Showdown in Honolulu - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Showdown in Honolulu April 27, 2000
by Scott Whitney

At one time, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu was one of the premier scientific institutions for the study of Polynesian culture and natural history, but its reputation has declined in recent decades, a decline documented in a March HONOLULU magazine feature. As a result of contacts made while researching the story, word of a new problem facing the museum began to leak out, becoming headline fodder for Honolulu's newspapers and television news

So what did the Bishop Museum do--or not do--that has caused all the Honolulu headlines?

On Saturday February 26, a day when most staff were not in, museum collections vice president Betty Tatar signed paperwork that allowed for the "loan" of 83 ancient Hawaiian artifacts worth millions of dollars to a Native Hawaiian organization. The objects were taken in 1905 by district judge David Forbes from the lava-formed chambers of a cave in Honokoa Gulch in the Kawaihae district of the island of Hawai'i--referred to locally as "the Big Island." The artifacts have been held by the Bishop Museum since their purchase in 1907. Among them is a female ki'i (statue), some uniquely carved bowls inlaid with human teeth, a god image carved on the top of a wooden staff and a unique game board used for playing a traditional Hawaiian game called konane.

According to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal legislation requires, among other things, that human remains and burial goods held in American museums be returned to the care of their Native American or Hawaiian descendants.

The museum handed over the artifacts to Eddie Ayau, one of the leaders of Hui Mälama I Nä Kupuna O Hawai'i (which could be translated as, "group for the care of Hawaii's ancestors). Hui Mälama has been active in the repatriation of Native Hawaiian remains and burial goods since 1988. However, the museum had also recognized three other Native Hawaiian groups as legitimate claimants to the Forbes Cave artifacts.

Ayau returned the artifacts to the cave where they were and sealed the cave's entrance with masonry and rebar.

Because the female figure is ornamented with human hair and some of the bowls are inlaid with human teeth, Hui Mälama has claimed that they are grave goods associated with human remains. Other Native Hawaiians disagree; they believe that the artifacts should be classified in NAGPRA terms as "objects of cultural patrimony," which would mean that they are inalienable and that they must be preserved in perpetuity for all Native Hawaiians. They believe the items were hidden in the cave complex in response to the 1819 demise of the old Hawaiian religious system, which was declared null by the regent Ka'ahumanu. As a result, traditional temples and religious items were destroyed by Ka'ahumanu and, a few years later, by newly Christianized native Hawaiians.

Sam Ka'ai, a Native Hawaiian artist from Maui, had a chance to view the female figure during a time when the museum was working closely with local artists and sculptors who were seeking inspiration from the art works of ancient Hawaiians. Ka'ai sees the Forbes artifacts as charged with mana, sacred power that can adhere to certain people, places or objects, according to ancient Polynesian beliefs.

"These are the last things left to us," he says, "before the missionary world view engulfed us. Most Hawaiians believe that the human remains belong at rest, but these artifacts are our only aka--our only connection to our past. From the point of view of the artist, the female figure has really strong, balanced lines that give off a powerful "mother" kind of feeling. In traditional Hawaiian sculpture, the male images were very stylized, and only the female images were personalized. With her teeth, eyes and hair, she is really a photo of one of our ancestors. She is some mother's mother's mother. Her image gave off great simplicity and great joy. Seeing her brought tears to my eyes. She is one of the many faces of God and seeing her changed me forever."

Herb Kawainui Kane, a Big Island Native Hawaiian artist and historian said of the same image: "I don't want to get into one of these pseudo-spiritual descriptions that Hui Mälama has been so guilty of, but I will say that the ki'i was a work of art that was very powerful. The image radiated power and it definitely had an immense presence. Perhaps those are just the feelings I brought to it. But that's why I think hiding it away is a great loss to all Hawaiians."

There are other problems with what Ayau and the Bishop did. To begin with, Hui Mälama is only one of four claimants recognized by the museum under NAGPRA guidelines. Furthermore, the hand-over to Ayau was done without the permission of the three other legitimate claimants, which are: the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), which administers Native Hawaiian programs from the incomes of former Hawaiian monarchy lands; the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL), which provides home ownership for Native Hawaiians, and the Big Island Burial Council--all of which were furious that the "loan" had been made.

