THE KA'AI -- The strange disappearance (theft) of two 500-year-old sennit-wrapped sets of bones of important Hawaiian chiefs, taken from Bishop Museum in 1994

(c) Copyright 2003 - 2004, Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

In February, 1994 two sennit (woven coconut-fiber) caskets were stolen from Bishop Museum in Honolulu. These two ka'ai are more than 400 years old, and contain the bones of two very important kings from Hawai'i Island (the "Big Island"): Liloa, and Lonoikamakahiki. The theft was allegedly done by ethnic Hawaiians who allegedly then returned the bones and their caskets to the cave where they had originally been buried, in Waipi'o Valley. The rumors were that some employees of the museum may have conspired with the thieves, to open locked doors to the building, to circumvent security alarms, to lead the thieves to the storage location, and to open locked cabinets.

The theft of the ka'ai was a major controversy, grabbing many headlines over a long period. Unfortunately, neither of the Honolulu daily newspapers were yet on the internet at that time, and their internet archives do not go back that far. It appears there are no internet photographs of the ka'ai, and none of the newspaper articles published before 1996 are available. However, several newspaper articles have been published since then, and there are a couple of other internet descriptions of the ka'ai.

In reading the material below, bear in mind that the NAGPRA law was passed in 1990 and was already well-established by the date of the theft of the ka'ai in 1994. Thus, ethnic Hawaiians who felt a spiritual connection to the ka'ai should have used the procedures in the NAGPRA law to "liberate" and repatriate them. Failure to do that would seem to indicate a lack of faith in the NAGPRA law, and the law cannot be successful without that faith. Alternatively, it indicates a lack of willingness to abide by the results of due process under NAGPRA, in which case the law cannot be successful.

One more point to ponder is this (as stated by a letter-to-editor writer): the Forbes Cave artifacts appear to have been stolen from Bishop Museum through the same sort of "inside job" as happened with the ka'ai. True, the ka'ai were stolen flat out, whereas the Forbes Cave artifacts were carefully and intentionally handed over by the Bishop Museum administration and staff to the Hui Malama group who then allegedly repatriated the artifacts. But the secret and underhanded way the Museum selected the Hui Malama group to be the recipients of the artifacts, and the secrecy of the handover, makes it look like another inside job. In both the ka'ai and the Forbes Cave cases, artifacts were "liberated" from Bishop Museum through secret procedures whereby the museum staff selected the group to be given the artifacts, without regard to the rights of competing claimants. There were many other individuals and groups who claimed the right to receive the artifacts, both in the case of the ka'ai and in the case of Forbes cave. Those other claimants would surely describe what happened as theft. And also the general public can regard both situations as theft, since the public has been deprived of the right to study and be inspired by artifacts that are important to an understanding of the core culture of Hawai'i.


There is an excellent summary of sacred burial practices in old Hawai'i, written by Betty Fullard-Leo in 1998. The article describes the ka'ai, and the difference between alii' and maka'ainana burial practices. Following are excerpts from the article, selected because they are directly on the topic of the ka'ai. The entire article may be seen at:

Speculation ran rampant after two ancient caskets containing the bones of Big Island ali'i, King Liloa and his great grandson, Lonoikamakahiki, disappeared from O'ahu's Bishop Museum in February 1994. The caskets, or ka'ai, made of woven sennit, stood 31 and 35 inches tall and in shape, roughly resembled the human form. Until today, the whereabouts of the ka'ai, which date from the late 1500s, remain a mystery, though whispers in the local community indicate the royal bones may have been returned to their original resting place in Waipi'o Valley.

Corpses were treated with respectful ceremony in preparation for internment, as it was believed the bones, the iwi, of the dead held great mana, divine power, that contributed to the natural order of life, and could benefit whomever possessed his ancestor's bones.

Remains of bodies uncovered in the last century have revealed a variety of burial methods, depending on the island and the area of burial and on whether the deceased was a commoner (maka'ainana); or royalty, ali'i. The skull, leg, and sometimes the arm bones of kings, in particular, were preserved, hidden or guarded. Hawaiian historian David Malo left written descriptions of the bodies of ali'i being wrapped in banana, taro and paper mulberry leaves, then buried in shallow graves in the shrine area of the men's eating house. While a priest chanted, fire burned over the body for ten days. The body was exhumed, and the flesh and soft parts were peeled away and deposited in the sea. The remaining skull and long bones were wrapped in tapa and arranged in a sitting position on a shrine. While the priest prayed, the dead king was believed to transform into a god. The successor king then returned from exile to have his followers build a new house where a sennit casket was woven for the bones of the deceased.

