Report of artifact sale leads to search
Law enforcement officials have searched at least two Big Island addresses in a federal investigation into allegations that ancient Hawaiian burial artifacts were put up for sale in the past month, Big Island police said.
Bishop Museum officials yesterday confirmed that the federal Office of the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior was investigating it as a criminal case. The museum was approached by investigators for help identifying artifacts being offered for sale. The artifacts are believed to be among those that were thought returned to a burial cave in Kohala, a museum official said.
The Department of the Interior did not return phone calls seeking comment.
No human remains were being offered for sale; it was not immediately known how many burial artifacts were offered or if any were sold.
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.
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.
Federal agents, backed by Big Island police, searched a business and a home Tuesday in the Captain Cook area, said Capt. Robert Hickcox of the Kona patrol division. Hickcox would not identify the targets.
The artifacts had been in the possession of the Bishop Museum until they were turned over in 1997 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 (NAGPRA).
Bill Brown, director of the Bishop Museum, confirmed that federal agents were conducting a criminal investigation.
In general, 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.
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.
When the artifacts in question were returned to Hui Malama, they had a specific destination, he said. "They were specifically to be placed back in a cave called Kanupa Cave on the Big Island."
DeSoto Brown said he learned about the investigation two weeks ago, though it might have begun much earlier. He said a friend on the Big Island called him recently to tell him 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."
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 can 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?"
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.
DeSoto Brown said the idea that artifacts are better off left in a cave is problematic.
"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 prefers the latter. "And I think for a great number of years many Hawaiians felt the same way," he said.
Hui Malama's Maxwell took issue with the contention that a museum is a safer place for artifacts, pointing to the February 1994 disappearance of the ka'ai, two sacred baskets that hold the bones of ali'i, when they were in museum custody.
Guy Kaulukukui, a who formerly handled repatriations at the museum, said the Kanupa items came from the collections at the Bishop Museum as well as the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
Before the museums acquired them, the cultural items were collected by J.S. Emerson, around the turn of the century, 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.
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.
Kaulukukui said he had 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."
Advertiser writer David Waite contributed to this report. Reach Vicki Viotti at email@example.com or 525-8053.