Federal Investigation of Forbes Cave Artifacts ‘Repatriation’ From Bishop Museum-Plus Review of review of NAGPRA, Kennewick Man, Mokapu Bones, Honokahua Bones, Bishop Museum Kaai Theft, Providence, Museum Spear-Rest Repatriation

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The Forbes Cave artifacts controversy is heating up again. The federal NAGPRA Review Committee, under the authority of the National Parks Service and Department of Interior, will hold its semi-annual meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota May 9-11. The Forbes Cave controversy will be the focal point of the meeting. NAGPRA is the acronym for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, and subsequent revisions.

In year 2000 Bishop Museum worked closely with one claimant, Hui Malama, to turn over the artifacts to them quickly and secretly, before other claimants could present their cases. It is questionable whether Hui Malama should have received all, or indeed any, of the artifacts. There are also rumors that some of the artifacts may have been sold rather than re-buried in a cave, or may have been reburied but then stolen due to (intentionally?) poor security at the cave. The artifacts would probably fetch many millions of dollars if sold in the often shady antiquities markets. Claimants who feel the law was broken have complained to the NAGPRA Review Committee, which has agreed to hear testimony from all sides.


It is important for the public to give careful thought to the philosophical, moral, and political issues involved. We must weigh the rights of ancestors, and their bones and spirits, to be left in peace; the property rights of lineal descendants to control disposition of bones and artifacts of their own family members; and the rights of future generations of ethnic Hawaiians and of the general public to learn about Hawaiian culture and to be inspired by studying and seeing ancient remains and cultural artifacts.

Some would compare the recent looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad (April 2003) with the removal from Bishop Museum of the Forbes Cave artifacts (2000) and the kaai (1994). In both Baghdad and Honolulu priceless ancient artifacts have been taken out of museums by small groups of people for their own reasons, in violation of due process, thereby destroying important parts of cultural heritage and depriving current and future generations of knowledge and inspiration. The difference between Baghdad and Honolulu is the difference between cultural manslaughter and cultural murder — the theft of the kaai from Bishop Museum in 1994 and the removal of the Forbes Cave artifacts from Bishop Museum in 2000 were both carefully premeditated. The 1994 theft must have had the assistance of museum employees, while the artifact removal in 2000 was accomplished with the assistance of many museum personnel, from top to bottom of the staff hierarchy, who cooperated with a group of claimants favored because of their political connections and their radical views on re-burial. Scientists and cultural preservationists might consider groups like Hui Malama to be very much like looters, because they are stripping valuable artifacts out of museums and leaving bare shelves behind. But groups like Hui Malama, of course, would argue that the artifacts were originally looted from the caves where they rightfully belonged, by archeologists barely distinguishable from grave-robbers, and that Bishop Museum was in possession of stolen property which has now been “liberated” and repatriated.

The looting in Baghdad was done in a lawless situation, in the exuberance of the moment following the overthrow of the murderous tyrant Saddam Hussein. It was similar to the spontaneous looting in Paris and St. Petersburg during the French and Russian revolutions, and to a lesser extent the looting of ‘Iolani Palace during the Hawaiian revolution of 1893. Indeed, every year we see small versions of recreational looting and exuberant lawlessness in the cities whose sports teams win national titles in hockey, football, and baseball. If cultural heritage was killed in Baghdad, it was manslaughter without malice of forethought. But in the case of Bishop Museum (both the 1994 kaai theft and the 2000 Forbes Cave artifacts repatriation), what happened was premeditated, first degree cultural/historical murder. The looted artifacts in Baghdad go back 7000 years, and are important parts of the heritage of the entire world. By contrast the Honolulu artifacts go back only a few hundred years in a local population that goes back less than 2000 years, and might seem significant only to a localized culture. But Bishop Museum is as important to preservation of Hawaiian history and culture as the Iraq National Museum is to preservation of the history of Mesopotamia and Babylon, and preservation of the history of the world’s invention of writing, accounting, codified law, and the wheel. The cultural heritage of Hawaii is located almost entirely in Hawaii, does not go back nearly as far as Iraq, and has relatively few examples confined to a very few publicly available cultural sites and museums. Thus, the security of cultural artifacts at Bishop Museum is extremely important to the preservation of Hawaiian heritage.

In 1994 two kaai were stolen with no attempt to make it look like due process had been followed. The thieves apparently conspired with one or more Bishop Museum staffers, since the “break-in” happened after closing hours, the security alarms remained silent, and there was no breaking of exterior or interior doors, locks, or storage cabinets.

But in 2000 the cultural murder (of the Forbes Cave artifacts) was accomplished by using some due-process elements of the NAGPRA law as accomplices. NAGPRA provided an appearance of due process for competing claimants, lulling them into a false sense of security, up until the moment when the museum suddenly took a drastic action to short-circuit the process. NAGPRA provided a myriad of regulations which allowed the museum to stall competing claimants by insisting they dot the i’s and cross the t’s. NAGPRA regulations allowed the museum to make a “loan” of the artifacts to its favored claimant, Hui Malama, probably knowing that the “loaned” artifacts would never be returned (since the clearly expressed primary purpose of the Hui Malama organization has always been to secretly re-bury bones and artifacts and even to destroy photographs of them). NAGPRA regulations allowed both Bishop Museum and Hui Malama to keep secrecy regarding exactly what had happened, and to maintain that secrecy even years later. Such secrecy adds to an overall suspicion that Hui Malama and the museum could perhaps have conspired to “liberate” the Forbes Cave artifacts for re-burial by making a “loan” that both sides knew would never be returned. It is interesting that Hawaii Senator Dan Inouye, as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, played a major role in creating NAGPRA. Inouye’s staff members, and federal funding he shepherded through Congress, have played important roles in Bishop Museum and Hui Malama. Unsuccessful claimants for Forbes Cave artifacts had no such financial or personnel relationships with the Senator’s staff.