Houses where the king's bones were kept have been annotated only on the Big Island: in Waipi'o Valley, where Hale o Liloa (house of Liloa), is thought to have been constructed in 1575, and at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau (popularly known as "The City of Refuge"). Waipi'o's Hale o Liloa is lost to history, though if rumor is to be believed, the bones of Liloa and Lonoikamakahiki (respectively father and son of the great King 'Umi) may once again reside in the vicinity.

Hale o Keawe at Honaunau, built in 1740, was ordered destroyed by Queen Ka'ahumanu in 1830, after her conversion to Christianity. It has since been reconstructed and the whole complex is open to visitors. In 1821, Reverend Ellis was denied entry to the sacred hale (house) where bones were kept but was able to peer through an opening to leave the following description in his book, A Hawaiian Tour: "We looked in and saw many images, some of wood, very much carved, others of red feathers, with wide distended mouths, large rows of shark's teeth, and glaring pearl-shell eyes. We also saw several bundles, apparently of human bones, cleaned, carefully tied up with cinet (sic) made of cocoa-nut fibres, and placed in different parts of the house, together with some rich shawls and other valuable articles, probably worn by those to whom the bones belonged, as the wearing apparel and other personal property of the chiefs is generally buried with them."

On the Island of Hawai'i, the Hawai'i Island Burial Council, under the chairmanship of Puna Lerma, oversees customs concerning reinterment. Says Lerma, "Showing respect, lokahi, for our ancestors is a way of making things right, of being pono. It involves three dimensions: the unseen realm of the gods, our aumakua; the level of humans; and the earth itself. If any of these levels are in disarray or in chaos, life on earth will be unstable. We have to get our ancestors planted in the ground where they belong. They form the foundation for everything that is living. Because they were here before us and have been here longer, they deserve respect. They in turn, take care of us and influence the natural forces that take care of each family."

When pressed, Lerma concludes softly, "Let's put it this way, I believe the ka'ai are back in Waipi'o, where they belong."


Eddie Ayau, leader of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, a Hawaiian reburial activist group, claims that all the bones of all the ancestors, no matter how many generations have gone by, have an intimate spiritual relationship with the land and with the currently living descendants. His writing is emotionally compelling. See his article "Rooted in Native Soil" at:


A description of the ka'ai, and their historical significance, is a book from Bishop Museum Press: "Reconciling The Past: Two Basketry Ka`ai and the Legendary Liloa and Lonoikamakahiki Rose, Roger G." The book is listed at:


Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Wednesday, September 23, 1998

Whatever Happened ... An update on past news

What ever happened to the ka'ai stolen from Bishop Museum in 1994?
By Stan Constantino

The disappearance of the two ka'ai remains a mystery.

According to Honolulu police Detective John Kamai, one of two officers in charge of the case, the ka'ai were never found. However, sources have told him the ka'ai "were returned" to Waipio Valley on the Big Island - a lush green valley stretching six miles long with 2,000-foot cliffs.

The two ka'ai, which were stolen from the Bishop Museum's Konia Hall in mid-February 1994, are woven sennit caskets believed to hold the remains of deified 15th- or 16th-century chiefs Liloa and Lonoikamakahiki.

Kamai said they had a few good leads based on airline reservation information. However, the information was not solid enough evidence to make any arrests. Kamai said they ruled out Bishop Museum employees in the burglary. Those who stole the ka'ai were of Hawaiian ancestry, he said. The case remains open. For now, Kamai said, police can only wait until someone comes forward with more information. "When we do find the ka'ai, (the) Hawaiian community will decide what the final outcome is going to be," he said.


Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 11, 2000
Letters to the Editor

It's time to track down the missing ka'ai

The mysterious disappearance of the ka'ai in February 1994 keeps coming to mind as I read about the most unfortunate removal of burial artifacts from the Bishop Museum these six years later.

No one involved with the Bishop Museum in 1994 confessed to leaving outside, inside and cabinet doors open at a specific time so the chiefly remains, the ka'ai, could be stolen from their resting place and taken to Waipio.

