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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, September 19, 2004

Bishop Museum proposal opposed

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Hawaiians, testifying in person and by telephone link yesterday, spoke mostly in opposition to the Bishop Museum being considered a Native Hawaiian organization able to claim burial objects and other sacred items under a federal burials protection law.

Bishop Museum gained some support from people such as Van Horn Diamond, a burials claimant who outlined the museum's historical link to the Hawaiian monarchy in person while wearing a red and yellow cape of his royal civic society, Hale O Na Ali'i O Hawai'i. But most testimony weighed heavily against the museum's proposed policy asserting its Native Hawaiian status.

The museum "cannot establish a cultural affiliation" with items in its collection, Kehau Abad, an archaeologist, told members of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation review committee.

"It's not a Native Hawaiian organization, it's an institution," Abad said by telephone link. "It may serve Native Hawaiian interests, but that's different from being an organization that can speak for Native Hawaiians."

The repatriation review committee meets periodically to help resolve disputes under the federal act of the same name, better known as NAGPRA. A number of Native American burial issues were considered at this meeting, and the inclusion of the Hawai'i cases speaks to their high-profile nature.

A second dispute

Yesterday's meeting in a downtown hotel, brightened by touches of traditional costume and begun with a chant by Hawaiian studies professor Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, touched on two battle fronts of the conflict over native burials in Hawai'i.

In addition to the museum's status, the committee is considering what to do about 83 items reburied at Kawaihae four years ago, a dispute involving in particular one group, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei. The hui is a nonprofit organization that works to protect burials and to rebury remains and funerary objects that have been disturbed, whether they have been dug up by collectors or in the process of development.

The committee took no action on either issue yesterday. A NAGPRA officer, Tim McKeown, said the committee would wait to hear the results of a Senate hearing on the Bishop Museum policy and would schedule another hearing in Hawai'i on the Kawaihae case.

Hui member Halealoha Ayau spoke on both issues. The museum's policy, he said, "creates an inherent conflict of interest ... it's not only deciding on repatriation, it also places itself on the other side of the table."

'Revisionist history'

Not all the testimony came from Hawai'i. Greg Johnson, a specialist in Native American religious traditions from Pennsylvania, told the panel that the policy represented a "revisionist history" of Native Hawaiian cultural identity.

Bishop Museum director William Brown attended the meeting but declined comment on the testimony.

Under NAGPRA, repatriation means transferring title over bones, funerary objects and other cultural items to a Native Hawaiian organization or individual. The Kawaihae cave conflict centers on the museum's contention that the competing 13 claimants had not settled various disagreements when, in April 2001, the museum repatriated the items to them in joint ownership.

In written testimony, Guy Kaulukukui, the museum's former NAGPRA official, pointed to a statement claimants issued in August 2001 that ended their negotiations, concluding that they "cannot reach unanimous agreement" on all issues.

Hui Malama has argued that the museum had already passed the deadline for making the transfer when the museum loaned them to the group, which then reburied them in the cave in February 2000.

Bishop Museum has said that interrupted the legal process and prevented the airing of all claims equitably.

Pros and cons

The museum transferred title without retrieving the objects from the cave, which, hui member Halealoha Ayau said, it can do under the law. Since then, the museum and a group of seven claimants have sought to reopen Kawaihae cave to check on the objects.

In May 2003, the NAGPRA review committee found that the transfer was done prematurely, a finding that the museum and a group of seven of the claimants have used to seek reopening of the cave.

Yesterday, Ayau argued that the finding should be rescinded. His main points:

• The committee had no legal authority to make its recommendations because it had not consulted with all the claimants first.

• The museum repatriated the objects to Hui Malama and has no standing to be involved now.

• The law provides no way to reopen a completed repatriation case.

La'akea Suganuma, spokesman for the seven claimants in the Kawaihae case, argued instead that the committee fulfilled its requirements and should let its earlier decision stand.

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