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La'akea Suganuma


Hui Malama has made news by refusing to reveal where it stashed 83 items it borrowed from the Bishop Museum in February 2000. The leader of the group, Edward Halealoha Ayau, even served three weeks in jail for contempt of court. On the other side, stands La'akea Suganuma. Suganuma represents the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts, a group that filed a federal lawsuit against the Bishop Museum and Hui Malama. Here, he talks about why he filed suit.

Lua teacher La'akea Suganuma collects and creates traditional Hawaiian weapons.
photo: Jimmy Forrest

Q: You have an interesting family connection to the Bishop Museum; your grandmother was the author and lecturer Mary Kawena Pukui, who worked for many years with the Bishop Museum to preserve Hawaiian culture.

A: She raised me. She did so much in one lifetime. Thanks to her, we've got things we can rely on.

Q: Hui Malama claims that moving the 83 items from the Bishop Museum to a reburial site is "old, simple, morally correct and natural."

A: It's been unanimous all the way through that the iwi [bones] need to go back [be reburied], the other items, though, are not funerary. The iwi are not in contention, never have been, but if you read Hui Malama's literature, we're trying to steal the bones. They have petitions, "Save the bones." I'd sign a petition like that.

Q: You teach lua, a Hawaiian martial art, and you've worked with the Honolulu Academy of Arts on cultural protocol issues. To you, what is the importance of the iwi and moepu (artifacts placed with the dead)?

A: Moepu is a word Hui Malama has been using and spouting. It's [really] the act of placing something with the dead [not the item itself]. If you're a fisherman and I put your favorite fishhook with you when you die, it's still a fishhook.

Q: The Bishop Museum had to catalog its collection in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, a federal law passed in 1990. It mandates that human remains and funerary items, as well as some sacred objects, must be returned to the tribes with which they were associated.

A: This law works fine for Native Americans and Native Alaskans, but it has been tragic in Hawai'i. Native American and Alaskan tribes have tribal governments that decide what happens to the items once repatriated. Hawaiians don't have a government, so the legal title, the ownership, of the items is given to organizations. They could legally turn around and sell them, do whatever they want with them. I am sure that wasn't the idea behind NAGPRA.

Q: So what is your position?

A: These artifacts were revealed, the kapu was lifted, and the reason was for the descendants to see how the ancestors lived. That was the ancestors' wishes, and that should be respected. These things were, for almost 100 years, kept in the museum, and all of a sudden this group comes in and says they have to be buried. And the museum hired them. It's like letting the foxes into the henhouse. What I'm saying is very simple: Uphold the law. I filed the suit on the basis that NAGPRA was violated. Two NAGPRA review committees agreed that the law had been violated. The judge agreed. The 9th Circuit Court kicked it back. Now what? Mediation? The district court, as far as I know, next to God, has the authority to uphold the law.

Q: Do we know who the bones belonged to? Can anyone claim, "Hey, those are my great-grandmother's"?

A: No. Impossible. [The graves were secret] so they wouldn't be defiled. People can sing and dance and make believe all they want to. The Bishop Museum, especially [then director and president Donald] Duckworth, his attitude was, This is a real pain in the ass. Give it to them. Let the natives fight over it and we'll just sit back and watch. And that's what they did. My charges were against the Bishop Museum, they're the ones who gave the items away. This lawsuit, we had to pull in Hui Malama, but it's always been about the Bishop Museum.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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