Hidden Treasures: Hawaii Custody Battle

Museum, Indigenous Groups Struggle over Reburied Artifacts

Wooden statue

hide captionThis statue, made of koa wood with human hair and mother-of-pearl, is one of the disputed objects being contested in a custody battle.

Bishop Museum Archives
Wood images, known as 'akua ka`ai'

hide captionThese small wood images are of a type known as "akua ka`ai."

Bishop Museum Archives

A museum and indigenous Hawaiians are in a custody battle over rare carved artifacts, some of which have been repatriated to sacred burial caves. Harriet Baskas' report on the controversy is the latest in NPR's Hidden Treasures series.

The Bishop Museum in Honolulu is Hawaii's oldest and largest. Its stated mission is to preserve the culture and tell the stories of Hawaii and the Pacific. Like many museums, the Bishop is trying to balance its mission with the 1990 Native American Graves Repatriation Act. Under the law, the museum is returning human remains and funerary items to community groups that claim them.

The museum and several Native Hawaiian groups are struggling to figure out what should be done with 83 objects, including bones and rare carved artifacts taken from sacred burial caves in Kawaihae, on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1905.

Four years ago four groups came to the museum to reclaim those objects. Edward Ayau represents one of the groups, Hui Malama. Ayau says Hui Malama members believed they had consensus from the other three groups when they checked all 83 objects out of the museum, reburied them in the caves, and sealed up the entrance.

Ayau says the items were desecrated by David Forbes, an amateur archeologist in Hawaii around the turn of the last century. But other groups say the items should be returned to the Bishop Museum for display.

The Hidden Treasures Radio Project series, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Cultural Development Authority of King County, Wash.

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