Sandstone footprints at
core of ownership dispute

Several hundred years ago, a young woman named Kuuna, who lived on Molokai and was a skilled healer and prophet, foretold the coming of foreigners to the islands who would take over the land, according to oral histories and legends.

Kuuna said the foreigners would leave strange footprints in the sands. To illustrate, she carved barefoot prints into the sand to represent the Hawaiian people and then prints that appeared to be made by square-toed boots to represent the foreigners.

According to legend, the people were scared by her prophecy and promptly stoned her to death.

Today, the sandstone footprints are at the heart of a heated dispute between the Bishop Museum and Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, a native Hawaiian organization founded in 1989 for the purpose of repatriating native Hawaiian human remains and artifacts.

Earlier this week, Hui Malama filed a formal dispute against the Bishop Museum over ownership of the three sandstones with the federal agency that oversees the repatriation of native Hawaiian human remains and artifacts. The footprints are known as "Kalaiana Wawae," which is roughly translated as "footprints in a line."

In a Nov. 29 letter to the review committee of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Hui Malama said that it gained legal ownership of the artifacts under NAGPRA in May 1999 when Donald Duckworth was museum director. Hui Malama said the museum illegally rescinded that with a private agreement made with other claimants in 2003 when the museum was under the management of a new director, Bill Brown.

Hui Malama also asked the committee to address the dispute in a meeting it plans to hold in Honolulu March 13-15.

In a statement last week, Brown said the museum hired outside counsel earlier this year who found Hui Malama's claims of legal ownership "to be without merit." Specifically, the museum found that the items are not "cultural patrimony" under NAGPRA and did not need to be repatriated.

Federal law defines "cultural patrimony" as an object that has "ongoing historical, traditional or cultural importance to the Native American group itself, rather than property owned by an individual."

In a June 2004 memo to Hui Malama, David Hulihee, who chairs the museum's internal NAGPRA review committee, said the museum had "determined that it had erroneously concluded" the footprints were cultural patrimony. His memo said that since the stones did not meet the necessary definition under NAGPRA, the museum did not need to repatriate them. The memo also said that it recognized Hui Malama had not relinquished its claim under NAGPRA, but said that original claim should never have been granted.

The memo said the museum would retain legal ownership of the stones. In 2003, with the help of Hui Malama, the museum placed them on public display on a bluff overlooking Moomomi Bay on Molokai for cultural programs and "the benefit of future generations."

The memo said the stones were in the care, not the ownership, of another native Hawaiian group, Hui Malama I Moomomi.

"The stones are home (on Moomomi), but this is an issue over title, over legal ownership," said Edward Halealoha Ayau, a spokesman for Hui Malama.

Ayau said that under Brown the museum struck a private agreement with Hui Malama I Moomomi to nullify the earlier NAGPRA finding under Duckworth's direction.

Ayau said his group negotiated with Brown for three months but that, in the end, Brown "decided unilaterally" not to include them in the agreement.

"We never withdrew our original NAGPRA claim, and the museum can't operate outside of that claim," said Ayau. "We are the owners."

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