An Unpleasant Experience in Providence, R.I.

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

In 1998, there were seven repatriation cases involving a federal agency and two museums with multiple returns of iwi kūpuna and moepū pursuant to the authority of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

In February, 20 iwi kūpuna and moepū were repatriated from the Haleakalā National Park by the the kiaʻi of Hui ʻAlanui o Makena including Dana Nāone Hall, Uncle Charley Kauluwehi Maxwell, and Uncle Les Kuloloio, and respectfully reburied.

Then in August, we became involved in a case involving a kiʻi lāʻau (wood image) – it was a “spear rest” used to transport a chief’s spears on a canoe.

Photo: Halealoha Ayau
Halealoha Ayau carefully handles the kiʻi lāʻau retrieved from Roger Williams Park Museum. – Photo: Courtesy

The intriguing case began when a news article was anonymously faxed to me announcing the pending sale of this kiʻi at Sotheby’s, an auction house in New York.

The Roger Williams Park Museum in Providence, R.I. was the seller.

I immediately consulted Linda Delaney of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). OHA joined us in submitting a cease and desist letter because the sale would violate NAGPRA.

We were able to halt the sale and submit a NAGPRA claim for the kiʻi as a sacred object based upon the expert testimony of Pualani Kanakaʻole Kanahele. However, the museum denied our claim.

We appealed the decision to the NAGPRA Review Committee.

At a hearing in Myrtle Beach, S.C., we presented information meeting all NAGPRA requirements, including the lack of right-of-possession. The review committee recommended repatriation. In response, the city of Providence sued OHA and Hui Mālama in federal district court.

Eventually, a settlement was reached – with OHA being forced to “contribute” $125,000 toward Roger Williams Park Museum exhibits in exchange for the kiʻi.

Unfortunately, despite their “win,” the settlement failed to halt a war of words with abrasive Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, resulting in an intense press conference. The kiʻi was finally returned, but after 20 years has yet to be exhibited at the Bishop Museum.

In November, a staggering 1,026 Oʻahu iwi kūpuna and moepū were repatriated from the Bishop Museum. Significant effort was required to identify suitable locations for reinterment, acquire landowner approvals, and hold workshops to teach our people how to prepare the iwi for reburial. This was Hui Mālama’s largest repatriation to date.

That same month, another 95 iwi kūpuna and moepū whose islands of origin were unknown were repatriated from the Bishop Museum. Identifying which island to which to return them is always difficult. We relied on our ceremonial training and pule to guide our decision-making and returned the iwi to Papahānaumoku.

Finally, in December, there were two additional repatriations from the Bishop Museum – one involving 35 iwi kūpuna and moepū from Moku o Keawe, and a separate case that returned the coffin of a child to Keauhou for ceremonial reburial. Ola nā iwi!