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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, August 8, 2004

Museum is a steward of Hawaiian culture

Excerpts from the Interim and proposed Final Guidance for the Bishop Museum under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act:

"I remember when I started working at Bishop Museum and the old Hawaiians came and brought their grandchildren. They saw the wooden images, feather capes, kapa and much more. They wept with joy to see that some things remained from the old days, and they thanked the ali'i for having kept them. They had great aloha for Pauahi's legacy."

— Patience Namaka Bacon, museum staff since 1939.

The Bishop Museum opened to the public on June 22, 1891. The museum had been founded in the name of the High Chiefess Pauahi Bishop and included her collections and those of Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani and Queen Emma. Lili'uokalani was queen when the museum opened and was its first official visitor. A reporter attending the event wrote: "Many aged Hawaiians recognized among the large collection of idols which their ancestors reverenced with fear and awe. The god of Kamehameha I, and a god of rain attracted a large share of their attention."

More than a century later, the Bishop Museum remains steward of these treasures. Kuka'ilimoku, Kamehameha's war god, still looks fiercely on those who stand before it, and some tremble. In the last year, when the Pleiades rose and the annual Makahiki festival began, the wooden image of the god Lono was dressed as in days gone by and turned in the museum vestibule as the trade winds filled its kapa sails. This wooden image is the last of its kind: None other remains from the days when the ancestors lived the old ways. The Bishop Museum keeps the old for those who live now and who will live later.

The guidance discussed below addresses responsibilities of the Bishop Museum under a federal law concerning responsibilities for Native Hawaiian cultural items.

The guidance document is a legal analysis. The Bishop Museum will honor the law and has prepared this guidance with that objective. However, long before this law, the Bishop Museum was conceived and made real by the ali'i and other people of the Hawaiian kingdom. We remember and honor the vision and love of Bernice Pauahi Bishop. We believe that her dream and our responsibility have always been — and will remain — to be a bridge to the past so that the living will remember whence they came.


This document sets forth interim and proposed final guidance of Bishop Museum in respect to key provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted on Nov. 16, 1990.

Over the past three centuries, many Native American human remains and funerary objects have been taken from burial sites and placed in museums or held by federal agencies. NAGPRA provides a mechanism for return of Native American human remains and other cultural objects to Indian tribes (including Alaskan Native villages) and Native Hawaiian organizations.

Since NAGPRA's enactment, Bishop Museum has taken many steps to comply with the act's requirements, including completing repatriations of human burial remains. ...

This Guidance addresses in particular Bishop Museum's dual role as a steward of Native Hawaiian culture as well as a museum with repatriation responsibilities defined by the act.

This Guidance is prospective only. The museum does not intend to revisit completed repatriations. Furthermore, the museum does not intend to apply this Guidance in its efforts to complete repatriation in the matter of 83 items from the Kawaihae Cave Complex.

Tribes and Native Hawaiian Organizations

NAGPRA defines Indian tribes by reference to Bureau of Indian Affairs policy, which provides for general recognition of the tribe by BIA and requires a petitioner to have continuously existed as an Indian tribe since historic times.

Native Hawaiian organizations (NHOs) are, alternatively, defined by NAGPRA to mean: "any organization which — (A) serves and represents the interests of Native Hawaiians, (B) has as a primary and stated purpose the provision of services to Native Hawaiians, and (C) has expertise in Native Hawaiian affairs, and shall include the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei."

More than one hundred NHOs have been recognized by museums and federal agencies. Two recognized NHOs are agencies of the state of Hawai'i (OHA and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands).

Bishop Museum clearly meets NAGPRA's definition of an NHO, and Bishop Museum here recognizes itself to be a Native Hawaiian organization. The museum's articles of incorporation were amended in 2003 to state that the purposes of the corporation shall include "as a primary purpose providing services to and in general serving and representing the interests of Native Hawaiians ..."

In fact, for over a century, the museum has served this purpose and developed enormous expertise in Native Hawaiian affairs through work to preserve cultural objects and to study and tell the stories of Native Hawaiian culture. The core, original collections were comprised of Native Hawaiian items that the ali'i High Chiefess Pauahi (whose collections included those of Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani) and Queen Emma wished to preserve and exhibit for their people. Pauahi and Emma's collections were augmented in the museum's first decade by the collection of the Hawaiian National Museum (which Bishop Museum replaced).

The museum now cares for over 1,470,000 Hawaiian objects. ... Bishop Museum has the right of possession of unassociated funerary objects in its collection if the museum is the owner under Hawai'i state law.