Abigail K. Kawananakoa was right when she was quoted as saying that there is no one alive today who has the right to dispose of the ka'ai except the Kawananakoa family, who are the proper guardians via Prince Kuhio's previous guardianship.

My question is, did the same Bishop Museum people assist in the spiriting away of the ka'ai as they have assisted in the removal of the Forbes burial artifacts six years later.

Now is the time to cleanse the 1994 removal of the ka'ai with the truth as to who assisted in the stealing of the chiefly remains from the museum. And now is the time, while Bishop Museum is angling for the return of the Forbes artifacts, for it to make an all-out effort toward the return of the ka'ai.

M. P. Noe


The Honolulu Advertiser, December 18, 2000
By Karen Blakeman

New home arouses nostalgia in curator

[Lengthy article about the caretaker family at Mauna Ala, the Royal Mausoleum, and the new caretaker house built there. This article has been severely excerpted to keep only the contect directly relevant to the ka'ai]

Maioho is the curator of the Royal Mausoleum of Hawai‘i in Nu‘uanu. It is a job his mother held before him, as did each of his maternal grandparents. It is a job passed down to him by ancestors who served as kahu — appointed protectors of the bones of the king — for Kamehameha the Great.

Construction on the central structure, now a chapel, began in the early 1860s, necessitated by the death of Prince Albert Edward Kauikeaouli, child of Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma. Christianity had taken a strong hold on the Hawaiian Islands.

The tradition of weaving ali‘i bones, the iwi, into the head-and-torso-shaped baskets and hiding them in caves had become a thing of the past, and more burial space was needed. The king and queen, with the help of a German architect, began plans for a mausoleum on Mauna‘ala in Nu‘uanu Valley. The plans had not been realized when Kamehameha IV died. The bodies of the young prince and his father were finally laid to rest in the partially constructed, cross-shaped vault in February 1864. Other bodies were moved from the old ‘Iolani Palace crypt to Nu‘uanu Valley. Within 20 years, the new Royal Mausoleum vault was crowded with the bodies of the Kamehameha line.

Kamehameha himself lies securely — somewhere — in a secret cave. Maioho suspects the great king’s burial spot has remained secret for so many years because the mouth of his burial cave is accessible only though an underwater access known only to Maioho’s ancestor Ho‘olulu and to Ho‘olulu’s brother, Hoapili. Honored with the task of hiding Kamehameha’s bones, Ho‘olulu swam to the burial spot with the basket containing the king’s bones strapped to his back. Hoapili met him in a canoe.

The Royal Mausoleum once housed the bones of two ancient rulers, dating back to well before the time of Kamehameha the Great. A controversy surrounding them arose during the time when his mother served as curator, Maioho said.

Long before his mother or grandmother or grandfather became curator, in the year following the burial of Kamehameha IV, the ka‘ai, burial baskets of ancient chiefs Liloa and Lonoikamakahiki, had been moved to the mausoleum with other ali‘i bodies. The old chiefs had been removed in 1820 from the Big Island heiau in which they had been laid to rest.

In 1918, before the mausoleum was converted to a chapel, the ka‘ai were moved to the Bishop Museum. The controversy arose later, during his mother’s time, after the Hawaiian community began to suspect that scientists interested in the remarkable sennit-basket weaving and herbal preservation processes of the old chiefs’ times had cut holes in the bottoms of the ka‘ai.

To do so was desecration, Maioho said. It inadvertently mimicked the behaviors of old rival chiefs, who would purposely desecrate a leader’s ka‘ai and make fishhooks from his bones in order to steal the leader’s mana. "Some say the iwi were calling out," Maioho said.

The ka‘ai disappeared from the museum in 1994. No alarms sounded. Nothing else was missing. No one was ever arrested. It was rumored, Maioho said, that the iwi were returned to Waipio Valley on the Big Island, where they had been laid to rest many centuries ago. "They were my mother’s responsibility," Maioho said. "She was kahu."


