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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, October 8, 2004

Bishop Museum ends 'Native' claims

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Bishop Museum board of directors has given up its plan to claim cultural artifacts as a "Native Hawaiian organization" under a federal native-burials law, but yesterday reaffirmed its intent to hold claims made by others to a stricter standard.

The change in policy came yesterday in a unanimous vote by 17 of the museum's 31 directors on a "final guidance" document, now posted on the museum Web site. It's sure to signal more strenuous battles over burial objects and other artifacts in the museum collection, including three items from Moloka'i that a Hawaiian burials group wants returned, or "repatriated."

The museum, which was not founded by a Native Hawaiian, has served as a repository for Hawaiian treasures bequeathed by the ali'i class and others. In July the museum sparked a hot debate after releasing a draft policy, or "guidance," laying out how it would proceed in claims of artifacts under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

The debate centered on the museum's assertion in the draft policy that it qualifies as a "Native Hawaiian organization" able to claim artifacts under NAGPRA. This drew emotional resistance from some Native Hawaiian groups, as well as pointed opposition from U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, one of the law's chief architects.

In the end, community opposition to such recognition for Bishop Museum and concerns over potential conflicts in judging claims and making claims on objects in its collection led to the board's decision, according to the final guidance document.

William Brown, museum president and chief executive officer, acknowledged that Inouye's opposition also factored into the decision. The museum has used federal grant money for various projects through the years — the current list includes $400,000 for a new "magnet school" project.

"We are aware of Sen. Inouye's perspective," Brown said. "We have great respect for his leadership in NAGPRA, and his views on the law matter greatly."

Jennifer Goto-Sabas, an Inouye spokeswoman, had served as a board member until the end of September and, although she wasn't involved in the final decision, she was part of the debate over the draft policy. Goto-Sabas disputed any suggestion that the senator would withhold funds based on the policy conflict.

"The institution is near and dear to the senator," Goto-Sabas said. "Just because there is a disagreement, that would have nothing to do with his funding or emotional support for the museum."

Among other key points in the final policy:

• The museum will consider on a case-by-case basis whether a Native Hawaiian organization's "cultural affiliation" to an object qualifies it as a claimant and sets out certain rules for evaluating that affiliation. Any claimant who demonstrates lineal descent from a buried person, for example, has top priority.

• The museum asserts that none of the objects in its collection fall in the categories of "sacred objects" or "objects of cultural patrimony." In the case of sacred objects, NAGPRA defines these as items required for the practice of sacred rites, said Brown.

But in Hawaiian tradition, he said, such objects are often made anew for each ritual, so that no particular sacred status rests on a specific example that's in the museum collection.

As an example, board member Richard Paglinawan cited a carved staff used in rituals dedicated to the god Lono. Paglinawan, a cultural practitioner, made a replica of the example in the museum collection for a seasonal observance known as makahiki, something he wouldn't have been able to do if the museum did not keep the item for all to see.

• The museum asserts that it has "right of possession" over objects that it owns under state law.

Right of possession strengthens the museum's case in disputes over certain cultural items and is a key element in the dispute over three items that are, according to one claimant, burial objects from Moloka'i. That claimant, the nonprofit organization Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, seeks the return of a ki'i (image), a cowrie shell and a niho palaoa (pendant).

Member Edward Halealoha Ayau said the group has filed a complaint with the NAGPRA review committee over the museum's failure to complete repatriation of the image and the shell (claims on the pendant have not yet been made) and is seeking civil fines against the museum.

Civil penalties officer Ann Hitchcock, of the National Park Service, confirmed that the case is being investigated. Brown said the museum has assurances from park service officials that it has proceeded correctly so far.