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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, August 21, 2004

Access to burial cave sought

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

One of the groups with a claim on rare Hawaiian artifacts now sealed in the Big Island's Kawaihae cave complex has filed a formal request to enter the caves and see if the items are there, citing concerns about recent reports of other artifacts being offered for sale.

But a policy barring access to the cave is unlikely to be changed until the federal probe into the artifact sale yields more information, said the head of the state Hawaiian Homes Commission, which controls the land where the caves are located.

A letter was sent Monday to commission chairman Micah Kane by La'akea Suganuma, representing claimants who complain that the Kawaihae artifacts were reinterred four years ago without their claims being fully heard under a federal repatriation law.

The letter seeks permission to enter the caves to "confirm the presence of and determine the condition of the cultural items formerly in the possession of the Bishop Museum," according to the letter, which Suganuma signed as "authorized representative" of the majority of the 11 groups submitting competing claims on the objects taken from the Kawaihae cave complex in 1905.

Bishop Museum sparked the controversy in February by handing over 83 artifacts from the caves to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, a nonprofit group established to care for burial remains and artifacts.

Leaders of Hui Malama later said the items had been reburied. The claimant group is best known for its work to rebury more than 1,000 ancient remains repatriated from the museum.

The Kawaihae items include a famous carved wooden female figure; two stick aumakua, or family gods; and two gourds decorated with human teeth.

Recent reports from collectors that items repatriated to the group for reburial in nearby Kanupa Cave were being offered for sale have prompted a federal probe, but agents have not said who is being targeted. Hui Malama has denied any involvement in selling artifacts.

Kane said Thursday that the commission was awaiting the findings of the probe before considering a reversal of its position.

"It's purely to protect the sanctity of the cave," he said. "It's not to take the side of any claimant."

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