The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, October 24, 2002
[Movie review of "Night Marchers Two: Return of the Ka'ai" by Cousins Brothers Productions. Note from Ken Conklin: Honoka'a, the town where the film production company has its headquarters, is "topside" at the beginning of the steep trail down into Waipi'o Valley, where the ka'ai are now thought to have been reburied in a cave]
By Tim Ryan

Marching onward, The Cousins brothers of Honokaa return with a sequel to their movie about Hawaiian ghosts

Big Island filmmakers Blake and Brent Cousins' sequel to last year's "Night Marchers" -- "Night Marchers Two: Return of the Ka'ai" -- will open tomorrow at Consolidated's Pearlridge multiplex.

The 78-minute, $60,000 film -- 14 minutes longer and double the original's budget -- contains more special effects and has a cast of 100, Blake Cousins said in an interview from Cousins Brothers Productions office in Honokaa. All the post-production and special-effects work was done in the small town where the pair recently purchased a video/DVD rental store.

Blake Cousins laughs when asked about the brothers' photo business, saying they have "outlets" for selling photos and "networks" of hotel executives, actors' agents and management who, for a finder's fee, will reveal a subject's vacation schedule and other information.

He describes the "Night Marchers" sequel as "a fantasy/action/adventure/special-effect extravaganza" based on the true story of a pair of ka'ai -- woven sennit caskets discovered in 1946 in Waipio Valley -- that were believed to hold the remains of the deified 15th- or 16th-century chiefs Liloa and Lonoikamakahiki. They were placed in the Bishop Museum where, in early 1994, they were stolen and reportedly returned to the valley.

In the movie, the ka'ai are stolen for profit, and menehunes help in the return of the caskets to their sacred resting place. The Night Marchers rise from the dead to waylay any who are disrespectful to the aina, Cousins said.

"The film is a cross between 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,'" he said.

Special effects re-create ancient battles and a 70-foot tidal wave hitting Waipio Valley. For more information, check out the Cousins' Web site at:
[Note from editor Ken Conklin: As of mid-April, 2003, that website has a trailer and film clips from the movie. And, according to the Cousins' website, the movie "Begins Showing on March 7th, 2003 at the Maui Mall MegaPlex"]


On November 21, 2004 the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported that the theft of the ka'ai ten years ago has continued to disturb Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, to the point where she is stepping forward to establish a "Native Hawaiian Organization" under the NAGPRA law. By being a NHO, her group will be able to oppose Hui Malama in seeking ownership of artifacts currently held by Bishop Museum, with a view to keeping those artifacts in the museum rather than burying them in a cave. Thus, although Bishop Museum was pressured into withdrawing its own application to be a NHO, the establishment of a NHO by Kawananakoa gives hope that Bishop Museum will be able to keep possession of valuable artifacts just as though the museum itself were a recognized NHO.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, November 21, 2004

Campbell heir ups stakes for artifacts
Her organization earns status as a "native Hawaiian" group

By Sally Apgar

Abigail Kawananakoa, a descendant of the royal line of Kalakaua, has been haunted by the mysterious theft in 1994 from the Bishop Museum of the Ka'ai, two burial caskets that held the 400-year-old bones of two important chiefs from the Big Island, according to people close to her. By 2002, Kawananakoa was so pained by the thefts that she and a close adviser, Edith McKinzie, a kumu hula and noted Hawaiian genealogy scholar, visited the secret, climate-controlled room in the Bishop Museum from which the sennit caskets had been stolen. They wanted to see that other Hawaiian treasures stored there were safe. The Ka'ai have never been found.

Some say Kawananakoa, a wealthy Campbell Estate heiress, would pay anything for the return of the Ka'ai or other precious Hawaiian artifacts that may have slipped away onto the antiquities black market.

Now, Kawananakoa, 78, is emerging from her private world of philanthropic works and California quarter-horse farm to enter what has become a very public fight over the reclamation of Hawaiian artifacts among competing native Hawaiian groups. In her first formal step onto the battlefield, she gained recognition this week of her newly formed group, Na Lei Alii Kawananakoa, as a "native Hawaiian organization" under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Congress created NAGPRA as civil-rights legislation, aimed at righting wrongs of the past by creating a process for Native Americans and native Hawaiians to repatriate human remains and sacred items from museums.

A Bishop Museum official, who asked not to be named, confirmed Friday that the board of directors voted unanimously at its Thursday meeting to recognize Kawananakoa's group as a native Hawaiian organization. The official also confirmed the board found her organization eligible to join the fray with several claimants already competing under NAGPRA rules for three sacred items in the museum's collection that were found on Molokai.

