Mishandling of artifacts denied
By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer
The leader of the Hawaiian group given custody of a century-old set of burial artifacts yesterday said the group properly reburied the items, and is upset at implications that it mishandled the artifacts.
Kunani Nihipali, the po'o (head) of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, issued the group's first detailed response to reports that some of the artifacts had surfaced at a Kona district shop offering them for sale.
In the written statement, Nihipali countered what he described as efforts to "slander" through implications that the organization had not reburied the artifacts in their original resting place, Kanupa Cave in Kohala.
"All iwi kupuna (ancestral human remains) and moepu (funerary objects) from Kanupa Cave that were repatriated to us from the Peabody Essex Museum and the Bishop Museum were ceremonially returned to their place of origin," Nihipali said.
"We support federal efforts to investigate any such sale of Hawaiian cultural items."
He said members of the organization visited the Kanupa burial site on Wednesday but were turned away by a federal official who said agents were investigating a theft.
The group has conducted its own security inspections of the site, he said.
The first indication that some items had been stolen came in mid-June, when a Big Island collector noticed several of the funerary objects displayed for sale at a Kona district shop and then reported it to Bishop Museum.
The collector spoke to The Advertiser yesterday on condition of anonymity because a criminal investigation into the attempted sale of the artifacts is still under way. He 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 outset of the 20th century. The items at the shop included three wooden bowls, a gourd and kapa fabric, he said.
The Bishop Museum had custody of some of the Emerson collection until 1997, when under a federal law its officials had conveyed its items to Hui Malama for reburial in Kanupa Cave.
Museum director Bill Brown confirmed yesterday that the museum passed the collector's report onto 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."
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.
Repatriation of burial items to Native Hawaiian groups is authorized under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
According to NAGPRA notices, 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 of burial kapa fabric, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8053.