian organization that can become a claimant of objects in its own collection. Museum director Bill Brown has maintained that the federal act allows for claims of certain categories of cultural objects to be contested.

DeSoto Brown, collections manager for the Bishop Museum archives and unrelated to the museum director, said the law has changed the museum's role in the care of remains.

"It may be difficult to believe now, and some people would deny it, but into the 1970s, Bishop Museum was seen by nearly everyone in the community Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian alike as a safe repository for iwi kupuna (bones of ancestors)," he said in a written statement. "There was no other agency handling human remains at that time; no others would take responsibility for them."

One notable controversy is the still-unresolved 2000 case of the moepu, or burial objects, claimed by competing Native Hawaiian groups from the Bishop Museum, including works admired for their artistry in the decades that they were housed there.

The flash point occurred when the museum lent the objects to Hui Malama members who reburied them in another Big Island cave at Kawaihae. Some have argued that this was a de facto repatriation, but DeSoto Brown said the legal process was interrupted and prevented from airing all claims equitably.

In another instance, more than a dozen groups and individuals have made claims to about 1,500 sets of remains kept at the museum since they were unearthed during the development of the Marine base at Mokapu.

Among those Mokapu descendants coming forward was entertainer Nalani Olds, who in recent years has pursued a lifelong commitment to serve as one of her family's caretakers of the buried kupuna. It's a responsibility to be handed down, she said, for whenever kupuna may be unearthed.

"My sister has trained her children; I've trained mine," Olds said. "We're on call 'no na kau a kau' until the end of time."

The museum officially has turned over the remains to the claimants, but since 1999 they have been kept at the museum while everyone worked out an agreement on a location for reburial. Without disclosing the details, Van Horn Diamond, another Mokapu claimant, said "there is general agreement as to where to rebury them ... people are feeling better."

Olds said she's hopeful for reburial preparations to begin sometime this year.

Bishop Museum director Brown has said the museum would not oppose the return of human remains and has officially repatriated, or transferred to groups or individuals with a claim to them, all that it housed.

There are still arguments over repatriation, but the federal law has created a process that has promoted a more open exchange between native groups and museums, said John Grimes, a deputy director at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The museum has repatriated funerary objects to Hawai'i, including some of those that were reburied at Kanupa Cave in November.

Arguments over whether lava caves such as Kanupa are "safe" highlight a cultural divide over what constitutes safety, he said.

"From the point of view of native spirituality, the proper, safe place for an object is with its owner in a grave ... " Grimes said. "Preservation is important too. It comes down to consultation to determine where the greatest good lies."

The act of preparing ancestral remains for reburial is uplifting work for those trained in the cultural protocols, said Maxwell. Even the uninitiated sometimes representatives of developers and others invited to witness the rituals have told him how moved they felt.

"I've asked people, have you ever touched them, have you ever wrapped the iwi? You put the jaws, the teeth, the vertebrae, you wrap them ... you start talking to them and feeling good that you're putting them back to continue their eternal journey."

Those involved in efforts to rebury ancestors see the Kanupa break-in as a sad aberration in the movement toward more public respect for the sanctity of such sites.

Although Hui Malama handled the reburial, it is only one of four organizations given title to the burial objects of Kanupa almost a century after they had been removed by the J.S. Emerson expedition and later transferred to collections at the Bishop Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

Under the federal repatriation law, title to the Bishop objects went jointly to Hui Malama, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Hawai'i Island Burial Council; the Peabody Essex collection went to the hui, OHA and the Hawaiian sovereignty organization Ka Lahui Hawai'i.

The transfer of burial objects was made in four lots between 1997 and 2003, with the final repatriation from Peabody Essex occurring last November.

Hui Malama transferred all the objects to the Big Island and reburied them in November.

Hui Malama member Eddie Ayau is an attorney who once served on U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye's staff and worked on the federal repatriation law. The hui, he said, has worked with 31 institutions here as well as on the U.S. Mainland and in Switzerland, Canada, Australia and Scotland to bring burial remains and objects home to Hawai'i. Part of its mission is to give workshops on the process, he added, so that individual families can take on a cultural tradition lost to many.

"That's what keeps us going," Ayau said. "It's seeing people in the community come out and take an active role. It nourishes us and heals our soul."

Reach Vicki Viotti at or 525-8053.

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

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