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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Panel to rule on move of Hawaiian artifacts

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

A federal panel will decide next month whether the Bishop Museum made a proper decision when it turned over rare Hawaiian artifacts to a Hawaiian organization that said it reburied them.

A Bishop Museum brochure shows one artifact whose fate is in dispute.

Advertiser library photo

Eighty-three artifacts were taken from a Big Island cave in 1905 and kept at the Bishop Museum until February 2000, when museum officials released them to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, drawing objections from other Hawaiians who make claims on the priceless objects.

The hearing comes in response to a complaint brought by one of the groups that assert cultural claims on the artifacts, which include a female carved wood figure, two stick 'aumakua and gourds decorated with human teeth.

The items fall under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which provides for return of human remains and other significant cultural items to Native American and Hawaiian groups. A federal review committee will meet May 9-11 in St. Paul, Minn., to discuss the dispute.

The case caused an uproar among Hawaiians and people in the scientific community over the proper treatment of important cultural items. Some say removal from the museum showed respect for the native culture and sacred items, while others questioned whether it would lead to the artifacts' destruction or sale, and a lost opportunity for education.

The museum later admitted its error and apologized, then turned the matter over to a divided group of organizations and individuals with cultural claims to the items.

William Y. Brown, president and chief executive officer of Bishop Museum, said he would meet today with the museum's board.

"I'm in the process of discussing the matter with the board and deciding what our position should be," said Brown, who took charge of the museum after the controversy began.

The Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts took the matter to the federal review committee last year, asking for a timely review of the Kawaihae Caves Complex issue, so-called after the site where the artifacts were found. The items are also referred to as the Forbes Cave collection, after David Forbes, a member of the group that removed the items.

L. La'akea Suganuma, representative of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, said he was leading the effort to bring the museum's actions to the attention of federal officials.

"I think it's important for the preservation of our culture. It's the right thing to do," said Suganuma, who works for the preservation of Hawaiian culture, as did his grandmother, noted scholar and author Mary Kawena Pukui.

Suganuma rejects the argument that it was proper to return the items to their burial cave on the Big Island. In his letter, he wrote: "There are many who believe that some of these one-of-a-kind works of our ancestors must be displayed for educational purposes. Many learned kupuna (elders) claim that these were not funerary items but were hidden for safekeeping at the time when the new Christian religion fostered the destruction of anything to do with the old beliefs."

A representative of Hui Malama could not be reached to comment.

Brown said public discussion of the museum's position might best wait until after the meeting of the federal committee. He said he had hoped to go to St. Paul, but has a schedule conflict with the museum's largest annual fund-raising event. He is sending two senior staff members: registrar Malia Baron and archivist DeSoto Brown.

The museum director said he did not know of any further attempts to confirm the location of the artifacts since he took over at the museum. "I am concerned about whether the artifacts are still in the cave complex," he said.

Hui Malama had been in discussion since 1994 with Bishop Museum, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Hawaii Island Burial Council to determine the fate of the artifacts.

NAGPRA guidelines indicate that the committee can uphold the museum's decision and process, or rule that the claimants have merit in complaining that they violated federal policies.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.