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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Burials panel accused of bias

 •  Hui lays claim to artifact on Moloka'i

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

A spokesman for groups battling over the reburial of Hawaiian artifacts at Kawaihae Cave has charged that a federal panel is ducking its responsibility to settle disputes by favoring one of 13 claimants involved in the case.

La'akea Suganuma, representing seven of the claimant groups, on Monday mailed and faxed a letter to the national office that oversees the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), accusing the review committee and its chair of attempting "to circumvent the law to the benefit of one claim-ant."

That claimant, he wrote, is Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, the native burials protection group that in 2000 took 83 contested artifacts on loan from the Bishop Museum and later announced that the objects had been reburied in the Big Island cave.

Neither Tim McKeown, the federal NAGPRA officer to whom the letter was addressed, nor Rosita Worl, committee chair, could be reached for comment.

However, hui member Edward Halealoha Ayau defended the committee in his e-mail response, calling the accusation "inflammatory" and without proof.

Suganuma is president of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, one of the seven groups arguing that the ownership of the objects was never legally "repatriated," or transferred, and should be retrieved from the cave.

The controversy over Kawaihae, also known as Forbes Cave, is at the center of what may be a heavy agenda of local burial disputes that the review committee is expected to take up when it meets in Hawai'i in March. And the wrangling over details, a hallmark of this debate, indicates how contentious the native burials issue has become.

The 14-year-old NAGPRA law governs conflicts over native burials. In Hawai'i there's little fighting over custody of iwi kupuna, or ancestral bones, which museums and institutions readily have returned to native groups; but ownership of cultural objects found in burial caves and grounds has generated heated debate.

Suganuma takes issue especially with the way the committee has handled the Kawaihae dispute. The panel decided in May 2003 that the repatriation was flawed and that the museum should recall the loaned objects. Since then Suganuma and museum officials have asked to enter the cave, which is on land owned by the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands; department officials have denied access to the cave.

Then in September, the committee decided to set aside its 2003 finding until the issue could be reheard in Hawai'i. This week Suganuma wrote in his letter that there is no legal basis for reconsidering the finding, rejecting an argument by Hui Malama that a procedural error had been committed.

A committee that can reverse itself, Suganuma told The Advertiser, "threatens the integrity of the whole damned system."

Ayau said in a written response that the committee made its 2003 decision in St. Paul, Minn., at a meeting attended by museum officials and Suganuma, who represented only one of the 13 groups.

"The committee recommended actions that involved Hui Malama and the other 11 claimant-owners, none of whom were party to the dispute in St. Paul," Ayau wrote. "That is clear procedural error."

The hui was among the first Hawaiian organizations to make federal burials claims in the early years of the law, but more groups since have entered the fray. For example, Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kawananakoa founded Na Lei Ali'i Kawanana-koa to claim three objects from a burial site on Moloka'i now in the Bishop Museum collection.

The museum has accepted Kawananakoa's group, as well as Hui Malama and Suganuma's academy, as a Native Hawaiian organization eligible to make competing claims.

Interest in the issue expanded over the summer when objects that were repatriated from the museum collection turned up for sale in a Big Island shop. A federal investigation was conducted, but no charges have yet been handed down.

The Kawaihae case remains, however, as the thorniest problem, complicated by a change in museum leaders, who are challenging more artifact claims than their predecessors. There's the inherent conflict between the museum and native groups — a conflict NAGPRA attempts to untangle — as well as increasing strain within the Native Hawaiian community itself.

In his response, Ayau underscored that many of the claimants, including Suganuma's group, entered the Kawaihae debate very late in the process.

"Their continual assertion that their legal 'rights' were denied does not explain their own lack of kuleana and commitment to these iwi kupuna and their funerary possessions from the outset," he wrote.

By contrast, Suganuma wrote in his letter to the NAGPRA committee that it had committed "a travesty" by failing to enforce its earlier order.

"Rest assured that this injustice establishes a permanent blemish that will be long remembered," he added.

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