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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 2:01 p.m., Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Museum denied access to caves, artifacts

By Kevin Dayton
and Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writers

HILO, Hawai'i — The Hawaiian Homes Commission today denied Bishop Museum’s request for permission to enter burial caves in Kawaihae to retrieve 83 rare Hawaiian artifacts that have been the source of a three-year controversy.

The Native Hawaiian organization Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawai'i Nei said it placed the artifacts in the caves.

Big Island commissioners Henry Cho and Herring Kalua supported the denial and said Hui Malama did the right thing by returning the artifacts to the cave complex.

"The spirit of the 'iwi said, 'Take us back to our home,’ " Cho said with emotion. "They came home, and they did the right thing."

The commission voted 8-1 in a meeting on Maui. O'ahu commissioner Quentin Kawananakoa voted against the motion after failing to get a second on his own motion to defer the item to the board's next O'ahu meeting in 60 days.

La'akea Suganuma of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts urged the commission to defer the meeting to allow the O'ahu claimants to voice their opinion.

Afterward, he said the commission let the Bishop Museum off the hook in terms of their responsibility. He said the issue will now likely end up in court.

So long as the commission is provided with proof the artifacts are in the caves on Hawaiian Home Lands, "then our position would be to not disturb the caves any more," Micah Kane, commission chairman, had said yesterday.

"I think there’s just a fear of disturbing the caves when it’s not necessary, out of respect for our ancestors," Kane said.

"I think most people believe — even those who do not agree that the repatriation process is complete — they think the caves have been disturbed too much already," Kane said. "Until we’re convinced that there’s a need to re-enter, I think, again, the commission is going to take a hard position not to disturb."

The artifacts along with skeletal remains were removed from the burial caves starting in 1905 or 1906, according to statements made by David Forbes, one of three men who entered the cave at that time. Additional removals continued as late as 1980, according to a staff report prepared for the Hawaiian Homes Commission.

The remains and artifacts were stored in the museum collection until 1998, when the museum lent the remains to an organization called Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawai'i Nei. The museum then lent the artifacts from the caves to Hui Malama in 2000, including a well-known wooden carving of a female figure, two stick 'aumakua, refuse bowls or ipu 'aina decorated with human teeth and a number of other items.

Rather than return the items to the museum, Hui Malama representatives said they placed the relics and remains back in the caves, and sealed the caves.

For years Hui Malama has been active in efforts to rebury remains and items covered by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Congress passed the act in 1990 to try to return human remains and other significant cultural items to the Native American and Hawaiian groups from which they originated.

Hui Malama worked with Bishop Museum and the other claiming organizations since 1994 to determine the fate of the items. But when the loan of the artifacts was made public, other organizations that believed they had an interest in the artifacts objected.

Bishop Museum later said it erred in lending the items to Hui Malama and asked that they be returned so the museum can follow proper repatriation procedures with 13 recognized claimants of the artifacts.

The federal NAGPRA review committee studied the Kawaihae issue in May, and concluded the artifacts have not been properly repatriated. The committee also concluded the museum is responsible for properly resolving the issue, and said the 83 items should be recalled and made available to "all parties in the consultation."

Hui Malama so far has refused to return the items, arguing that placing the remains and the artifacts back in the caves was in keeping with the wishes of their Hawaiian ancestors, who put the items there in the first place.

William Brown, president of Bishop Museum, issued a statement yesterday that noted that "neither the museum nor the claimants can be certain that all of the objects were in fact placed in the Kawaihae Caves, nor can we be assured that persons unknown have not removed them."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.