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Thursday, June 8, 2000

Park Service demands explanation from museum

The agency is concerned about
the delay in resolving the dispute
over the Forbes Cave artifacts

Museum official scared claimant group

By Burl Burlingame


THE National Park Service sent a strongly worded letter this week to Bishop Museum director W. Donald Duckworth, demanding that the museum explain the holdup in resolving the dispute over the Forbes Cave artifacts.

Burying the PastThe National Park Service administers the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a system for returning native bones and "grave goods" in museum collections to their original tribes and descendants. In February, the museum says it mistakenly presented rare Hawaiian objects to Hui Malama, one of four groups that claim what are known as the "Forbes Cave" artifacts .

Katherine Stevenson, cultural resources association director for the Park Service, sent a pair of letters to Duckworth on April 7 and 13, saying she hoped the museum "will take every possible step to recover and take back into direct care" the missing artifacts.

In this week's letter, Stevenson restated the Park Service's concern about the safety of the objects and urged the museum to reclaim them. "As long as the objects are out of your possession, the objects which would be worth millions of dollars on the black market, are subject to a substantial threat of theft. Whether the objects are in a cave, as reported, or elsewhere, they are also threatened by damage by insects, humidity and other natural factors."

The Park Service had also received a letter from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs -- another claimant group -- asking that the federal agency to look into the matter. This week's letter to the museum says that press coverage of the affair since had revealed that the objects were no longer in the museum and other claimant groups were not in agreement, and the OHA letter reinforced that impression.

Duckworth responded to Stevenson in a letter dated this morning saying that the artifacts were "loaned" to Hui Malama. "The loan was subsequently made to Hui Malama, based on representations that the other three claimant groups had knowledge of, and agreement with, the interim storage location that had been secured by Hui Malama. We soon found out that was not the case, and called a meeting of all the groups at which Hui Malama admitted its responsibility for the loan being enacted.

"Let me emphasize that 1) a similar loan had been made in this same case one year prior, again entrusted to Hui Malama, and no problems or disagreements arose; and 2) as stated, this is a loan, and not an act of repatriation."

He also told Stevenson that he and the museum had publically apologized in April, that the museum was formulating a revised NAGPRA collections policy, and that the museum had notified the four recognized claimants that if they were not in agreement by July 1, the items currently hidden in the hills of Kawaihae were to be returned.

"Finally," Duckworth added, "let me also assure you that members of the Museum's administration, including our Collections Manager, have inspected the items' interim storage location, and the security arrangements, and found that the items are secure from damage as well as theft."

Museum official scared
new claimant group

By Burl Burlingame


Bishop Museum officials last week scared a new Forbes Cave claimant group into believing it had only 24 hours to supply documentation to support their standing.

But it's all a misunderstanding and was cleared up by Friday, said Bishop Museum spokeswoman Ruth Ann Becker.

On May 11, museum collections manager -- and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act representative -- Valerie Free wrote attorney James Mee, a representative of the newly formed claimant group E Nana Pono, acknowledging the group's interest and asking for additional documentation.

Free wrote: "Please explain how your organization: (a) serves and represents the interests of native Hawaiians: (b) has a primary and stated purpose the provision of services to Native Hawaiian, and (c) has expertise in Native Hawaiian affairs," plus data on membership numbers and proof of "knowledge and experience in burial matters."

No deadline was specified. Mee wrote Free back a few days later, asking for clarification and wondering if other new and existing claimant groups were required to provide similar information.

On Thursday, Free left a voice mail message for Mee asking for more information as specified in her earlier letter, stating: "I want to let you know that tomorrow is the deadline, tomorrow, that's June 2nd, is the deadline for a response on that letter because we will be making determinations on most appropriate claimants at that point."

Mee assumed Free meant the claimants would be chosen by the museum Friday. E Nana Pono's response, faxed to Free Friday morning, said her voice mail message contradicted previous correspondence with the museum, that there had been no response to the group's request for clarification, and reiterated a earlier complaint that the tenor of Bishop Museum's queries were in violation of the NAGPRA process.

E Nana Pono asked that "the so-called deadline be rescinded," and a new deadline made public, an explanation of the procedures and standards by which the museum evaluated claimants, and that the group be allowed to "view the items" to ensure their safety.

In a response dated Monday, Free backed down and told E Nana Pono that the museum's board of directors would be choosing official claimants, and that they'd like to have additional information by June 14.

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