By calling the transaction a loan instead of a repatriation, the museum and Hui Mälama circumvented the federal guidelines for repatriation. Ayau has shown photos to other claimants of the Honokoa Gulch cave's sealed entrance, where the 83 items now reside--subject to decay and exposed to theft. The artifacts have been, in fact--if not in law--repatriated

The museum claims that the loan is not illegal, which is true, and that such loans are common museum procedure, which is debatable. Hawaii's chief archaeologist for the National Park Service, Rob Hommon, says that "it would be very unusual for any reputable museum to loan out objects that it knew were headed toward repatriation."

While museum director Donald Duckworth has insisted to the press that this is not a repatriation, the museum published a notice of intent to repatriate in the Federal Register on April 5. This notice starts a 30-day waiting period for complaints to be made or for additional claimants to come forward

Sara L. Collins, an archaeologist with the state of Hawai'i said that this notice process was "lightening fast," in terms of how the National Park Service usually processes notices. Tim McKeown, coordinator of NAGPRA oversight activities for the National Park Service, says that "it's true we have a backlog of about 240 notices awaiting publication. But if there's a claimant who is requesting repatriation, and if the museum or agency asks us to expedite the matter, we will." Did the Bishop make such a request?

"Yes," McKeown says, "the museum wanted this expedited."

Since publication in the Federal Register both the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, on behalf of the Big Island Burial Council, have written to NAGPRA officials and the Secretary of the Interior asking for the repatriation process to be stopped until the claimants can come to a consensus.

Finally, the museum's critics point out, the loan was undertaken without following the museum's own internal loan policy, which requires that the director and the board sign off on any loan of high monetary value or important community interest. Tatar signed the paperwork as the museum's registrar, which she was not. Neither Duckworth nor any board members signed for the "loan."

Shortly after news of the loan spread among museum employees, 21 of them signed a protest letter addressed to museum director Donald Duckworth and board president Bert A. Kobayashi. This letter was leaked to the press as well, and the employees who signed--at great risk to their continued employment--told ARCHAEOLOGY that they felt they had a professional and ethical duty to speak up about the administration's action.

In February 1999 the museum fired its registrar, Janet Ness, who staff say would never have agreed to such an arrangement. Currently the museum has assigned its librarian, Duane Wenzel to act as registrar, but he had no role in this transaction. Ness, who now works in the curator's office at Honolulu's 'Iolani Palace, was driving in her car when she heard the first radio report of the loan.

The museum's paperwork on this transaction contained the following note: "These items are being loaned pending completion of NAGPRA repatriation per request of claimants Hui Mälama and Department of Hawaiian Home Lands." But DHHL wrote to Tatar four days before she released the items, asking her not to make any loan until a safe interim storage facility could be found.

Eddie Ayau of Hui Mälama is an intense young Hawaiian lawyer with a fervent conviction in the rightness of his own actions. "We did this for our kupuna [ancestors]," he says. "We did this to set things right." Asked why it had to be done so quickly, he responded that the process has been dragging on since 1994. He hints at his impatience with the other Hawaiian claimants.

We asked how easy it would be for thieves to find the artifacts.

"Have you ever been in Honokoa Gulch?" Ayau asked rhetorically, "Well, I can tell you that you will never find that cave."

Indeed. Neither could he. A contract archaeologist who had surveyed the area for DHHL had to show Hui Mälama where the cave was.

All of the claimants are worried about security. Is there a guard posted at the cave's entry? Helicopter patrols have been suggested, but the museum refuses to answer any questions about its security measures, except to say that there are some. For all the museum's citations of NAGPRA rules as reasons for their actions, they have never mentioned Section 8 f, which concerns the national review committee formed to settle NAGPRA disputes. The rule says that the Secretary of the Interior "shall ensure that the review committee...and all members of the committee have reasonable access to Native American cultural items under review and to associated scientific and historical documents."

What will the Bishop do if they are asked to produce the items for a claimant or for the national review committee?

In a stormy press conference on April 18, museum director Duckworth refused to answer this question. After reading a prepared apology statement, saying the museum had made a mistake in loaning the materials, he also announced that a new claimant has come forth. Melvin Kalahiki, whose claim as an individual lineal descendant was denied by the museum, is now filing as Na Papa Kanaka O Pu'ukohola Heiau, a corporate Native Hawaiian organization, like Hui Mälama. The organization's name roughly translates as the "Founding Native People of Kohola Hill Temple." The museum has not yet announced a decision about this new claimant.

