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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, August 14, 2004

Inouye against museum claim

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who helped write the federal law enabling Native Hawaiians to claim burial artifacts and other cultural treasures, yesterday opposed the Bishop Museum's efforts to position itself as a competing Native Hawaiian claimant under the law.

Inouye, D-Hawai'i, told The Advertiser yesterday he believes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) would not allow museums to qualify as "Native Hawaiian organizations" among the groups that can claim burial artifacts.

"It (the museum) is not a Hawaiian organization, it's a museum," Inouye said. "The incorporation of the museum makes it clear that it's not a Native Hawaiian organization ... and I think the law is clear."

Inouye's remarks come amid controversy involving artifacts allegedly put up for sale on the Big Island after they had been "repatriated" to the nonprofit Native Hawaiian organization Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei.

Years of tension between the museum and the hui over handling of artifacts, especially those originally taken from the Big Island's Kawaihae Cave, are part of what spurred the museum to propose a new "guidance" policy asserting itself as a Hawaiian group that could compete with groups such as Hui Malama in claims for objects in its collection.

Museum director Bill Brown said in a written statement yesterday that the museum was still "receiving and considering comments on the proposed guidance.

"We welcome and appreciate the senator's comments, recognize his leadership on this issue and believe his views deserve great weight," Brown said.

Inouye said he had asked the U.S. Department of the Interior, the federal agency overseeing NAGPRA, to comment on the museum's proposed position, but had not yet received a reply.

A spokeswoman for Inouye's staff said it was hoped a response would be received by Labor Day, the museum's deadline for comments.

Reports in the past week about the Department of Interior's investigation into burial artifacts allegedly offered for sale also concern Inouye, who involved Hui Malama in crafting the law and has personal ties with the group. Edward Ayau, one of the group's leaders, is a former Inouye aide.

"All I know is what I have seen in the media," the senator said. "But I've had staff inquire into the facts to find out what happened. I'm concerned because I have been involved in this."

Interior's Office of the Inspector General is continuing its investigation into the handling of Native Hawaiian artifacts, but cannot disclose details, said David W. Brown, special agent in charge. Two agents are in Honolulu full-time, Brown said.

A collector who asked to remain anonymous because of the ongoing federal probe said he had spotted items at a Kona district shop, including three wooden bowls, a gourd and kapa wrappings. Federal agents are investigating whether those items had been conveyed to Hui Malama for reburial at Kanupa Cave in Kohala.

The collector said the items were marked as coming from the J.S. Emerson collection, acquired after the turn of the century by Bishop and Peabody Essex museums in Salem, Mass.

Hui Malama has denied involvement in the public circulation of burial artifacts. Ayau told The Advertiser he's uncertain how such items came to the shop, but added that not all of the Emerson collection was repatriated to Hawaiians; some pieces have circulated among private owners.

He also said the items transferred to Hui Malama's custody claimed under federal law were returned from the two museums in four lots, between September 1997 and last November. All the items, including human remains and burial artifacts, were reburied at Kanupa last November, Ayau said.

He declined to answer questions about where the items were stored between September 1997 and November 2003.

Federal agents have been posted at Kanupa Cave and have made efforts to enter Kawaihae, where an expedition led by David Forbes a century ago collected burial artifacts and conveyed them to the Bishop Museum. In 2000, the museum "loaned" them to Hui Malama members, who reburied the artifacts in Kawaihae.

Museum officials and competing claimants said reburial was unauthorized under the law, but the state Hawaiian Homes Commission — the Kawaihae Cave landlord — denied a museum request to reopen the cave almost a year ago.

In June, the commission denied a similar request from Interior. Agents of the Office of Inspector General had sought to transfer the artifacts from Kawaihae to a secure National Park Service facility on the Big Island, according to a June 8 letter signed by Commission Chairman Micah Kane.

The commission denied the museum access because "its intention is to protect and preserve the iwi kupuna (remains), not to disturb their burial sites," Kane wrote. "You have not presented any new information which would lead the commission to reconsider its position."

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