Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Panel to reconsider artifacts' transfer

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

A federal committee will meet in Hawai'i in March to reconsider whether the Bishop Museum more than four years ago properly transferred control of 83 funerary objects. Those objects are now reportedly reburied in Forbes Cave on the Big Island, and some groups with claims to them want them recovered.

The meeting is set for March 14 and 15, although its location, on O'ahu or on the Big Island, is uncertain. Also, committee staff said an additional day, March 13, may be added.

The transfer — or "repatriation," as the process is known in federal law — conveyed ownership of the objects from the museum to 13 claimants in April 2001. Some of the new owners have protested that by then, the objects already had been reburied in the cave by one claimant, the nonprofit group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, which was loaned the objects by the museum.

The controversy over Forbes Cave, also known as Kawaihae Cave, has simmered ever since, with both sides disputing various aspect of the federal law that seeks the protection of native burials.

A review committee formed under that law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, decided 1y´ years ago that the Kawaihae repatriation was flawed and that the items should be recalled so that the process could begin again.

The museum's current administration agrees with that finding, said DeSoto Brown, the museum's collections manager. Brown said yesterday during a teleconference that the committee's 2003 decision was made properly.

However, the decision drew an outcry from Hui Malama, which testified in September that the repatriation had been final and that the entire group of claimants should have been involved in the discussion.

During the teleconference, hui member Edward Halealoha Ayau said that a courtroom, not a committee meeting, is the proper place to resolve the dispute.

Nevertheless, the committee decided that it will revisit the case in March, focusing on the specific complaint by one claimant, the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, against the Bishop Museum.

The academy, through its spokesman La'akea Suganuma, has served as representative for seven of the claimants, those that favor retrieving the items from the cave.

The teleconference included former officials of the museum, such as retired museum president Donald Duckworth and Guy Kaulukukui, formerly the museum's vice president for cultural studies. Duckworth told the committee that the issue is complex, partly because the Hawaiian community "is not of one mind concerning the issues of repatriation."

"A loan was made, unfortunately," he added, referring to the loan of the objects before their reburial. "It was a loan that perhaps should not have been made ... but it was done in the sense of the good faith that was supposed to be binding to everyone."

The meeting in March promises to be explosive, because of the facts in dispute and the emotions that the issue generates. Kaulukukui told the committee the museum transferred ownership because the claimants couldn't agree on recalling the cave items and did not insist on that happening.

After the meeting, Suganuma cited statements by Kaulukukui that the museum would resume efforts to recover the items; shortly after that conversation, he said, the museum dropped those plans.

"They used this (repatriation) as a ploy to skirt their responsibilities," he said. "I'm glad they're coming to Hawai'i. ... I'll have to refresh Guy's memory."

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