Artifacts case tests isle tradition
A federal judge orders Hawaiian litigants to resolve their dispute through hooponopono
A federal judge is offering Hawaiian groups and the state's largest museum an unusual alternative to settle their dispute over a cache of priceless artifacts: using an ancient Hawaiian mediation process.
Hooponopono, meaning "to make things right," has traditionally been used to solve fights between brothers, disputes over family inheritance and divorce.
This fight involves the Bishop Museum and 14 groups, including a state agency that oversees native Hawaiian affairs. At stake are 83 Hawaiian artifacts that have been missing from the museum since 2000.
The group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, which borrowed the objects from the museum, hid them in an undisclosed cave on the Big Island. They include a human-hair wig, containers with human teeth and carved wooden statuettes of family gods.
A frustrated U.S. district judge, David Ezra, who already jailed one Hawaiian leader for 21 days in the dispute, has offered the process as an alternative to having the federal judicial system solve the deadlock.
Hui Malama argues that the objects are funerary and not meant for public display. But two other groups sued in Ezra's court, saying the articles need to be unearthed and properly repatriated under a federal law.
Some observers familiar with the Hawaiian process proposed by Ezra have their doubts whether it will work. If traditional rules are followed, they say, group members would be required to sit in a circle, pray, confess to wrongdoing, apologize and forgive.
"You have to let everything out. You cannot hold anything back. Otherwise, you haven't fully confessed and you can't be fully forgiven," said Keala Losch, a Pacific-studies professor at the University of Hawaii. "But I don't think people are willing to apologize or admit they are wrong."
Group members will take turns but will not be allowed to speak to each other, directing comments or questions only to court-appointed mediators. The process can take hours, weeks or longer.
COURTESY BISHOP MUSEUM
These are among the 83 items loaned to Hui Malama that the Bishop Museum and some other Hawaiian groups would like returned. At a judge's urging, the parties will try to resolve their dispute using a traditional mediation practice that involves sitting in a circle, prayer, confession and forgiveness.
The mediators appointed by the court are Nainoa Thompson, a master of navigation techniques used by ancient Hawaiians and a trustee of the all-Hawaiian Kamehameha Schools, and Earl Kawaa, site coordinator for a Kamehameha outreach program in Waimanalo.
Hui Malama's leader, Edward Halealoha Ayau of Molokai, after being imprisoned for refusing to say exactly where the artifacts were buried, said he was hopeful but not optimistic. Ezra released him to home confinement last week so he could participate in the hooponopono.
"One thing I learned in prison is not to have expectations, because they may not turn out the way you want it to," Ayau said.
Hawaiian-studies professor Haunani-Kay Trask compared the current dispute to "a bad divorce."
"This is a case of an irreconcilable difference," said Trask, an outspoken Hawaiian activist. "An example of that is Halealoha's refusal of the judge's order."
Asked whether he might change his mind and reveal where the items were placed, Ayau replied, "No."
The two groups suing Hui Malama -- Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa and the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts -- want all 14 claimants to decide on the objects' fate under provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 federal law that governs the repatriation of human remains and artifacts.
But despite its goal of bringing people together, mediation likely will not include all groups this time. So far, only Hui Malama, Na Lei Alii and the Royal Academy have confirmed participation.
This could be another problem, said Naomi Losch, a faculty member at the Department of Hawaiian/Indo-Pacific Languages & Literatures at the University of Hawaii.
"It's going to be difficult to exclude people from the process and try to get a resolution," said Losch, who is Keala Losch's mother.
Jodi Yamamoto, legal counsel for the Bishop Museum, would not confirm or deny the museum's participation, saying she was sworn to secrecy by the judge. At least during initial mediation, the state's Office of Hawaiian Affairs, another group claiming the items, will not be present, said Lance Foster, director of native rights, land and culture.
Sherry Broder, an attorney representing Na Lei Alii and the Royal Academy, declined comment when asked to give specifics on the mediation. So did Alan Murakami, Hui Malama's lawyer.
DeSoto Brown, who has been collections manager of the Bishop Museum's archives department for 18 years, said "the level of disagreement has been very strong" among the Hawaiian groups.
But, like Ayau, he hopes a deal can be reached.
"I suspect that those who will be involved in the entire discussion will do so with a sense of a new beginning," Brown said, "and start from a place where they can speak to each other without becoming angry."