Defiant hui leader is no hero
By Nanette Naioma Napoleon
It was clear on Tuesday morning when federal Judge David Ezra sentenced Eddie Ayau of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei to jail for failure to disclose the burial sites of the Forbes Caves items that his supporters now see him as both a hero and martyr. They liken him to George Helm who in 1977 disappeared at sea while spearheading the occupation of Kaho'olawe in protest to the continued Navy bombing of the island.
Similarly, they are now using the famous phrase "Eddie Would Go," not in reference to famed surfer and lifeguard Eddie Aikau, who lost his life at sea while attempting to get help for the stranded crew of the Hokule'a in 1978, but in reference to Eddie Ayau's willingness to go to jail for his so-called "noble" convictions.
I'm sorry, but I just don't see it that way. To me, Ayau is nothing more than a bully with a law degree and a zealot's heart who has insulted, belittled and disrespected almost all of the NAGPRA (remains) claimants who have disagreed with Hui Malama's unyielding dogma on repatriation issues over the last 15 years.
I feel this way because I was one of the appointed members of the inaugural Island of O'ahu Burial Council in the early 1990s, and I ended up quitting the group because he and other members of the hui were so dictatorial and uncompromising in their attitude to me, other members of the council, and claimants who came before the council.
Since that time, I have kept abreast of burial issues and have talked to dozens of current and former members of the council, and current and former claimants who have had the very same experiences.
Hui Malama repeatedly proclaims that because it is one of two entities actually listed in the NAGPRA act — the Office of Hawaiian Affairs being the other — that this gives it the last say in all matters regarding repatriation of all iwi and other cultural items.
What the law actually says, in Sec. 2. (11) DEFINITIONS, is the following: " 'Native Hawaiian organization' means any organization which — (A) serves and represents the interests of Native Hawaiians, (B) has as a primary and stated purpose the provision of services to Native Hawaiians, and (C) has expertise in Native Hawaiian Affairs, and shall include the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei."
The key phrase here is "shall include," which does not give these two groups exclusivity in all repatriation issues, but only that they must be included in all negotiations, which may include other qualified Native Hawaiian groups and individuals.
Hui Malama has continually taken this to mean that it has a greater say in repatriation issues that anyone else, and has used this text to intimidate other claimants. It has always been the Hui Malama way or the highway.
Giving credit where credit is due, Hui Malama has done an extraordinary job of retrieving items from museums throughout the world, but what the general public is not aware of is that other Native Hawaiian groups and individuals with differing philosophies and methods have stepped up to the plate to do the same, but the hui, because of its need to be the sole arbiter of all disputes, and because of its access to federal grant moneys, has continually shut others out of that process.
While on the one hand the hui publicly expects others to get involved because it is its kuleana (responsibility) to do so, when others do, it has little, if any, tolerance for differing ways of actually reburying na iwi and other objects.
No claimant group or individual, to my knowledge, has ever wanted our iwi to be kept in museums. Disputes generally revolve around the manner and methods of reburial, and which objects, if any, should be reburied and which should be kept in some other repository, which may or may not be a museum.
To my continual disdain, Hui Malama always makes it seem like all of its opponents want to keep the iwi in museums. I am sick and tired of hearing this.
To me the Forbes Caves case is the case that finally made the volcano that is NAGPRA burst, spewing out all kinds of nasty fumes, especially on the part of Hui Malama. I was appalled to hear, after the judge made his ruling to jail Ayau, someone shout out to the kupuna in the spirit world to "descend, descend" to harm "those evil people" who stand against them.
I was equally appalled to hear the word "hewa," which means offensive, sinful and wicked, directed at the claimants.
These mean-spirited and hateful feelings toward other Hawaiians who are sincere and humble in their efforts are totally unwarranted and undignified. As a Native Hawaiian, I felt great shame and sadness for our culture and our values as a people. As much as I disagree with and am angered by Hui Malama, I would never, ever invoke the wrath of my ancestors to do harm against any one of them.
Make no mistake, Hui Malama has some brilliant minds on its side, with years of legal, cultural knowledge and savvy media experience, which it uses against other, less experienced Native Hawaiians who disagree with them.
How sad is that?
Being a graveyard historian for the last 20 years has taught me that there is never one way of doing cultural things, that cultural practices, including Hawaiian burial practices, may differ from island to island, district to district, and from family to family. Why must Hui Malama's way be the only way?
In an essay by Ayau titled "Rooted in Native Soil," which is posted on the Hui Malama Web site, he states that they expect to be treated as "partners, as natives, as human beings," and that others should "follow the NAGPRA law."
With the Forbes case, the group has chosen to do precisely the opposite — that is, to totally disregard NAGPRA and the negotiation process it mandates, which they themselves helped to develop, by taking the objects without the authority of the Burial Council and the other claimants, stating that they have been given this authority, exclusively, by the kupuna.
Ayau further states that "in sharing aloha or going to war, we maintain a balanced perspective." Yeah, right. The only perspective they will accept is their own — period, end of story.
Was the hui the only culprit in the Forbes case? Certainly not. The Bishop Museum was equally complicit in authorizing a bogus loan agreement that gave the hui all of the Forbes items. The museum has admitted to this and has been willing to try to rectify the matter but cannot do so because of the hui's hard-line and self-righteous stand.
For years, the hui has been an ardent Bishop Museum hater because of its role as a repository of Hawaiian cultural items. I find this very ironic since many of the hui members are scholars and educators who frequent the museum and have learned much of what they know about Hawaiian culture and history from the archives and collections there.
Plus, I find it inconceivable that they would diss the very institution that former ali'i supported both financially and with large object donations of their own. Heck, I have some very strong issues of my own with the museum, but I will always support what it stands for and what it provides for our people.
Up till now, those of us in opposition to Hui Malama have not been able to counter its tactics and public and personal attacks. I'm grateful to the groups and individuals who had the courage to stand up to the hui at the risk of being cursed and damned as villains.
I am also thankful that the courts have seen through the hui's bombastic rhetoric to allow others to be heard. I hope that this sets a clear precedent for all future negotiations. It shall no longer be the Hui Malama way or the highway.