Advertisement - Click to support our sponsors.

Saturday, March 25, 2000

Fate of some
Bishop Museum
artifacts debated

The whereabouts of 'Forbes Cave'
items are unknown due to a federal
law and a 'confidential agreement'

By Burl Burlingame


Six years after two ka'ai burial baskets disappeared from the Bishop Museum in 1994, as many as 80 more Hawaiian artifacts may be gone from the museum as a result of a 1990 federal law requiring the return of objects from Native American graves.

At issue are artistic and cultural items discovered in caves in Honokoa Gulch, Kawaihae, in 1905. Commonly called the "Forbes Caves" artifacts, they include wood statuettes, aumakua, carved bowls, ipu, tools, gourd water bottles, feather capes, and even a shard of Asian porcelain and a battered Japanese fan.

The objects were found near the human remains of Hawaiians thought to be chiefs. The artifacts and remains were collected and cataloged by Bishop Museum in 1906, according to the original survey by Bishop Museum Press. The objects were cared for at the museum and studied by scholars.

"These are precious objects, often our only link to our own history," said Big Island historian and artist Herb Kane. "They are tangible evidence that we existed as a culture."

Now it appears the objects have been secretly turned over to a group that filed a claim under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna o Hawaii Nei was organized by attorneys Eddie Ayau and Noelle Kahanu in the early '90s to facilitate the repatriation of Hawaiian remains. Since then they have become influential in such cases and are hired to re-inter remains in an appropriately Hawaiian manner.

Hui Malama is one of four claimant groups involved in the Forbes Cave items. Although Ruth Ann Becker, Bishop Museum spokeswoman, says the other three groups are secret, other sources say they are the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Big Island Burial Council.

The Forbes Cave human remains at Bishop Museum were supposedly given to Hui Malama and hidden several years ago at a Hilo home of Hui Malama members. The entire process, said Becker, is a "confidential agreement" in which neither the museum nor Hawaiian groups will confirm what was done.

Hui Malama's interest then turned to the Forbes Cave artifacts as well as the remains. According to several archaeologists and museum staffers, Bishop Museum vice president Elizabeth Tatar removed the artifacts Feb. 26 and gave them to Hui Malama.

Becker would not comment on whether this exchange took place. When asked if a scholar would have trouble studying the artifacts, she said, "Probably."

Claimants gain full control

Museum director W. Donald Duckworth said that once claimants are identified, and once remains and objects are recognized as legitimate items to be returned, stewardship of the items is passed to claimants no matter where the items reside. So it doesn't matter if the items are in or out of Bishop Museum, the museum no longer has custody.

"The official ... guidelines and regulations are very complex and are administered out of Washington," said Duckworth. "We don't really have a choice."

Such secrecy in an institution operated as a public trust is frustrating, Duckworth admitted. "These are extremely delicate, complicated and sensitive cultural and legal issues, and a sign of changing times at every museum in the land.

"I came here to have a museum that was as open to the public as possible, and it is not in our interest to deny the public access to anything. But we don't have that option here. Once the claimants are identified by the law, the claimants -- not us -- have complete control of the process. We will respect their desires and rights. We are in a bond of faith. And we can be sued, and rightly so, if we break that bond."

Hui Malama officials declined comment. Officials from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands officials couldn't be reached.

Archaeologists and museum personnel are reluctant to go on the record in the matter, citing not only Hui Malama's influence but superstitions of bad luck dogging those who are involved.

There have been disagreements among groups and individuals involved in the process, but Becker said the claimants met privately Wednesday and are apparently now acting in unison.

Henry "Papa" Auwae of Kona approached Bishop Museum several months ago claiming that as a direct descendant of the Hawaiians found at Forbes Cave, he felt that kapu had been broken in the handling of the artifacts and that they should remain in safety at the museum. The museum demurred, and continued to work with Hui Malama.

The caves are on Hawaiian homelands, and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands convened a public hearing on the issue on Feb. 16 in Waimea.

Valerie Free, Bishop Museum cultural resources manager, and Hui Malama's Kahanu informed Hawaiian Homes that the Forbes Cave artifacts would be immediately repatriated. Chairman Raymond Soon wrote Tatar a letter on Feb. 22, instructing the museum to hold off, as other claimants had not been heard from.

"Since there is no secure interim facility to properly store the cultural objects, and additional information to review, we believe the Bishop Museum should take the most prudent and responsible action, which is to hold the cultural objects until you receive updated confirmation," wrote Soon.

Growing scandal in museums

Four days later, on a Saturday, Tatar passed the objects to Hui Malama. According to a Bishop Museum shipping invoice dated Feb. 26, these encompassed 83 items, hand-carried in a wooden crate. Ayau signed for the items.

Darrell Yagodich, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands planning officer, complained to Tatar in a Feb. 29 letter that the Hawaiian Homes had never agreed to such an arrangement. He indicated that Tatar had claimed the transfer was a "loan."

Kane is pessimistic the materials ever will be returned. "I'll probably see the items on 'Antiques Roadshow' next week," he said.

"This is a growing scandal in the museum community. Native American artifacts that were cared for in museums are winding up in people's closets.

"How can an organization like Bishop Museum honor their obligation to provide security and expert curatorial care for their materials? As the state museum, there's an obligation to safeguard these artifacts for all of us."

As many as 20 Bishop Museum staffers, concerned over the museum's handling of the Forbes Cave items, signed a letter of protest to Duckworth on Thursday. "We feel we have an ethical obligation as museum professionals and concerned community members to point out that these actions are damaging to the museum's reputation on many levels. It is clear that steps need to be taken to ensure that all such collections issues are resolved in a far different manner in the future," the letter said.

Duckworth replied to the respondents yesterday that the claimants' desire for confidentiality created a situation in which "we cannot release much of the information about the process nor can we respond to statements that are being made by others."

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2000 Honolulu Star-Bulletin