DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
These two ceremonial staffs stood outside the crypt yesterday at the Royal Mausoleum at Mauna 'Ala, where the original staffs have been missing since they were purportedly borrowed by a Hui Malama director five years ago but never returned.
Mausoleum fears theft of treasures
The caretaker says a Hawaiian group has reneged on a loan
Two sacred staffs topped with golden orbs that for more than 113 years watched over the crypt of the royal line of Kamehameha are missing and believed stolen, according to the caretaker of the Royal Mausoleum known as Mauna 'Ala.
In interviews last week, William Kaihe'ekai Mai'oho, the "kahu," or caretaker, of the Royal Mausoleum in Nuuanu Valley, said he stood on sacred ground of the high chiefs, or, "ali'i," and looked straight into the eyes of another Hawaiian who asked to borrow the pair of "pulo'ulo'u." Mai'oho said he "made a good-faith loan."
That was five years ago and they have never been returned.
Mai'oho said that Kunani Nihipali, then po'o, or director, of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawaii Nei, a controversial group that repatriates native Hawaiian remains and burial objects from museums, wanted to borrow the pulo'ulo'u to guard over bones from Kamehameha lands that their group had reclaimed from the Bishop Museum for proper reburial.
Mai'oho said Nihipali promised to return the pulo'ulo'u to Mauna 'Ala after the bones were reinterred.
"I took his word that he would return them," said Mai'oho, the sixth generation of his family to serve as kahu at Mauna 'Ala. "I told him I wanted them returned because Mauna 'Ala is where they belong."
Mai'oho said he doesn't know if the bones were ever reburied but that he has never seen or heard from Nihipali despite repeated efforts to contact him. In late 2004, Nihipali left Hui Malama and Eddie Halealoha Ayau, a founding member and spokesman of the group, became po'o.
"It is my responsibility to bring the pulo'ulo'u home. I took them at their word. I accept my responsibility that I let them go from Mauna 'Ala. But I never thought they had any hidden agenda. I can see now they had an underlying agenda."|
William Kaihe'ekai Mai'oho
Royal Mausoleum caretaker
Ayau did not return calls to his Molokai home. Mai'oho and others said that Ayau was often present during visits concerning the restoration.
"This isn't a police matter. It would be very un-Hawaiian for me to go to the police," said Mai'oho, a soft-spoken man who was groomed from early childhood by his grandparents to assume the responsibility of kahu. He is descended from two chiefs hand-picked by Kamehameha I (who is not buried at Mauna 'Ala) to hide his bones after his death from enemies who would want to use the "mana," or spiritual power, from his bones.
"This is not just about stolen items," said Mai'oho, "This is on a much larger, spiritual scale. And I try, but I cannot understand why they did it."
Sitting outside of his small, one-story home on the grounds of Mauna 'Ala last week, Mai'oho said: "It is my responsibility to bring the pulo'ulo'u home. I took them at their word. I accept my responsibility that I let them go from Mauna 'Ala. But I never thought they had any hidden agenda. I can see now they had an underlying agenda."
Mai'oho said that each year he makes several inquiries after Nihipali, but has never heard from him. Even though the loan was made to Hui Malama as a group, Mai'oho said: "This is between Kunani and myself. I want to deal with him directly because it is who I handed the sacred objects to."
The Star-Bulletin has made repeated unsuccessful attempts to reach Nihipali in Hawaii and on the West Coast, where he is believed to be living or traveling. The Star-Bulletin has also tried reaching Nihipali and Ayau through the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which represents Hui Malama and was informed of the missing pulo'ulo'u.
Mai'oho said he decided to go public about the loan and alleged theft because in recent weeks he has heard that Hui Malama buried them in a cave.
"I am afraid to say that I don't think they ever intended to return them," said Mai'oho.
Mai'oho said that in 1999 or 2000, the Charles Reed Bishop Trust, which oversees Mauna 'Ala, agreed to restore the two deteriorating Kamehameha pulo'ulo'u, which were made from an iron staff and a copper orb covered in gold and placed with the crypt in 1887.
In ancient Hawaiian culture, pulo'ulo'u were a symbol that royalty was present, according to Mai'oho and other experts. They were carried at the front of royal processions. They were found in pairs outside of a royal house. And if royals decided to take a swim, pulo'ulo'u would be planted in the nearby sand to warn others away.
Typically, pulo'ulo'u contained in the staff or the orb the relics -- bones, teeth or hair -- of ancestral chiefs who watched over the living chiefs or chiefesses. The pulo'ulo'u are believed to hold strong mana. In front of a chief's house, they were sometimes crossed, which forbade entrance to others unless the person chanted their genealogy and business and was permitted entrance. If the pulo'ulo'u were upright, a person could pass through.
The pulo'ulo'u that stand, upright and uncrossed, before the crypts of the royal families at Mauna 'Ala are symbolic, and do not contain relics, but are believed to have strong mana, said Mai'oho.
Several appraisers contacted by the Star-Bulletin said it is almost impossible to estimate a commercial price for the pulo'ulo'u because few if any have ever been sold and they are such a rare, one-of-a-kind item.
