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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Request to get artifacts expected to be denied

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

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

Micah Kane, chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, said he expects the commission will reject the museum request when it meets on Maui today, a step that would effectively block museum efforts to recover the relics.

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

The Native Hawaiian organization Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawai'i Nei said it placed the artifacts in the caves. Kane said he has been told that the group has photographs or other documentation to prove the artifacts were returned.

"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 the 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 (NAGPRA). 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."

"Although priceless to the museum and many others in Hawai'i, the artifacts have great commercial value, and their sale might bring millions to those who do not give them the respect they are due," Brown said.

If the Hawaiian Homes Commission will not allow the museum to enter the caves to recover the items, Brown asked that the matter be deferred "until the museum, the commission, and all claimants have had more opportunity to search for common ground."

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