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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, August 8, 2004

Museum policy further threatens artifacts

By Edward Halealoha Ayau

Also signed by Kunani Nihipali, Pualani Kanahele, Kehau Abad, Kekuhi Kanahele-Frias, Huihui Kanahele-Mossman, 'Ahi'ena Kanahele, Kaumakaiwa Keali'ikanaka'ole, Ulumauahi Keali'ikanaka'ole, Kauila Kanahele, Luka Kanahele-Mossman, William Aila Jr., Billy Fields, Pele Hanoa, Keolalani Hanoa, Kaleikoa Ka'eo, Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, Pu'uhonua Kanahele, Kahu Charles Maxwell, Jimmy Medeiros Sr., Jon Osorio, Konia Freitas, Mehana Hind, and Ho'oipo Kalaena'auao Pa.

An interim guidance policy on the repatriation of Hawaiian cultural items adopted by the Bishop Museum would do serious harm to Hawaiian values and practices if it is allowed to stand.

The policy was proposed by museum director William Brown under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

If this policy stands, it would:

• Defeat the intent of Congress in enacting NAGPRA, which sought to redress harms to Native people caused when their human remains and other cultural objects were taken from them and put into museums. This policy would deny the human rights goals of NAGPRA and contort it into a shield to block us from caring for our kupuna and their possessions.

• Represent a conflict of interest, in that the Bishop Museum would be able to claim cultural items from its own collections while at the same time hold responsibility for repatriation of such items under NAGPRA. How could Bishop Museum maintain objectivity in reviewing NAGPRA claims when it is one of the claimants?

• Undermine the repatriation of funerary objects not now associated with human remains, because the proposed policy would declare Bishop Museum the lawful owner of all such "unassociated" funerary objects in its collections.

• Obstruct the repatriation of sacred objects that were unlawfully acquired, because the policy inaccurately declares that the museum does not now have any items that meet the NAGPRA definition of sacred object. Especially disturbing about this declaration is that NAGPRA defines as sacred objects those needed by a Hawaiian religious leader to continue or renew traditional religious ceremonies.

• Allow the museum to claim cultural items as a Native Hawaiian organization, and hence counter claims of such bona fide organizations. Since NAGPRA allows a museum to hold on to claimed items until resolution is reached among claimants, the museum as a claimant could forestall repatriation indefinitely by disagreeing with other claimants.

• Allow the museum to prevent the repatriation of all Hawaiian cultural items from museums and federal agencies by filing a claim under NAGPRA and disagreeing with repatriation.

• Undermine the ability of Native Hawaiians to provide proper care of our cultural items through repatriation. Rather than be a mechanism for healing old wounds, the interim guidance would open new ones.

The proposed policy is insulting, paternalistic and colonial, reflecting the mindset of current leadership. There is no need for Bishop Museum to claim cultural items except to undermine Native Hawaiian efforts to do the same.

There is nothing in NAGPRA or its legislative history to indicate that Congress intended for museums to claim cultural items. U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai'i, has inquired with the Department of Interior about the propriety of the Bishop Museum's self-designation as a Native Hawaiian organization and the legal effect on its obligations to comply with NAGPRA.

Amendments to NAGPRA that would prohibit Bishop Museum from qualifying as claimant are being considered. Concern also has been raised among Native Americans and museum professionals.

All of this points to a need for a leadership change. We insist that the museum's board of directors repeal the interim guidance, remove Brown and undertake efforts to identify a qualified Native Hawaiian to serve as the new director of the Bishop Museum.