Hui Malama leader in jail for 'indeterminate amount of time'
The group refuses to reveal the location of artifacts during an emotional hearing
DRESSED all in black with his hair cascading over his shoulders framing his tattooed cheek, Edward Halealoha Ayau left a federal courtroom yesterday flanked by U.S. marshals. He was sentenced to "an indeterminate amount of time" in prison for violating a court order to identify specific locations within Big Island caves where he reburied 83 native Hawaiian artifacts.
"Mr. Ayau, you have backed this court into a corner and forced its hand," said U.S. District Judge David Ezra, adding, "I didn't want to do this."
Ezra said Ayau would be held until either he or others who helped him rebury the objects with secret rites identified their location to the court or until other native Hawaiians, with the help of structural engineers and perhaps other professionals, located them and retrieved them.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Before yesterday's hearing in federal court on disputed Big Island artifacts, members of the native Hawaiian group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna Hawaii O Nei formed a circle to pule, or pray.
At one of several dramatic points during the hearing, Ezra asked the directors of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna Hawaii O Nei to stand before him and answer whether they would give him the location of the items or the names of people who were present at the ritual reburial. In their own words, they each refused.
When told he could face prison, Ayau answered: "I would be honored."
Ezra said he had no choice because Hui Malama, a group founded in 1989 to reclaim native Hawaiian bones and burial objects from museums and construction sites, has supplied only "duplicitous statements" and "insufficient information" to the court as to the locations.
Ezra said this case is about native Hawaiians versus native Hawaiians and not native Hawaiians versus the federal court. "This forum is simply the place for this dispute to take place," Ezra said.
The long-standing argument entered the federal court system in August, when a federal lawsuit was filed against Hui Malama by two claimants of the Kawaihae items: La'akea Suganuma of the Royal Academy of Traditional Arts and wealthy Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kawananakoa of Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa.
"He brought this upon himself," Suganuma said yesterday. "The judge bent over backward to accommodate him and he is stealing the truth."
Speaking of Ayau, Suganuma said: "He wants to be a martyr. But he has an agenda, and there is more than appears on the surface. If and when we recover the items, we will know more."
Ezra discussed how all sides in the dispute have strongly held religious beliefs that severely counter one another. He likened the ardent belief and the resulting divisiveness to other religious differences, such as those in the Middle East, where he said some feel compelled to strap bombs to themselves in the name of their beliefs and that others find those beliefs abhorrent.
His point was that in such rigidly opposing religious battles, under American law, no one group is right.
"Unfortunately, like any religion, there are those who believe differently," Ezra said.
He noted that while Hui Malama believes the artifacts are burial objects that ancestors wanted buried with them, which are wishes they honored, others believe they are not such items. They say they were common religious items that could be openly displayed until 1819 and the end of the traditional Hawaiian religion, which meant that many such items were hidden in caves for safekeeping so they would not be destroyed by mobs.
Ezra said: "Unfortunately, Hui Malama has taken it upon itself to determine their way is the right way, the only way. We don't tolerate that in our country."
Yesterday's proceeding, which was attended by more than 100 Hui Malama supporters and about 20 plainclothes marshals, erupted into shouting, chanting and raised fists when it was clear that Ayau and Hui Malama were losing.
Kihei Nahaleo from the Big Island was chanting and stopped. Then he glared at Ezra, shouted and angrily raised his fist, and Ezra commanded marshals to "seize that man."
He was taken into custody and sentenced to five days in jail after Ezra told him that disrupting a federal courtroom in that manner could have resulted in one year in prison.
Yesterday's court proceeding showed how strongly different native Hawaiian groups feel about the fate of the 83 artifacts that were taken from Kawaihae or Forbes Cave in 1905 and then placed with the Bishop Museum.
On Sept. 7, Ezra ordered that the items be retrieved from the caves on the Big Island so that 14 native Hawaiian groups can review them and have an equal voice about their final disposition. The groups have staked claims under a federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Ezra has ordered the items be returned to a secured place, away from public view, at the Bishop Museum, which received the stolen items from David Forbes and two associates who entered the caves in 1905.
Ezra, acknowledging the original 1905 grave robbery, said yesterday he hoped there could be a third secure place agreed on for the items but that for now he had only the museum.
Ezra faced a challenging hearing. As he tried to invoke fines, a young man began to clap and chant. Ezra ordered him out of the courtroom.
Moments after Ezra made Ayau's prison fate clear, Pualani Kanahele, a renowned kumu hula from the Big Island and Ayau mentor, stood up from her second-row seat and loudly said, "I will not sit and hear this crap."
As Kanahele stomped out, cursing Kawananakoa, others followed.
Ezra, trying to maintain order, politely asked that they wait for the end of the hearing. When the crowd, with angry faces and fists raised, continued to make noise, he asked the plainclothes marshals to "clear the courtroom."
He then tried to proceed as loud chants, crying and mournful songs echoed into the courtroom from the marble hallway, making it difficult to hear in the court.
He asked Alan Murakami, attorney for Hui Malama, if he had a hand in orchestrating the dramatic display in the court. Murakami said it was "spontaneous."
Ezra said: "I could see signals. It was well planned and orchestrated. I could see the hand signals, and the press, sitting in the front row, could not see behind them."