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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, March 14, 2005

Battle begins over burial artifacts

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Three days of arguments over cultural objects, chiefly involving Bishop Museum officials and some of their longtime opponents in issues of native burial law, began yesterday by spotlighting the sharp split among Native Hawaiians in the emotional custody battle over ancient artifacts.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei members Edward Ayau, center, and Charles Maxwell, right, listen to Bishop Museum President William Brown on the first of a three-day federal hearing concerning the emotional custody battle over Native Hawaiian artifacts.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Presiding over the sessions at the East-West Center are five members of a federal review committee set up under that law, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

By tomorrow's adjournment, they hope to foster some solution to the impasse between the burials protection group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei and its adversaries, the museum in particular.

However, Timothy McKeown, the administrative officer for the committee, suggested at the outset that final answers to the thornier questions, such as the controversial "Forbes Cave" decision affecting 83 Big Island artifacts, may be a matter for courts to decide.

At yesterday's session in a packed Keoni Auditorium, the hui and its supporters stood on one side of the debate, maintaining that several objects in question belong not in a museum but with Native Hawaiians, in most cases the ancestors they say were buried with them.

Hearings Continue

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee will hear more comments from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and make decisions tomorrow at Keoni Auditorium, East-West Center. At issue are:

Three funerary objects from Moloka'i now in the Bishop Museum collection — a rock oyster pendant, a wood image and a cowrie shell.

Sandstone slabs known as the Kalaina Wawae, still owned by the museum but installed for public viewing at a Moloka'i site.

Five objects — a female ki'i (figure), a cutting tool, a rock oyster pendant, a konane game board and a gourd — originally from Kawaihae Cave but now in the collection of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.

The 83 objects formerly in the museum collection that were reburied in Kawaihae.

On the other stood those who believe that some of these items may not be burial objects at all, and that the museum is generally better equipped to take care of cultural treasures. At the very least, say some critics of Hui Malama, a wider range of Hawaiian groups should be given fair consideration as stewards.

"Our culture has been very much endangered," said Charman Akina, a member of the museum's collections committee. "We Hawaiians need to be able to see these artifacts ... if we are really going to learn about our past, artifacts have to be preserved and made available to the public."

For their part, hui supporters said these objects are not the property of the general public but of the specific ancestor who owned them in life or — in the case of the Kalaina Wawae, sandstone "footprint" blocks carved from a rock face — of the Moloka'i land from which they came.

The museum has retained title to the blocks but struck a private agreement with a Moloka'i group to care for them and then paid to install them at a coastal site. The hui wants to have the objects declared "cultural patrimony" — meaning that they are so central to the culture that they can't be owned — to rescind the museum's title.

"They're home now, but our job isn't done because we have to guarantee they won't be taken again," said Edward Halealoha Ayau, the po'o (head) of Hui Malama.

The museum had been close to including Hui Malama in that agreement but later deleted them from the legal papers, said museum president William Brown. The reason: The hui's decision in the Forbes case to sign a loan agreement for those artifacts with no intent to return them, and then to rebury them in the cave, Brown said.

"We were uncomfortable accepting any signed agreement with them, because Hui Malama had signed a loan agreement that they would return the objects, and didn't," he said.

In another Moloka'i clash, the museum is asserting its ownership of a wooden figure, or ki'i, arguing that it was acquired through legal means from someone believed to have the right to sell it. The hui brought several Moloka'i youths to make the case that the ki'i, as well as other items from an area of sand dunes at Mo'omomi, were funerary objects and should be reburied.

"Even without going there in person, I know I have no reason to walk those sands, and so I have honored the sacredness of my ancestors as an obedient, respectful grandchild," said Nelson Jenks-Pua'a, 16.

Finally yesterday, the committee heard from officials from the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, where five more objects from the Forbes collection now reside. Cindy Orlando, park superintendent, said officials now are consulting with 46 different Native Hawaiian organizations on how to classify the objects and whether they must be returned to native ownership under the law.

Hui supporters pointed to evidence that the objects were part of the burial of a Hawaiian ali'i.

"These are items that were supposed to remain there with their chief," said archaeologist Kehau Abad. "They don't belong to all Native Hawaiians."

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