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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Burial dispute can't be settled in the dark

With yesterday's rejection by the Hawaiian Homes Commission of the Bishop Museum's request to enter the Big Island's Kawaihae burial caves, the "Forbes Collection" saga is no closer to resolution.

The museum wants access to the caves to retrieve 83 artifacts purportedly stashed there years ago by Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawai'i Nei.

All this would be a lot easier if David Forbes, a judge, businessman and amateur archaeologist, hadn't removed this collection, considered sacred, in 1905 in the first place.

But he did. And 95 years later Hui Malama, with the Bishop Museum's blessing, took it upon itself to re-inter the collection, incurring the wrath of several Hawaiian groups who understandably questioned Hui Malama's ability to protect the collection from damage.

A federal panel that reviews possible violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act has concluded that the artifacts that the Bishop Museum "loaned" to Hui Malama have not been properly repatriated, concurring with the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, which got the panel involved.

In light of that conclusion, the museum might be liable for any damages to the collection. So we can hardly expect museum president William Y. Brown, who inherited this controversy, to take it lying down. He says "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."

Hui Malama asks us to trust its stewardship of the collection, but it won't trust the Bishop Museum to repatriate the collection. If no one budges, we're looking at a tangle of lawsuits that could ultimately raise the dead.