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Thursday, November 2, 2000

Burying the Past

Bishop Museum
criticizes lawsuit
threat from OHA

OHA Chairman Hee threatens
the lawsuit and says the priceless
'Forbes Cave' artifacts should
have been returned by now

By Mary Adamski and Burl Burlingame

A threatened lawsuit over the failure to return priceless Hawaiian artifacts is "counterproductive," the Bishop Museum's executive director said today.

A lawsuit was threatened by Clayton Hee, chairman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, one of 10 groups that claim a right to determine the fate of the "Forbes Cave" artifacts.

"We will not accept any more evasiveness from the Bishop Museum," Hee said last night after a four-hour meeting at the museum.

Yesterday was supposed to be the deadline for Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei to return 83 items that were taken from a Big Island cave in 1905. The items, loaned to the organization in February by museum vice president Elizabeth Tatar, include a famous carved wooden female figure, two stick aumakua (family gods) and two gourds decorated with human teeth.

"We came thinking the artifacts were going to be there," said OHA trustee Nalani Olds.

"Bishop Museum are the keepers of Hawaiian treasures," she said. "How long are we going to allow them to continue? They are not following the federal law" (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which describes return of human remains and significant cultural items to their origin in native American groups).

Kunani Nihipali and Eddie Ayau of Hui Malama were present at the beginning of the meeting when the graves protection act was discussed. But, said Van Horn Diamond, whose family is among the claimants, they left before Bishop Museum officials announced that the artifacts had not been returned.

The Hui Malama members avoided waiting media as they left amid a group of supporters from Nation of Hawai'i, which has also filed a claim for the items. Nation of Hawai'i leader Bumpy Kanahele answered questions with, "The story should be like the iwi (bones): buried, kept to our people."

In a written news release, the museum said that the artifacts had not been returned and that contingency plans are being considered.

The museum said it would not release details of the plans to ensure security and the safety of a team involved in the removal.

"OHA and all the claimant organizations have been well informed throughout the process, through every step of the way on this issue," museum executive director Donald Duckworth said today. "We are as mindful of the importance of security as they are, and appropriate measures are being taken as we speak. To bring up the threat of legal action at this point is counterproductive."

Not everyone left upset at the unmet deadline.

"I'm kind of impatient, but the process has to take its course," said Mel Kalahiki of Na Papa Kanaka O Pu'uokohola Heiau, a Big Island claimant. "We're looking at something of substance by the next meeting."

Kalahiki said he suggested that the human remains be left in the Big Island cave where Hui Malama has reburied them. "But they should bring out the cultural objects for final disposition. Security is what everyone is concerned about."

"The museum has developed a plan for recall of the items," said Laakea Suganuma of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts. "This process has given us the opportunity to sit down and discuss things as Hawaiians."

Olds said that if the museum handles this controversy effectively, it is "the rare opportunity to right a lot of wrongs. Because of the ka'ai (the February 1994 disappearance of two sacred baskets that hold the bones of alii), the protocol they don't follow ... If they could work to bring this to a positive ending, they could regain the trust and good will they have lost."

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