NAGPRA was written in a way to allow acknowledged tribal council leaders to speak on behalf of small, homogeneous, federally recognized Indian tribes. But there are 400,000 ethnic Hawaiians of widely disparate viewpoints, who are fully integrated in communities where most residents have no Hawaiian blood, and where the group is not federally recognized and has no acknowledged leadership. Thus it is grossly inappropriate to allow one small group of cultural and political radicals to speak on behalf of the entire ethnic group. Also, NAGPRA is heavily weighted in favor of tribal groups against the interests of scientists, museums, and the general non-Indian population. But in Hawaii, the Hawaiian culture is the core of what makes Hawaii distinctive for all Hawaii’s people, and many who have no Hawaiian blood participate actively in Hawaiian culture; thus, the general population should have a strong voice in helping to decide what happens to Hawaiian cultural artifacts.

The organization known as Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, headed by Edward Halealoha Ayau, has become very powerful in controlling the “repatriation” and re-interment of ancient Hawaiian bones and artifacts. It played a role in the writing and enactment of the NAGPRA law, partly because its leadership had important political connections with the office of U.S. Senator Dan Inouye, who is Chairman (or ranking member) of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs whenever the Democrats (or Republicans) are in control of the Senate. Those political relationships have continued for at least fifteen years, and are still in play today. Hui Malama also gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, partly because of those same political connections. But its leadership, operations, and budget are shrouded in mystery and secrecy, despite laws that require such matters to be open to regulatory and public scrutiny. It is unclear what Hui Malama does with the enormous amounts of money it gets, and also unclear what happens with all the bones and artifacts it “repatriates.” Some of those artifacts would be extremely valuable if sold in the (often shady) antiquities markets.

Hui Malama also sees itself as asserting political sovereignty on behalf of all ethnic Hawaiians. It clearly places the interests of the “Lahui” (racially-defined “nation”) far above the interests of individuals or families who may be lineal descendants. The organization’s Web site states, “Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei believes that in order for Native Hawaiians to firmly and with focused movement (onipaa), realize their future, we must amongst other responsibilities, take appropriate care of the past by reestablishing and strengthening the ancestral foundation. It is through this important foundation, that our house (our future) will be built. Hui means all of us, especially the original citizens of our great nation.” Elsewhere, discussing the Mokapu bones, the Hui Malama Web site says, “How can the Hawaiian nation heal itself from the wounds of Western contact when such actions have included inflictions that served to undermine the very foundation of its families?” Thus, Hui Malama is (ab)using religious beliefs held by a few radicals to demand political power that would affect all ethnic Hawaiians and, indeed, all the people of Hawaii. This attempt to theocratize and balkanize Hawaii in some ways resembles what the Ayatollah Komeini did to Iran and what the Taliban did to Afhganistan.

It should be noted that Hui Malama has met with strong opposition from some recognized ethnic Hawaiian cultural leaders. For example, Rubellite Kawena Johnson was a claimant opposing Hui Malama for control of the Mokapu bones; Herb Kawainui Kane was a claimant competing against Hui Malama for control of the Forbes Cave artifacts; and both Ms. Johnson and Mr. Kane publicly opposed Hui Malama’s assertion that the Providence Museum Spear Rest was a manifestation of the living spirit of a warrior. In an article in the Honolulu Advertiser of March 29, 2000, Herb Kawainui Kane wrote about Hui Malama’s plea to the NAGPRA committee demanding repatriation of the Providence Museum spear-rest: “In the absence of evidence, an emotional appeal was made, calculated to arouse sympathy from the American Indian majority on the review panel, and included highly inventive metaphysical statements. This is the kind of hogwash by which NAGPRA, a noble effort, has been corrupted. Those responsible will incur the rage of future generations of Hawaiians who have been denied access to the treasures of their past.”

In addition to the Bishop Museum controversies involving the kaai and the Forbes Cave artifacts, there are other well-known NAGPRA-related controversies in Hawaii. The unearthing of 1600 sets of remains at Mokapu (Kaneohe, Oahu) occurred mostly before 1940, and almost entirely before NAGPRA was enacted in 1990; but NAGPRA has been used to demand repatriation of those bones from Bishop Museum for reburial at Mokapu. About 900 sets of bones were unearthed at Honokahua (Kapalua, Maui) during preliminary excavations for the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The entire Honokahua controversy began and was resolved from 1986 to 1989 before NAGPRA was enacted (Hui Malama got established in response to this controversy). The 1998 repatriation of a spear-rest from Providence Museum (Rhode Island) was probably the most straightforward application of the NAGPRA law among all these controversies. Nevertheless, the spear-rest was returned to Hawaii only after OHA “donated” $125,000 to the Providence Museum to settle a lawsuit by the museum against OHA and NAGPRA which threatened to invalidate the NAGPRA law unless a settlement was reached. More recently, the Kennewick Man controversy (Washington state) has directed major attention to NAGPRA throughout the U.S. and the world.

And now a federal investigation of the Forbes Cave controversy is under way that will be the focus of the semi-annual meeting of the NAGPRA review committee in St. Paul, Minnesota May 9-11, 2003. Portions of the complaint filed by an unsuccessful Forbes Cave claimant, together with descriptions and analysis of all the above controversies, can be found at a large Web page: