Collector meticulously
catalogued hundreds
of artifacts


Thursday, August 12, 2004

Hawaiian artifacts collector J.S. Emerson was called the "White Kahuna" in an obituary in 1930. In a story on Page A6 in yesterday's early edition, he was incorrectly labeled as the "White Kuhuna."

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin strives to make its news report fair and accurate. If you have a question or comment about news coverage, call Editor Frank Bridgewater at 529-4791 or email him at

Joseph Swift Emerson, the son of missionaries, first visited Kanupa Cave, a burial cave on the Big Island for lesser chiefs, in 1858.

Emerson, who meticulously recorded his discoveries, wrote of the cave: "Probably a thousand bodies had been deposited and no white man had entered it until a year or two before my visit. With many of the bodies there was placed some object specially prized by the former owner."

Emerson, who was a young man at the time of his Kanupa Cave visit, would go on to collect and catalog hundreds of Hawaiian artifacts, which he would sell to Bishop Museum and elsewhere.

He recorded in his notebooks that he gathered 42 items from Kanupa Cave, including kapa, water gourds, hand-carved wooden bowls and a wooden spear more than 6 feet long. Most of what he found in Kanupa was sold to the Bishop Museum in the 1880s and to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., in 1907.

Over the past seven years, some items that Emerson found in Kanupa cave and sold to the two museums have been handed over to Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, a native Hawaiian organization founded in 1989 to repatriate human remains and artifacts from museums and rebury them in ancestral caves.

Now federal agents are investigating how artifacts that Hui Malama has said it reburied in caves allegedly have shown up for sale on the black market.

In the late 1880s, Charles Reed Bishop worked to establish a museum in memorial to his wife, Princess Pauahi Bishop, the last of the royal line of King Kamehameha I.

He had the support of other alii, such as Queen Emma and Queen Liliuokalani, who wanted to leave their collections to a museum so that future generations could learn about their heritage.

Emerson sold two collections to Bishop for his museum. In 1886, Emerson sold Bishop 607 artifacts that came from Hawaii as well as Micronesia and Melanesia for $3,000.

In 1889, he sold Bishop another 558 artifacts from Hawaii and "other islands of the Pacific," for $4,000.

The Emerson Collection at the Bishop Museum is renowned among historians for its scope, which includes items used by high chiefs and commoners. Perhaps even more useful to historians is Emerson's painstaking record keeping.

Fluent in Hawaiian, Emerson interviewed native Hawaiians to learn how objects were made, their history, and how they were used. He also wrote scholarly articles on subjects ranging from secret Hawaiian rites and lesser Hawaiian gods to string games played by children.

When he died at the age of 86 in 1930, Emerson's obituary said: "He was the author of various papers on Hawaiian history and lore ... So thorough was his knowledge of native lore that he came to be known as the 'White Kuhuna.'"

In his notebooks, Emerson wrote that gathering "first hand from older Hawaiians regarding their folklore and curios has brought me much in contact with a most interesting people now fast passing away."

In her book, "Material Culture: The J.S. Emerson Collection of Hawaiian Artifacts," Catherine Summers wrote that the detailed catalogs accompanying the artifacts that Emerson sold to the Bishop Museum and others "are a new source of ... views into traditional Hawaiian industries and craft, cooking, agriculture, fishing, health, entertainment and warfare - all imbedded in native Hawaiians' recollections of their own histories and legends."

"The Emerson Collection was obtained from people from many walks of life and gives a broader perspective of Hawaiian material culture than any other collection," she wrote.

Emerson was born July 13, 1843, in Lahainaluna, Maui, the sixth son of Rev. Johns and Ursula Emerson. The family was stationed in Waialua on Oahu for most of Emerson's childhood, when he learned to speak Hawaiian.

At age 11, he was sent to board at Punahou School. After graduating in 1862, Emerson taught school for several years on Oahu, Maui and Kauai before working plantations on the Big Island.

In 1869, he left Hawaii to study civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he graduated in 1874.

By 1877, Emerson was back in Hawaii, where he was employed by the Hawaiian government as a surveyor on the Big Island.

According to Summers, it was during his years on the Big Island that he began extensively collecting artifacts and stories from native Hawaiians. Summers noted that it was clear in Emerson's notebooks that he did not always agree with what he was told and that "what Emerson was told was not always true."

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei
Bishop Museum
U.S. Interior Dept. -NAGPRA


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