Interim changes
of artifact law
might be needed


Many Hawaiians are proposing changes in the federal law allowing sacred items to be reclaimed from museums.

Federal law aimed at allowing indigenous Americans to reclaim sacred items from museums has worked well on the mainland but has caused a rift among Hawaiians, who lack a governing body similar to Indian tribes that have acted under the law. That might change soon, with congressional approval of Hawaiian recognition proposed by Senator Akaka. Any changes now in the artifact law to accommodate Hawaiians should be regarded as temporary while the Akaka bill is pending.

In a hearing before Senator Inouye, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, several people said tribal governments on the mainland decide how sacred or funerary items should be treated. Some have even established museums to house artifacts owned by the tribe.

Hawaiians have no such governing body; the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is "an arm of the state" lacking the authority exercised by Indian tribes. The Akaka bill would create such a governing body, elected by native Hawaiians, with such authority.

A review committee created by the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, has recognized OHA and Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei as native Hawaiian organizations eligible to repatriate sacred artifacts. Bishop Museum proposed in June that it apply for such eligibility but later chose not to pursue the status.

Disagreements remain about decisions to repatriate certain items, centering around Bishop Museum's attempt to regain artifacts that were loaned for one year, and then kept, by Hui Malama. The NAGPRA committee is scheduled to conduct hearings on the dispute in March.

Hawaiians also are divided about the very premise that their ancestors intended for sacred items to be buried in caves alongside their remains. In a column on this page, Hawaiian historian Herb Kawainui Kane maintained on Thursday that the bones of Hawaiian chiefs "were interred without anything that might identify them to a thief ... Caves were simply the safest places for storage of precious goods." Hawaiians "did not inter the dead with their precious objects," he asserted.

The Akaka bill has been pending in Congress for years, but Akaka and Inouye brokered a deal two months ago with Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., its chief opponent, and Senate leaders to bring the bill to a Senate vote by Aug. 7. Inouye had attached the bill to a measure supported by Kyl that had jeopardized its passage.

Those pledges are likely to lead to the Akaka bill's enactment, but that doesn't mean proposed changes to NAGPRA should be shelved. Opponents of the bill are expected to challenge its constitutionality in court, and years might pass before the issue could be resolved by the Supreme Court.

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