Hawaiian entity is needed
to resolve artifact issues


A federal review committee has called the process of repatriating Hawaiian artifacts "seriously flawed."

IMPASSIONED testimony this week led a federal advisory committee to conclude what has been obvious for some time: The process of settling contentious issues about reburial or preservation of Hawaiian human remains and artifacts is "seriously flawed." Unless the differing groups and individuals can reach common ground, which seems unlikely, the flawed process will continue until federal Hawaiian recognition legislation produces a governing body to serve as a final arbiter.

The committee is an instrument of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which created a process of returning remains held in museums to the care of their Native American or Hawaiian descendants. In the absence of an entity similar to Indian tribes, a group called Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, founded in 1989, has played a central role in deciding Hawaiian repatriation issues.

Soon after NAGPRA went into effect, Hui Malama acquired 83 artifacts from Bishop Museum, which had purchased them from amateur archeologist David Forbes, who had taken them from a Big Island cave in 1905. An inventory list accompanying the artifacts called the transfer to Hui Malama "a one-year loan," but Hui Malama has refused to return them to the museum. The artifacts have been reburied in the Big Island grave.

Hui Malama spokesman Edward Halealoha Ayau, who signed the "loan" agreement, has insisted that neither his organization nor the museum considered it to be a loan. "It was not our intent to return them and not our understanding that the museum intended return," he told the committee. Some families with links to the artifacts want their repatriation reviewed or want them returned. The disagreements are likely to end up in court.

"The flaws in this repatriation case are so egregious I have never seen anything like it and hope never to see it again," said NAGPRA committee member Vincas Stephanaitis, a North Carolina archeologist. He blamed both Hui Malama and the museum's past administration.

Committee member Dan Monroe, director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., said it is up to native Hawaiians, not the committee, to resolve such an "incredibly difficult matter." However, Hawaiians have no entity to resolve such issues. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is "an arm of the state" lacking the authority exercised in such cases by Indian tribes.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved the Hawaiian recognition bill this month, and it could be enacted this year. The bill, sponsored by Senator Akaka, would create a Hawaiian governing body with authority over repatriation and other issues, but the process of enactment and implementation will take too long to prevent a bruising court battle over current disagreements.

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