Place of unrest

Artifacts found on the black market hail from this disturbed crypt

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Thursday, August 26, 2004

Kanupa Cave entrance
Kanupa Cave in Kohala on the Big Island showed signs of
disturbance Saturday during a visit by the Star-Bulletin.

By Sally Apgar

Less than a five-minute walk from a main road in Kohala lies a Big Island cave in which a native Hawaiian group said they reburied sacred burial artifacts and human remains last November to honor their ancestors.

After the bones and artifacts were placed inside the lower levels of the winding lava-tube cave, large boulders were piled over the entrance to secure it from grave robbers, according to witnesses present for the nighttime reburial.

But a recent visit to the entrance of the cave revealed it is wide open.

The large boulders that once reportedly choked and hid the entrance, which roughly measures 3 by 4 feet, are now piled around the vertical hole in the ground.

A rancher, who leases the land and escorted a reporter to Kanupa Cave on condition of anonymity, said the entrance was completely covered last fall so that "it blended into the desert landscape" of lava rock and keawe.

"I don't know when the cave was reopened," said the rancher, who had not visited it again until recently.

The Star-Bulletin did not enter the cave to check for the presence of objects because it is considered sacred by many Hawaiians.

For the past few weeks, federal agents with the U.S. Department of the Interior have been investigating how artifacts that were said to be reburied in the cave after being repatriated to several native Hawaiian organizations from the Bishop Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., have shown up on the black market for sale.

No suspects have been arrested or charged in the ongoing federal investigation, which is being conducted in cooperation with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The sale of such objects is illegal under state and federal laws, including the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was established so that American Indians and Hawaiians could have a procedure for recovering human remains and sacred objects on display in museums.

The investigation comes at a time of bitter debate at the Bishop Museum over who should be the steward of artifacts.

Earlier this summer, the Bishop Museum board announced an "interim guidance policy" under which it would be identified as a native Hawaiian organization on equal footing with other native Hawaiian organizations in laying claim to artifacts.

Advocates for the museum argue that its founding mission makes it a native Hawaiian organization. The Bishop Museum was founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop as a memorial to his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last of the Kamehameha line of ruling chiefs. The princess and several other alii wanted the museum to safeguard items from their own collections so that future generations could know their heritage.

Critics of the museum's proposed policy say the museum has no right to be classified a native Hawaiian organization and that the items should be returned to caves to honor ancestors and therefore strengthen Hawaiian people.

Advocates for the museum's policy are holding up the Kanupa cave incident as evidence that museums provide better security and climate controls to preserve items for study by future generations.

The precedent-setting interim policy, which is still under review by the board, is expected to be discussed in September at the next meeting of the NAGPRA review committee.

During the last several weeks, a secondhand dealer with a consignment store in Captain Cook has offered private collectors items for sale, including three hand-carved wooden bowls, a gourd container, burial kapa and a prized necklace, or palaoa, according to the accounts of several collectors that were obtained on condition of anonymity.

One collector, who is cooperating with federal investigators, said the dealer wanted $20,000 for one of the bowls he held in his hands.

"There was nothing special about the bowl, except that I recognized it as a repatriated item and didn't want anything to do with it," said the collector.

Two collectors said the dealer was acting as a front, or "fence," for others. They said the dealer told them that he obtained the items from "a local Hawaiian guy who said he found them in a cave."

A third collector said he was offered a palaoa -- a hook-shaped ornament hanging on a necklace of braided human hair -- for $40,000. Palaoa were often prized symbols of high status that were handed down from generation to generation.

The chain of human hair is believed to hold the mana, or spiritual power, of the owner or owners, making the necklace more valuable to heirs and collectors.

According to three collectors and sources close to the investigation, the items offered for sale were from the well-known J.S. Emerson collection.

In 1858, Joseph Emerson, a son of missionaries who spoke fluent Hawaiian and took meticulous notes about the history of items he obtained, found the pieces in Kanupa cave, a burial cave for lesser chiefs. Kanupa was part of a network of lava-tube caves used for burials that fed into larger caves used as hiding places for people and precious objects.

In the late 1880s, Emerson sold some of the items to the Bishop Museum, and others he sold in 1907 to the Peabody Essex.

According to the Federal Register and the collectors, the items from the Bishop Museum, which still had their identification stickers, were repatriated to three native Hawaiian organizations in 1997: Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei ("group caring for ancestors of Hawaii"), OHA and the Hawaii Island Burial Council.

The items from the Peabody Essex, which also had identification stickers, were repatriated to Hui Malama, OHA and Ka Lahui Hawaii in the spring of 2003, according to the Federal Register.

"It surprises me that the cave was open," said Geraldine Bell, of the Hawaii Island Burial Council. "I thought that when the items were repatriated, there would have been care to conceal them."

Van Horn Diamond, one of the 13 claimants to the nearby Forbes cave, was critical of cave security at Kanupa and of Hui Malama, which, he said, takes over repatriations and reburials from other groups.

"The security appears to be shibai," said Diamond. "The efforts Hui Malama took were insufficient, and the cave is readily accessible."

Eddie Halealoha Ayau, a spokesman for Hui Malama, declined to comment for this report.

Hui Malama hired a private investigator, Goodenow and Associates, which dispatched an investigator to enter and study the cave last week.

Diamond said the lack of security at Kanupa only increases his concerns about security of artifacts in Forbes cave.

Diamond and other claimants are at odds with Hui Malama over the reburial of 83 items stolen in 1905 by David Forbes from the Kawaihae or Forbes cave and sold to the Bishop Museum.

One weekend in February 2000, when there were still only four claimants to the collection, two museum employees, Betty Tatar, the head of collections, and Valerie Free had the items crated. They handed over the crate to Ayau and Hui Malama along with an invoice that listed each item and described them as a one-year loan.

Ayau has previously told the Star-Bulletin that the items were reburied in the Forbes cave and that "we never intended to give them back."

During the next year, the number of claimants grew to 13, and the museum requested the return of the "loan." Hui Malama refused.

In May 2003 the NAGPRA review committee found that the museum had erred in handing over the items to Hui Malama. The committee instructed the museum to reclaim the artifacts for the 13 claimants so they could work out an agreement. Hui Malama has refused to return the artifacts.

Diamond and other claimants have asked to see the items to verify they are in the cave. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has denied them and the Star-Bulletin permission to go to the Forbes cave, which is on their land.

Ayau said recently, "All the evidence anyone will ever get (that the items are in the caves) is our word."

Diamond said angrily: "Hui Malama was supposed to be checking so that Kanupa cave wasn't ravaged. If they can't take care of it, can't secure it, they should let someone else."

Diamond said: "We can't take Hui Malama on its word. The ravaging of Kanupa cave raises great concerns about the security of Forbes. We have never had the opportunity to inspect the items in Forbes cave. Hui Malama's integrity is at stake, and its credibility is in question."

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei

Bishop Museum

U.S. Interior Dept. -NAGPRA

© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --

Original article URL:

Return to Repatriation page

Return to News page

Ho`iho`i Mai