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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 21, 2006

For museum or the cave?

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Items of antiquity like this image were taken from a Kawaihae cave in the early 1900s. Claimants of the objects have gone to court.

Bishop Museum

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Hidden away to be seen by future generations or burial objects that should never have been disturbed?

That's the central issue of the federal court case involving 83 sets of cultural objects from the Forbes Cave on the Big Island.

Abigail Kawananakoa, who for years has avoided the public spotlight, recently spoke to The Advertiser about why her group, Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa, and the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts are suing for the return of the objects to Bishop Museum. The two groups are among 14 organizations that filed as claimants under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to have a say in the fate of the items.

The items were "loaned" by the museum to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, a group dedicated to repatriating burial remains and also one of the claimants. In 2000, Hui Malama placed the items next to iwi, or bones, in Forbes Cave. The museum has asked to have the items returned. But Hui Malama officials have maintained that they consider the items repatriated and the matter closed, even refusing a federal court order to return them.

Kawananakoa and her supporters believe at least seven to nine of the objects were hidden there nearly two centuries ago when, following Kamehameha's death in 1819, his successors abolished the kapu system and ordered all symbols of the old Hawaiian religions destroyed.

"Our purpose is to preserve and to bring back the things that were taken illegally," Kawananakoa said.

The argument flies in the face of the beliefs of Hui Malama and its supporters, who believe the objects were placed in the Forbes Cave and others nearby as "moepu," objects buried with the dead. They believe the theft occurred when David Forbes and two other Western explorers discovered the objects in 1905 and sold them to the museum.


Former Bishop Museum anthropologist Roger Rose, who is employed by Kawananakoa's foundation, said at least seven of the items belonged to ali'i. High-ranking chiefs, Rose said, were buried in secrecy because their remains would be coveted by their enemies. As a result, he said, ali'i were not buried with possessions that could identify them.

Rose believes it's "highly probable" that some of the items, at one time, belonged to Kamehameha the Great. He pointed to the Kiha-wahine, the human-like wooden figure that is arguably the one object that has come to symbolize the Forbes Collection.

To solidify his legitimacy to rule the islands, Kamehameha married Keopuolani, the highest-ranking woman on Maui in the early 1800s, Rose said. The union led to two boys who would succeed him as king.

He took back to his home island of Hawai'i the symbols of the most powerful gods of Maui chiefs. Kiha-wahine, Rose said, is one of them. "He took over the women, the chief sacred sites, and the sacred deities of the Maui rulers as his own to establish his own credibility," Rose said.

Rose also pointed out the proximity of the Forbes Cave to Pu'ukohola, Kamehameha's personal heiau, as well as other royal sites. "That would explain why these very important items came from caves in Kawaihae, the area from which Kamehameha began his conquest," he said.

Carved images were rarely found in burial caves, or any caves, he said. "They were found in swamps, in old irrigation canals that had been filled in, buried in the ground, in cavities that have been created to hide them away," he said. "They have been found in caves, but not with burials."

Hui Malama disagrees with Rose's conclusion, citing information by William T. Brigham, Bishop Museum's director in the early 1900s. "The two ki'i 'aumakua with inlaid hair were placed immediately before the set of (18) iwi kupuna," said a statement issued by Hui Malama. "The two ki'i akua with the elaborate headdresses were placed immediately beside these 18 individuals."

Near the entrance was a gourd containing an infant's skeleton, Hui Malama said. "Hence, the four ki'i were literally situated between two burial features representing a total of 19 individuals, all within a single chamber of the cave."

The statement says: "Several lines of evidence indicate that the ki'i in 'Forbes Cave' are directly associated with the burials there and were not coincidentally placed in the burial caves for a purpose unrelated to the individuals interred there."

Hui Malama cited the 19th-century writings of Samuel Kamakau and the Rev. William Ellis, who spoke of precious objects accompanying burials.


Scholars outside the lawsuit also disagree sharply on whether the objects were buried with the human remains.

Artist and historian Herb Kawainui Kane also cited written reports by Brigham, the former museum director. Kane said Brigham learned of the old ways from Kalakaua, who was counseled by elders who once were part of Kamehameha's court.

"Brigham said by no means were the bones of chiefs interred along with any of the objects that could identify them," Kane said. "Brigham's interpretation of this was that these were not grave goods. ... They did not have grave goods during the pre-contact times."

Many Hawaiians today, he said, "have succumbed to the idea of (the remains of) ancient ali'i ... laid out in royal splendor surrounded by all the wealth of their time similar to the pharaohs of Egypt. Just the opposite is the case."

Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, a professor at the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, said there is no evidence that the idols belonged to Kamehameha.

"In fact, the evidence is quite to the contrary," she said. "We did not see those kinds of carvings described or drawn by any of (Capt. James) Cook's people that knew Kamehameha, or Ka'ahumanu or people of that time."

She added: "What is so interesting about these ancestral treasures ... is that they are so different. Therefore, I am even more convinced that they were not placed there after Ka'ahumanu started burning images. I think they belonged to the people who are buried there."


Kawananakoa, the Campbell Estate heiress who recently turned 80, has until recently declined comment on the issue. She maintained a low profile since a fallout with other leaders of Friends of 'Iolani Palace that led to her departure from the group. Supporters point out, however, that she has continued her Hawaiianarelated charitable activities, including a recent contribution of $110,000 to the palace when the Friends requested it.

After participating in a four-month attempt at mediating the Forbes dispute, Kawananakoa expressed disappointment and called the futile effort "a farce."

U.S. District Judge David Ezra has called for proceeding with a court order to examine the safety of the cave in anticipation of opening it up to retrieve the items. The timeline was sealed to deter looters, Ezra said.

The descendant of Hawaiian royalty, Kawananakoa said she was devastated by the theft of two ka'ai, burial baskets believed to contain the remains of Hawaiian chiefs, from the museum in 1994.

In 2002, she, Hawaiian genealogy expert Edith McKenzie and other advisers went to Bishop Museum to examine the safety of other priceless Hawaiian artifacts stored there, Kawananakoa said.

The group concluded that the ka'ai theft was only part of a larger threat to the preservation of cultural treasures, she said. In 2004, after further research and consultation with experts, she filed to be a claimant in the Forbes case.

Kawananakoa, whose grandmother was Princess Abigail Kawananakoa and whose mother founded the Friends of 'Iolani Palace, said she was adopted by her grandmother and grew up learning to appreciate Hawaiian culture and to understand the importance of preserving physical links to the past. "I've had it instilled in me since I was born that this is Hawaiian history. I've been around these things," she said.

Kame'eleihiwa dismissed that explanation. "If she were a true ali'i, what she'd want to do is make sure that ... all of these ancestral treasures would stay with the ancestors," she said.

She said Hui Malama did what was proper, pointing out that it has taken possession of more than 5,900 ancestral Hawaiians and reburied more than 2,900 sets of remains in or near their original burial sites.

There is also disagreement over the legality and intent of the Forbes expedition in taking the items.

The Kawananakoa side believes no laws were enacted until after 1905 that barred the taking of cultural items from caves.

Kawananakoa and Rose said they believe that the Forbes expedition did not set out for financial gain but rather to help preserve a culture at a time when Hawaiians were seeing a dramatic drop in their population.

"This was a period when it was generally thought that because of what happened to the Hawaiian population in the past, they were headed towards extinction, that there would be no Hawaiians left," Rose said. "People did whatever they could to preserve what they could at the time."

Hui Malama and its supporters insist that grave robbing was committed by the three men in coordination with the museum.

In its prepared statement, Hui Malama pointed out that while negotiating the sale of the items, Brigham advised Forbes to "keep the matter quiet for there are severe laws here concerning burial caves."

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.