Posted at 11:19 a.m., Wednesday, August 11, 2004
U.S. investigates sale of Hawaiian artifacts
No human remains were being sold.
Bill Brown, director of the Bishop Museum, said the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior is investigating this as a criminal case, but declined further comment on the case.
In general, however, he said the museum "strongly condemns any effort to sell or trade historic Hawaiian artifacts on the black market.
"This is a critical moment to remember the great significance of Hawaiian cultural heritage and to reflect on what stewardship of that heritage genuinely requires," Brown added.
Federal officials were unavailable for comment. Two Interior agents are reportedly in Hawai'i and have possession of some of the artifacts.
The artifacts had been in the possession of the Bishop Museum until the late 1990s when they were repatriated to a Native Hawaiian group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei.
Ho'oipo Pa, a member of Hui Malama, had said previously that the group has been contacted in connection with a federal investigation but did not comment in detail. Hui Malama members did not return calls for comment today.
Hui Malama is an organization that oversees perpetual care of Native Hawaiian remains and is the Bishop Museum's chief critic in its handling of several controversial cases involving cultural artifacts. Repatriation of burial items to Native Hawaiian groups is authorized under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
When the artifacts in question were returned to Hui Malama, they had a specific destination, said DeSoto Brown, collections manager for the Bishop Museum archives.
"They were specifically to be placed back in a cave called Kanupa Cave on the Big Island," DeSoto Brown said.
DeSoto Brown learned about the investigation two weeks ago, but said it may have been going on much longer. He said a friend on the Big Island called him recently to tell him that the artifacts were being sold by an antique dealer.
"Material was, in fact, for sale and in a store on the Big Island," DeSoto Brown said. "I don't know if it was under a counter or openly displayed."
Federal authorities were called after collectors on the Big Island reportedly were contacted by the dealer about five weeks ago. The dealer had Hawaiian artifacts for sale.
It is believed the dealer was selling a bowl for $20,000.
The collectors recognized the artifacts as part of the Emerson Collection and contacted the Department of the Interior.
How the remains came to the dealer appears to be at the core of the investigation. DeSoto Brown said he is not sure how many people know how to find Kanupa Cave, although its location is not a secret.
"We don't know if the objects got put back in the cave and then got removed and if removed, how they were removed," he said. "Or, did they get in other people's hands before they were placed in the cave?"
The philosophy that artifacts are better off when left in a cave is problematic, DeSoto Brown said.
"The problem is that even if that is done, what happens after that cannot be controlled," he said. "The question is, What is less disturbing? Is it more disturbing to have things in a cave to have them potentially removed and sold or the alternative, to keep them in a situation like a museum?"
He said he prefers the latter.
"And I think for great number of years, many Hawaiians felt the same way," he said.
Guy Kaulukukui, a former museum official who handled repatriations, said that the Kanupa items came from the collections at the Bishop Museum as well as the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
Before being acquired by the museums, the cultural items were collected by J.S. Emerson sometime between the 1880s and the early 1900, according to notices archived on the NAGPRA Web site. The Peabody repatriations included a wooden bowl and wooden spear repatriated in 2001 and various bowls and other items repatriated in 2003, according to the notices.
The Bishop Museum items from Kanupa were part of a larger group of artifacts, but Kaulukukui could not say when that repatriation took place.
He said he has heard only unsubstantiated rumors about artifacts being sold.
"If there is specific evidence then I think it's important for people to come forward," he said. "But there are rumors, malicious rumors being spread to malign Hui Malama... I don't know of any reason not to trust that they have carried out the work that they have said they did."
Reach Mike Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8012.