seeking return of
The treasures were believed
to have been secretly buried
in a Big Island cave
Abigail Kawananakoa, a wealthy heiress and descendent of royal Hawaiian blood, filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against the Bishop Museum and a controversial native Hawaiian group, demanding the return of Hawaiian treasures believed to have been secretly buried in a Big Island cave.
Kawananakoa's group, Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa, joined forces last December with La'akea Suganuma, president of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, who has fought for five years to secure the return of the 83 items that were reburied in Kawaihae or "Forbes Cave."
"Laws have been violated — both man's law and Hawaiian spiritual and cultural law," said Suganuma. "We don't even know if these precious artifacts are actually in the cave. Even if they are, they have been subjected to deterioration and attack by insects."
The items include several valuable stick figure aumakua (deified ancestors), a female figure adorned with human hair and refuse containers studded with human teeth.
Suganuma and Kawananakoa also filed an injunction yesterday demanding that the museum secure the return of the artifacts from the cave, saying they were "improperly loaned" to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O'Hawaii, a native Hawaiian group founded in 1989 to reclaim native Hawaiian remains and artifacts.
Suganuma, a practitioner of ancient Hawaiian martial arts, has long argued that the loan to Hui Malama prevented other claimants from fairly staking their right to the objects under the federal law known as the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA governs the repatriation process for native Hawaiian and American Indian human remains and treasured objects.
Edward Halealoha Ayau, a spokesman for Hui Malama, declined to comment until he has reviewed the suit.
Museum director Bill Brown said "We strongly believe that those objects should be recovered and secured from harm."
According to court documents, the 83 items were crated up and handed over to members of Hui Malama on a Saturday in February 2000 when most of the museum staff was not present. The document releasing the items describes it as a "loan" from Feb. 26, 2000 until Feb. 26 2001. The document also said: "These items are being loaned pending completion of NAGPRA repatriation per request of claimants Hui Malama and Department of Hawaiian Homelands."
At the time of the loan, there were four claimants: Hui Malama, DHHL, Suganuma's group and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The number has since grown to 14.
Hui Malama reburied the items in Kawaihae cave to honor ancestors and refused repeated requests by the museum to return them. The group allegedly secured the cave from treasure hunters by sealing it with stone, cement and metal rebar.
The injunction slams the museum for its "failure to maintain possession and/or control over Hawaiian cultural items while evaluating competing claims" under NAGPRA.
The injunction said "certain museum officials were in such a hurry to deliver the items to Hui Malama that fundamental museum policies designed to protect articles loaned from its collection were ignored."
Brown, who was not director of the museum at the time of loan, said that once the items are reclaimed from the cave "consultation should continue among all recognized claimants in a manner that is respectful to them all."
Suganuma said: "This Kawaihae Caves disaster, as well as the 1994 theft of the ka'ai, occurred under the administration of former museum director Donald Duckworth. However, it is now the responsibility of the current administration and board of directors to recover the objects and follow proper NAGPRA repatriation procedure."
The five-count suit uses legal arguments based on NAGPRA's review processes and Fifth Amendment property rights law. The suit also seeks court recognition that the repatriation was not final. Hui Malama's Ayau has repeatedly said that the repatriation was final and if there is a dispute among the 14 claimants it should be resolved in court.
Under NAGPRA, there are about 130 groups recognized as native Hawaiian organizations that have standing to make claims for certain items. Hui Malama and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs were the only two specifically listed in the NAGPRA laws as such organizations. Other groups needed to apply for recognition.
To position herself to make claims on Kawaihae, Kawananakoa formed Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa last November as a native Hawaiian organization as defined by NAGPRA. She made claims on several artifacts including those at Kawaihae. On July 28, the Bishop Museum board of directors formally recognized it as an native Hawaiian organization.
Kawananakoa's group includes her close advisers Rubellite Johnson and Edith McKinzie. Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, is a renowned scholar of Hawaiian culture, language and history. McKinzie, a kumu hula, is an expert in Hawaiian genealogy who authored the two-volume "Hawaiian Genealogies," considered among the most authoritative texts on the subject.
According to the suit, Suganuma first appealed to the museum, which did not act to recover the items and then worked through the NAGPRA review process.
In May 2003, a NAGPRA review committee meeting, which gives only advisory opinions, found that the repatriation was "flawed" and therefore not final. In March 2005, a second review committee meeting in Honolulu upheld the first ruling which called for the reclamation of the objects from the cave while the consultation process proceeds among the claimants.
Kawananakoa, who is descended from King Kalakaua, said: "I would like to commend the other claimants who have worked so hard for years to bring justice and honor to our ancestors. We have tried every way possible to resolve this matter other than going to court. However, the refusal of Hui Malama to comply with the loan agreement, the review committee's two decisions, and the law has left us no choice."