Artifacts dispute hits a second front
Conflicts arise among claimants to items at a national park
The bitter dispute among some native Hawaiians over the fate of artifacts taken from a Big Island cave complex and held for almost a century at the Bishop Museum is about to burst onto a second front involving artifacts from the same caves that have been housed at Volcanoes National Park.
Many of the claimants involved in the Volcanoes National Park dispute are also involved in a dispute over 83 items from Kawaihae Cave or "Forbes Cave," which is being argued in U.S. District Court.
Officials from the Big Island park announced Monday that after 18 months of consultation with about 14 competing claimants, it has determined that five items in its collections are "unassociated funerary objects" as defined by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. NAGPRA is a the federal law that established a process for museums to repatriate human remains and other specific items, such as funerary or sacred objects, back to native Hawaiians and American Indians.
Under NAGPRA, the park has the authority to categorize the items as "unassociated funerary objects," which means the items were likely buried with ancestors, but the remains are not in the possession of the museum or federal agency.
The five items are: a female carved wooden figure, a cutting tool with a shark tooth attached to a human collar bone, a table held up by carved images that could be a konane game board or even an altar, a water gourd, and a bracelet made of rock oyster.
"Clearly these items are very important," said park Superintendent Cindy Orlando. "The consultation process is long and very complicated."
Orlando said the park initially began notifying possible claimants and consulting with them in 1999 and sent letters to 128 individuals in 2000 but then nothing more happened.
Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, a native Hawaii organization involved in the Forbes Cave federal case, officially complained to the NAGPRA review committee in March 2004 that the park was dragging its heels.
Orlando, who came to the park two years ago, said, "We recognized that we needed to honor the spirit and intent of the law and we did that and continue to do that as we continue with the consultation."
The items came from three caves. In 1905, David Forbes, William Wagner and F.A. Haenisch broke into the caves and took the items. Two of the men later sold the items to the Bishop Museum. In 1956, Forbes' daughter, Blodwin Forbes Edmondson, donated her father's lot to the park.
Orlando said the items were on display at the park and at other museums until 1983, when replicas were put on display and the originals were stored away in deference to beliefs the items are sacred and should not be in public view. By 2000, the replicas were taken off display.
Cy Harris, with the Keawe-mahi Ohana, is trying to prove lineal descent and disagrees that the items are funerary but says they were "sacred objects" that were needed for the practice of religion.
"It's the park's call, but I think they made a premature determination that is disappointing," Harris said, adding "they made this determination without going through all the consulting. I think they're getting caught up like Bishop Museum did."
La'akea Suganuma of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, a claimant to Kawaihae items from the park and museum, said: "This consultation (with the park) won't be as bitter (as with Bishop Museum) if the laws and procedures are followed. Those procedures weren't followed with the Bishop Museum items."
Suganuma and Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kawana-nakoa, who founded Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa, a native Hawaiian organization under NAGPRA guidelines, have had a long-standing dispute with Hui Malama.
"Hui Malama just stole everything from the Bishop Museum and reburied them in the cave. They violated the process and denied the other claimants their right of having any say in what happened," Suganuma said.
Alan Murakami, an attorney for Hui Malama, did not return repeated telephone calls yesterday.
In February 2000, when the Bishop Museum was under the administration of Donald Duckworth, museum staff crated the items and handed them over to Hui Malama as "a one-year loan."
Hui Malama continues to insist that the items were funerary objects that the ancestors wanted buried with them. To honor their ancestors, Hui Malama acted as caretakers and reburied the items in the caves with secret religious ceremonies in 2001. Hui Malama has refused to return the items, repeatedly telling the federal court that retrieving them would be a desecration under their religion.
Hui Malama has argued unsuccessfully in the U.S. District Court in Hawaii and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that fulfilling the court order would violate their Constitutional right to freedom of religion.
Suganuma and others noted that Hui Malama has repeatedly said it planned to rebury the park's items in the same caves.
"But that might be difficult because now they are telling the court no one can go into the cave because it is unsafe and might collapse," Suganuma said.
Under NAGPRA, the items remain in the possession of the park while the consultation process among claimants moves forward. Part of that process could determine who has the closest ties to the objects and therefore the most say in their fate. Several claimants have said they are "lineal descendants" with evidence of family connections, which would give them the closest tie. Other claimants are native Hawaiian organizations recognized under NAGPRA that have "cultural ties."