In about 2000, Nihipali and George "Billy" Fields, a Big Island mason who often does work for Hui Malama, were hired for the restoration of the pulo'ulo'u, according to Mai'oho and Lurline Naone- Salvador, who worked for 29 years at Kamehameha Schools and has worked closely on restorations at Mauna 'Ala.
Naone-Salvador confirmed Mai'oho's statement that Nihipali and Fields said the originals were too badly deteriorated to be refurbished and a new pair should be made. The day they installed the new ones at the crypt, Nihipali asked to borrow the old ones.
Mai'oho said Nihipali explained how Hui Malama had taken possession of ancestral bones from the Bishop Museum and that they were stored at his Pupukea home until they could be properly reinterred. He said some of the bones were from Kamehameha lands and that he wanted the pulo'ulo'u to guard over them.
"I loaned them because there was a connection with Kamehameha," said Mai'oho. "But I told him I wanted them back because they belong here and I would either find someone to refurbish them or I would bury them behind the Kamehameha crypt."
Naone-Salvador agreed with Mai'oho, "It was definitely a loan."
"If they put the pulo'ulo'u in a cave, it is like blasphemy," she added.
Naone-Salvador said that in late 2000, she visited Nihipali at his Pupukea home. She said that behind his house he had built a wooden shed lined with shelves that held the bones repatriated from the Bishop Museum. When she opened the door of the shed, she said, "I saw the pulo'ulo'u with my own eyes.
"When I saw the pulo'ulo'u, I said: 'Why are they still here? Why are they not back at Mauna 'Ala?'
"It wasn't like a confrontational conversation with Kunani. It was casual. And Kunani said he had them until the iwi (bones) were buried."
Not long after, Naone-Salvador said she had a falling out with Hui Malama. "It has to come back because it is meant to be here. And if it can't be used, it should be buried here and not removed," she said.
Fields also told the Star-Bulletin that "Hui Malama borrowed (the pulo'ulo'u)."
"And it's like Kunani just vanished,' he added.
Fields noted that he is not a member of Hui Malama. "I am just a hired gun."
In a recent affidavit he filed in a federal lawsuit over the disposition of items from Forbes or Kawaihae cave, Fields testified that he has performed "various masonry, welding and construction work in conjunction with over 50 repatriations" that Hui Malama has conducted to rebury native Hawaiian remains and burial objects since 1990.
Mai'oho said the way Nihipali borrowed and never returned the pulo'ulo'u is similar to his understanding of how Ayau allegedly borrowed 83 sacred artifacts known as the "Forbes collection" from the Bishop Museum as a "one-year loan" in February 2000. The items, originally taken from the Kawaihae or Forbes Cave on the Big island, were not returned.
Ayau has said the items were resealed in Kawaihae. He has repeatedly defended Hui Malama's actions, saying that the items were originally stolen from the ancestors in 1905 by David Forbes and two others, and that the museum knew that it was buying stolen goods. Ayau has repeatedly said Hui Malama reburied the items to honor ancestors and right the wrongs of the 1905 theft.
Hui Malama also claims that the Kawaihae items were properly repatriated under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law that governs the reclamation of native Hawaiian and American Indian remains and artifacts from museums. Some of the other 13 claimants to the Forbes items say they did not get a fair voice in the disposition of the items when Hui Malama reburied them.
Last March, the NAGPRA Review Committee came to Honolulu to hear testimony on the case. When asked by the committee what he thought a loan meant, Ayau told them, "It was a vehicle for repatriation."
He also told the committee that neither Hui Malama nor the museum staff expected the items returned. The committee, which has only advisory power, ruled the repatriation was "seriously flawed."
Today, Kawaihae cave is at the center of a federal lawsuit that seeks the retrieval of the 83 items so that 14 native Hawaiian claimants may have a voice in their final disposition. The suit was bought by two claimants: La'akea Suganuma, a practitioner of lua, which is a form of ancient Hawaiian martial arts, and Abigail Kawananakoa, a Campbell Estate heiress and descendent of the royal Kalakaua line. The two argued that Hui Malama disregarded the rights of other claimants when they reburied the items.
Suganuma, who has long been at odds with Hui Malama, said that if the taking of the pulo'ulo'u is true, it "is the height of arrogance. This is total disrespect for the culture and the ali'i to just take these things. It is so disrespectful."
Mai'oho compared his loan to Hui Malama to the Bishop Museum's loan of the Forbes items: "It's what Hui Malama did at the Bishop Museum with the Forbes cave items. But to come and do the same thing at Mauna 'Ala, I just don't understand."
"This is far worse than taking from the Bishop Museum," he added.
Mai'oho said that when someone crosses the threshold of the gold-tipped gates of Mauna 'Ala, they come onto 3.5 acres of royal land under the Hawaiian flag. He said the Western world and its laws and customs are left behind on Nuuanu Avenue and that Hawaiians can relate to one another completely on Hawaiian terms.
"If you are Hawaiian, your word is life and death, especially here," said Mai'oho. "Here, on Mauna 'Ala, we can be completely Hawaiian with one another."
He noted that everything that is of Mauna 'Ala belongs there, including the pulo'ulo'u.
"Even the dirt is consecrated here," he said. "It is blessed and it isn't taken from here."