Museum executive leaves after dispute over remains
By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer
A dispute between the Bishop Museum's president and a Native Hawaiian group over the reburial of ancient Moloka'i remains and burial objects has led to the departure of the museum's vice president, who had approved the group's claim on those remains.
Guy Kaulukukui, formerly the museum's vice president for cultural studies, was fired late last month, said his attorney, Robert F. Miller. Kaulukukui has deferred comment to his lawyer.
The firing resulted, Miller said, when Bishop Museum President Bill Brown told Kaulukukui to sign letters indicating that transfer of the remains and burial objects to the group would be delayed while a competing claim, and the museum's policies on the matter, are examined. Kaulukukui refused, he said.
This is the latest controversy to flare in the sensitive Native Hawaiian campaign for the reburial or "repatriation" of native remains and associated burial objects. It's an area ripe for cultural conflict and in which, even experts admit, clear evidence is sometimes elusive.
The repatriation organization in the Moloka'i case is Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawai'i Nei. The group previously was embroiled in a conflict over remains from the Big Island, which members took on loan from the museum collection and buried in Kawaihae Caves almost four years ago, over the protests of other Hawaiian groups.
Brown, through a spokeswoman, confirmed that Kaulukukui has left his post but declined to say whether he resigned or was fired.
"The issues related to repatriation of cultural artifacts and funerary objects are very sensitive, and we take our stewardship role seriously," Brown said in a written statement in response to questions from The Advertiser. "At my direction, a very cautious approach to each claim is taken in order to make sure that a Kawaihae Caves situation never again occurs."
Brown said in his statement that a competing claim on the remains from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs also needs to be considered. Pua Aiu, a policy analyst with the OHA Native Rights, Land and Culture Division, declined comment on the OHA claim.
At issue are what's described as bone fragments and moepu, or funerary objects, part of the museum's inventory from Moloka'i, said Edward Ayau, attorney for Hui Malama. He described the set as including shells, a wood image and a palaoa, or pendant, made from rock oyster shell.
Repatriation is governed by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
In a written statement, Brown acknowledged that concern over the past conflict spurred him to ask National Park Service officials who supervise NAGPRA requests whether the museum must give the Moloka'i remains to the hui, "if and when all NAGPRA requirements are met."
Ayau pointed to a letter the museum sent the hui in October in which Kaulukukui said the museum's NAGPRA advisory committee recognized the hui's claim on the remains.
He also showed a copy of a December letter from the park service to the museum, stating that no NAGPRA exceptions apply to the Moloka'i case and that "the museum must proceed with repatriation of the cultural items."
What's in dispute is whether the hui fulfilled all the rules. In his statement, Brown cited a requirement that a claimant must provide evidence that the museum "doesn't have right of possession," something he said neither the hui nor OHA have done.
Ayau said the hui has followed procedures and has been cleared by Bishop Museum's own committee, adding that the museum is now vulnerable to fines under the federal law.
He acknowledged Brown's assertion that OHA has a competing claim but maintained that the hui already has been recognized.
"You cannot call a time out in the middle of this while the clock was running," Ayau said. "What he (Brown) is doing is interfering not so much with our rights but our responsibility to care for our ancestors."
Paula Molloy, a spokeswoman for the park service, said that when there are disputes, the parties have a few options. One is to ask the advisory NAGPRA review committee to review the case, she said; its recommendations to the U.S. interior secretary are admissible in court but not legally binding.
Another is to file a federal lawsuit to compel the property to be conveyed, she said. Neither the park service nor the interior secretary has the authority to do that, she said.
But the interior secretary can assess fines, Molloy said, following the filing of a formal, written allegation of noncompliance with NAGPRA.
Final resolution to such conflicts would require an accord on contentious philosophical and cultural questions, an accord that simply doesn't exist, said Michael Graves, chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.
Most people support the reburial of remains, he said; the disagreement centers over what to do with burial objects, especially those that are deemed worthy of study. Some say all such objects should be reburied; scientists and some Hawaiians believe exceptions can be made, Graves said.
Another challenge is interpreting scientific evidence, he said.
"The problem with Hawaiian burials that we face is because there's not some sort of marker at the surface and because they're sometimes placed in lava tubes or other places where people may have engaged in some other activities," he said. "The identification of what's a Hawaiian burial and what is not can be subject to some dispute. Those cases do need to be examined carefully."
Graves said it helps to put the conflict in a familiar context.
"If we were to have to dig up a historic cemetery and then we reburied remains, we would put the coffin back in the ground as well," he said. "We wouldn't suggest that because that coffin was beautiful, it should be kept. I try to place this in the context of how I would feel, how almost anyone might feel about such objects."
Reach Vicki Viotti at email@example.com or 525-8053.