The history of the Bishop Museum-Hui Mälama relationship goes back at least to 1994, when Hui Mälama sued the museum in federal court over the repatriation of human remains which had been removed from the Mokapu sand dunes on the Marine Corps base at Kane'ohe, in windward O'ahu. Hui Mälama claimed that NAGPRA was not subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law and wanted all museum records of Mokapu remains destroyed. The court found against them, saying Congress intended NAGPRA to be governed by FOIA. In that case, Hui Mälama portrayed itself as the only legitimate spokesperson for the remains, even though there were 14 other claimants. Judge David Ezra found against Hui Mälama in this matter, too. In his July 1995 summary judgment decision, Ezra wrote: "nowhere does Hawaiian law acknowledge Hui Mälama as the sole guardian for all Native Hawaiian human remains. ...To allow Hui Mälama to unilaterally litigate the issue of inventory disclosure would deny equal weight to the rights and potentially divergent interests of the other Native Hawaiian groups involved."

In March 29 interview with Tatar and Duckworth, we asked about what seems to be an exclusive relationship with Hui Mälama. After the Mokapu lawsuit settlement, Ayau worked for the museum for six months. Although he no longer works at the Bishop, his sister, Mikiala, does. And the museum has just re-hired Ayau's domestic partner, Noelle Kahanu, under a new $750,000 "China Trade Grant," a three-museum project that examines nineteenth-century trade among native peoples. Sen. Daniel Inouye is responsible for the grant. Both Kahanu and Ayau once worked for Inouye, and the suspicion is that the museum keeps close to them so as to also keep close to Inouye's money pipeline.

When this issue was brought up at our March 29 interview, Duckworth was brief with his reply: "This is more small-town stuff. If people can prove some wrong-doing, let them come forward, otherwise, we are committed to hiring professionals in their fields."

We asked a similar question of Betty Tatar at the museum's April 18 news conference, where Duckworth had just made a formal apology for the museum's "mistake." She refused to see any problem in the relationship and said the National Park Service had encouraged them to work closely with Native Hawaiian organizations. When we pointed out that "working with" does not mean putting them on the payroll, Tatar simply took another reporter's question.

The Honokoa Gulch controversy has been a PR disaster for the museum and comes on the heels of mounting criticism for the 15-year management record of Duckworth and his executive team. Staff morale is at an all-time low and Duckworth made it clear at his press conference that staff who speak out to the media will be dealt with severely. "We are an organization of rules," he told reporters, "and our staff know those rules. The museum must speak with one voice." One of the 21 staff members who signed the letter of protest has already been fired and at least one other has been disciplined and given a final, pre-termination warning.

Continue to check our website for developments in the case of the Forbes Cave artifacts.

* See also the Bishop Museum, HONOLULU Magazine, Hui Mälama I Nä Kupuna O Hawai'i, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

Scott Whitney is assistant editor for HONOLULU magazine. He lives and writes in Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Press Release
Bishop Museum
A Hawai'i Nonprofit Corporation

May 15, 2000

Bishop Museum Moves to Recall Kawaihae Caves Loan

At its regularly scheduled meeting on April 27, the Bishop Museum board of directors unanimously authorized the Museum's administration to call for return of the Kawaihae Caves items loaned out on February 26, 2000.

Bishop Museum officials have sent a letter to all four currently recognized claimants, requesting that they state their positions in writing by July 1, 2000. On July 1, unless there is consensus by the claimants that the items should remain where they are, the Museum will require the return of the items. (The four claimants are Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, Hawaiian Homes Commission and Hawaii Island Burial Council.)

The Museum had loaned the items to Hui Malama, in response to the four claimants' opinions that temporarily placing them on their island of origin would help repatriation discussions. Museum officials believed that all agreed to a temporary location Hui Malama had found. The officials were informed shortly after the loan was made that this was not the case.

From the start, Bishop Museum's administration, staff and board have tried to do what's right as we go through this very complex situation," said Pat Duarte, Bishop Museum chief operating officer.

"We appreciate the many concerns that have been expressed about these items," Duarte said. "At the same time we also respect the claimants' opinions, and so are asking for their input on recalling the loan. As new claimants are recognized, we'll ask for their position, in order to give consideration to all voices. We do this in the spirit of lokahi, but recognize that, in the end, the Museum has responsibility for the safety of the items with which we are entrusted. We intend to meet that responsibility fully."

The Museum has requested additional information from other potential claimants, in order to determine whether their claims meet NAGPRA requirements. Officials expect to formally recognize appropriate claims within 30 days, after which they will request the new claimants' position on the loan recall as well.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America