The three items, believed by some native Hawaiians to hold strong spiritual powers, are: a 5-inch, hook-shaped pendant carved from a rock oyster; a "kii," which is an 8-inch stick figure with a human face; and a cowry shell. Those items are already at the center of a possibly precedent-setting legal dispute between Bishop Museum and Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, one of two native Hawaiian groups listed under NAGPRA law as native Hawaiian organizations. All three items were found in burial sands and later sold or donated to the Bishop Museum.

Edward Halealoha Ayau, a spokesman for Hui Malama, claims the donors were grave robbers and is challenging the museum's "right of possession" under NAGPRA. Ayau contends that the museum has no ownership rights of stolen goods. If Hui Malama prevails on this legal point, it could trigger battles over hundreds of items in museums across the country. Hui Malama recently filed a dispute with NAGPRA, citing the museum's slow reaction in repatriating the Molokai items. The museum says it is studying the legal issues involved and that if it can establish ownership under state law, then it can claim possession under NAGPRA.

Another outspoken claimant in the Molokai dispute is La'akea Suganuma, who represents the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts. Suganuma has long warred with Hui Malama over various items, including the controversial repatriation of 83 objects from the Kawaihae caves or Forbes cave on the Big Island that were once part of the Bishop Museum's collection. In February 2000, the museum loaned the items to Hui Malama for one year. The items were never returned. Ayau has repeatedly said his organization never meant to return them, the museum staff knew that and that the repatriation is final. Suganuma is among 12 other claimants who have asked for a review of the repatriation. Ayau says any questions among the remaining claimants should be settled in court.

Although Kawananakoa has not made a claim for the Kawaihae cave items, Suganuma and other claimants agree she has the war chest to pay for a court fight. Suganuma and Ayau are also at odds over the repatriation of five items from Kawaihae cave that reside in the collection of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Ayau said his group has made three written claims for the items since November 1999 that have been ignored by the park service. This week, he filed a dispute with NAGPRA over the park's response. Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando could not be reached for comment.

The five disputed items are: a 27-inch-high carved wooden statue of a woman; a konane game board with legs made of unusual carved wooden figures; a cutting tool that incorporates a human collar bone and shark's tooth; a gourd with a shell stopper; and a button. Suganuma is also filing a claim for the items.

Founded in 1989, Hui Malama at one time was the only group to step forward to take care of the bones and artifacts. It aggressively spearheaded repatriation from museums and, in the process, raised cultural consciousness and pride in the past. But in recent years, particularly since the Kawaihae caves dispute, Hui Malama has aroused controversy and some resentment from native Hawaiians who feel it has overstepped its bounds.

"Just who does Hui Malama think it is?" said Suganuma, who feels the NAGPRA review committee has made repatriation decisions biased toward Hui Malama. The NAGPRA review committee "has absolutely disregarded the law and always done what Hui Malama wants them to," Suganuma said in a recent letter to the committee. "We're taking off the gloves. The NAGPRA committee just hasn't shown any respect for the law or other claimants."

Ayau yesterday questioned Kawananakoa's motivations. "Where have they been all of these years while we have been fighting for repatriation?" he said. He noted part of the definition of "native Hawaiian organization" is to provide continuing services to native Hawaiians.

James Wright, an attorney for Kawananakoa, said that for more than 30 years she has funded preservation and research relating to Hawaiian culture. That funding includes translations of old Hawaiian-language newspapers for people to use in establishing their genealogies. According to incorporation papers, Kawananakoa's group includes McKinzie, who authored the two-volume "Hawaiian Genealogies," considered among the most authoritative texts on the subject. A third member is Rubellite Kawena Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii who is a renowned scholar of Hawaiian culture, language and history. Johnson has unsuccessfully challenged Hui Malama over past repatriations, including a spear rest that once resided in a Providence, R.I., museum. Johnson said yesterday, "I have no morbid interest in claiming other people's bones, nor in assuming power to force people to do this or that with ancestral bones."


GO BACK TO: NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) as applied to Hawai'i -- Mokapu, Honokahua, Bishop Museum Ka'ai; Providence Museum Spear Rest; Forbes Cave Artifacts; the Hui Malama organization