Theft of relics is Hawaiian mystery

March 10, 1994|By Boston Globe

HONOLULU -- Someone has spirited away two of Hawaii's most hallowed historical relics and, in so doing, has cut sharply into the native culture's soul.

"It's hard to explain just how significant this is," said Lynn Lee, the land planner for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. "It would be a little bit, to Christians, as if somebody had stolen the bones of Jesus."

Like the missing antiquities -- woven baskets purportedly holding the deified bones of 15th and 16th century royalty -- the theft is shrouded in mystery.

No one seems sure exactly when or how it happened, but it was discovered a few weeks ago, when authorities at the Bishop Museum here opened a guarded, locked storage cabinet and found that the two "kaai" were missing.

Almost daily since then, pleas have been made for their return: by police, who say they have no clues in the case; by museum officials, who express bewilderment about how this could have happened; by state leaders, who despair at the loss of such important artifacts; and by the islands' kupuna, or elders, who met throughout last week discussing how to respond to the theft.

The elders, representing all of Hawaii's islands, reached a consensus that they should use their moral authority to persuade the thief or thieves to return the priceless caskets.

However, the decision reportedly was not unanimous, and the kaai's disappearance has revealed an anguished division among Hawaiians about the disposition of remnants from their tightly intertwined historical, spiritual and cultural pasts.

A stark illustration of that split emerged on Saturday, two days after the kapuna committee issued an order for the caskets' return.

Rather than join that call, Dana Naone Hall, chairwoman of the Maui/Lanai Islands Burial Council, released a statement saying that many natives consider the incident a "rescue" rather than a theft because the bones should have been buried according to ancient custom and not been consigned to a museum.

"My instinctual response tells me that the kaai were taken for the right reasons by the right people," Ms. Hall said. She added that it was "possible" that the bones' spiritual power was "actively involved" in their removal, that they somehow wanted to be properly interred on the Big Island of Hawaii.

While other officials denounce the robbery, most believe it was carried out by people who share Ms. Hall's religious and historical perspective. Indeed, on Feb. 15 -- three days before the disappearance was discovered -- Edward Haealoha Ayau, administrator of the state's burial program for Hawaiian remains, received an anonymous telephone call.

Mr. Ayau said he did not understand at the time what the male caller meant when he said, "Chief Liloa is home."

Liloa's bones are believed to be in one of the 2-foot-high baskets, which are woven into humanlike shapes; the other is said to contain the bones of his great-grandson, Lonoikamakahiki.

Most Hawaiians today are Christians who live in a modern Western society, but their culture still has strong tribal influences and is in fused with ancient beliefs and rituals.

On Saturday evening, for instance, the Royal Order of Kamechamcha I -- a 125-year-old group whose members include Gov. John Waihee -- held a ceremony at the Nuuanu Mausoleum, which houses the remains of Hawaiian royalty. The intent was to inform the dead of the kaai's theft and to "issue a challenge for their return," according to a Kamechamcha spokesman.

The ritual included a torchlight procession to a crypt containing the remains of Queen Liliuokalani and Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, the last royal guardians of the kaai before the prince turned them over to the Bishop Museum 76 years ago.

The museum was to hold onto the relics until agreement could be reached on their final resting place, and they were considered so cherished that they were never put on public display. Rather, they were accessible only to researchers who obtained special permission and were escorted to the viewing area by a staff member who watched the entire process.

Linda Delaney, a government spokeswoman on historical and cultural matters, compared the symbolic importance of the kaai with that of the bones of Abraham or Joseph to the Jewish people.

She lamented that the "most unfortunate impact" of the relics' theft has been how it has divided residents.

"The kaai represent something central, something extremely significant of the Hawaiian people. . . not just to survive but to prevail," Ms. Delaney said. "Looked at in this way, the idea that any one segment of the population or any one place should have the right to decide what happens to the bones is destructive and a disservice to all of us."

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