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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 11:47 a.m., Thursday, August 12, 2004

Collector's tip leads to artifacts inquiry

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

A Big Island collector today said he was the first to discover that burial artifacts from a century-old collection were being offered for sale in a Kona district shop and then reported it to the Bishop Museum.

The museum in 1997 had designated part of the collection for reburial in a Kohala cave.

The collector, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a criminal investigation into the attempted sale of the artifacts is still under way, said the items were recognizable because they were labeled as part of the collection of J.S. Emerson, who had retrieved burial items from Kanupa Cave at around the turn of the 20th century. The items included three wooden bowls, a gourd and kapa cloth.

The collector said that when he visited the shop in mid-June, one of the bowls was priced at around $20,000. He said he warned the shop owner that he would report the finding, adding that he then relayed the information to the museum through a fellow collector.

Federal agents, backed by Big Island police, searched a business and a home Tuesday, said Capt. Robert Hickcox of the Kona patrol division. Hickcox would not identify the targets.

Bishop Museum director Bill Brown today confirmed that the museum passed on the information to federal authorities.

"This matter was brought to our attention by an individual who reported it to a member of our staff," Brown said in a written statement. "The museum provided the information, without comment, to the Department of the Interior and has been assisting the Interior Department's requests for help in identifying the artifacts."

Yesterday he confirmed the criminal investigation was ongoing but declined to offer details.

The investigation is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing debate over stewardship of funerary objects and other cherished Native Hawaiian cultural artifacts, and whether they are best kept in museums or returned to Native Hawaiian custodial groups.

The principal combatants are the museum and Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, the group that received custody of the Kohala artifacts under federal law in 1997.

Edward Ayau, the group's attorney, did not return calls for comment today.

But board member Charles Maxwell said reports that items in Hui Malama's custody had been offered for sale are untrue. "I've been involved since 1990. This is very insulting," Maxwell said.

The artifacts had been in the possession of the Bishop Museum until they were turned over to Hui Malama, an organization that oversees perpetual care of Native Hawaiian remains. The group has been the chief critic of Bishop Museum's handling of several cases involving cultural artifacts.

Repatriation of burial items to Native Hawaiian groups is authorized under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

In a written statement yesterday, Brown 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.

DeSoto Brown, collections manager for the Bishop Museum archives and not related to the museum director, said he realized which artifacts were allegedly being offered for sale when investigators presented a list of numbered items catalogued in a specific collection and asked for photos to help identify them.

Lance Foster is director of native rights, land and culture at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, one of the competing claimants for the Kanupa artifacts. Foster said yesterday that OHA had heard no evidence of wrongdoing but was waiting for more details before commenting in detail.

Foster said, however, that he had witnessed the reburial of artifacts at Kanupa Cave in November. The cave opening is a vertical crevice that was collapsed after the reburial, making re-entry very difficult.

Some of the Emerson items came from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

The notices indicate that in 1889, Bishop Museum bought 30 items from Emerson as part of its original collection. These included pieces or fragments of burial kapa cloth, a stick, an amulet, cordage, gourd water bottles, coconut cups and wooden bowls. In 1904, the museum received additional kapa fragments from Emerson.

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.