Stories, events and tales about Fijian custom & culture
www.fijisun.com.fj - 23/11/2009
Historical facts have surfaced this month that Ro Veidovi’s remains were buried in one of America’s distinguished military burial grounds, Cypress Hills in Brooklyn, New York.
Cypress Hills National Cemetery is at least 18 acres in size and is located approximately ten miles from JFK International Airport, New York. A quick search has revealed that over 21, 000 persons, mostly decorated soldiers, are buried in Cypress Hills. It is managed by the Long Island National Cemetery.
Through the years, meticulous research has found that because Ro Veidovi became a celebrated prisoner and died on board a US military ship, it was deemed obligatory to have his remains interred at Cypress Hills.
He lies among what Cypress Hills National Cemetery records as “Notable Persons” who won Medals of Honour during the war in the mid-1800s.
Details like these are in the official records at various graves in Cypress Hills - Coxswain John Cooper, (Civil War), U.S. Navy. Awarded two Medals of Honor; On board the USS Brooklyn, Dec. 31, 1864, and April 26, 1865 (Section 2, Grave 5022); Captain of the Hold Louis Williams (Interim), U.S. Navy. Awarded two Medals of Honor. On board the USS Lackawanna, March 16, 1883, and on board the USS Lackawanna, June 13, 1884 (Section 6, Grave 12616); and so on.
US records state that many graves had to be carefully dug up and transferred to the main gravesite to make way for the construction of a large department store in the 1920s. This event might have contributed to loss of records of the exact location of Ro Veidovi’s grave.
William Rhoades, Director of Long Island National Cemetery in Farmdale, New York, and Roko Tui Dreketi Ro Teimumu Kepa’s traditional historians and heralds have been in contact in the last month.
Rhoades says he had “looked everywhere possible” to find the original headstone placed on his gravesite but he is preparing a permanent marker when Ro Teimumu passes details of Ro Veidovi’s Rewa status.
“While the exact circumstances of his interment at Cypress Hills are historical facts, I don’t think that we can inscribe those circumstances on his headstone,” he said.
“It is a fascinating story that just keeps going,” Rhoades states. “It appears (the headstone) has been removed and destroyed. I plan to submit an application for a new memorial marker.”
The Ro Veidovi story has also connected senior Fiji and USA Government officials. Rhoades in particular stood ready to discuss “the history associated with this distinguished gentleman”
“While the cultures were much different then, he was obviously a well-respected man of his culture and apparently earned the respect of the US Navy Crew that captured him,” he said. “That in itself speaks volumes about his character.”
Rhoades explained he had received a letter from Penijamini Lomaloma, First Secretary at the Fiji Embassy in Washington D.C., to say Fiji officials had conducted a search to confirm the whereabouts of Ro Veidovi’s remains. Lomaloma had acted on requests by Adam H Domby, a senior official at the office of Congressman Gonzalez, after certain requests by Anthropologist Dr Ann Fabian, a Congresswoman whose keen interest in Ro Veidovi’s story has allowed her to write many scholarly papers. Lomaloma raised the matter with the Fiji Government through its Ministries of Indigenous Affairs and also of Foreign Affairs, Civil Aviation and International Cooperation in March-April this year.
Permanent Secretary for Indigenous Affairs Ratu Meli Bainimarama said there were no official records of past attempts to repatriate Ro Veidovi’s remains, but knew of the late Roko Tui Dreketi Ro Lady Lala Mara’s wishes that they remained on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
He said Roko Tui Dreketi Ro Teimumu Kepa’s views and wishes were being sought on the matter.
Dr Fabian’s curiosity was roused when she began another series of publications on a history of skull collectors “and Vendovi plays a major role”.
Dr Fabian’s search and her colleagues’ encouragement became a much talked about issue at State Department level and was relayed to the Embassy of the United States in Suva.
Richard Pruett, Deputy Chief of Mission wrote to Ro Teimumu in June this year, and personally invited her to the Smithsonian Institution to become “a part of the fascinating story”. Pruett had informed Ro Teimumu that he held consultations with Smithsonian Institution scholars like Dr Fabian, Chairman of Anthropology Dr Dan Rogers and Dr Adrianne Kaeppler, Curator for the Pacific Collection.
Pruett also informed Ro Teimumu that the Smithsonian would honour her wishes on the subject. He personally invited her to visit the Smithsonian Institution and assured the US Embassy would facilitate her travel.
Mullish views have surfaced in Rewa in recent weeks as to why Roko Tui Dreketi’s clan had suddenly taken a keen interest in Ro Veidovi. Her spokesperson Ro Dona Takalaiyale has expressed strong views, saying the Ro Veidovi story is not a new story.
“There is a very strong historic and cultural connection between Fiji and the United States in the story of Ro Veidovi,” he says. “If the Government of the United States considers his story a critical link in our history and culture, it will then be quite critical for Roko Tui Dreketi to share that value with us.”
“The story of Ro Veidovi is one of many significant stories in our history as a people, as a clan and as a nation,” Ro Dona adds. “His skulls became the first human remains on exhibit when it was deemed peculiar to do it at the time; the story has made it into numerous scholarly theses on the historical importance of US expeditions to the Fiji Islands.”
“And for all we know at Rewa today, there is a high level discussion going on between Na Gone Marama Bale Na Roko Tui Dreketi and the Ministries of Foreign and Indigenous Affairs, and the US Government on its historical and cultural importance.”
Ro Teimumu is of the view that, like every other significant Fijian story in scholarly publications everywhere in the world today, the Ro Veidovi story deserved a decent ending. She promises that is there is a need for her family to do it, she will personally supervise its care in a noteworthy section of the world’s largest museum and archives, the Smithsonian Institution in the American capital, Washington D.C.
“There is nothing wrong with taking care of an ancestor’s remains in a far away country and I personally believe that Ro Veidovi deserved a mention in the annals of the powerful history of Rewa and Burebasaga and most importantly, of Fiji and its power.
This article speaks volume of the character of the great chief Ro Veidovi. As a relative of Ro Veidovi, I am so proud to learn that he was well respected by his "captors". His prowess as a great warrior has always been a source of great pride. Learning that there is written record displaying his character as a man is indeed great news.
Ateca,You might be interested in the exchanges between Ro Dona and Ro Alipate Mataitini on this subject in another post on this Blog. I found it very interesting indeed as a non Rewan.
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