I passed Waldeen Palmeira, a Native Hawaiian burials preservation activist, on the Wailua Bridge the other day. I was headed north. She was headed south.
She didn’t see me, because she was looking at the cluster of men and heavy equipment installing the new bridge that will add another lane to ease traffic moving over the river so it can get jammed up a little bit farther north, like Waipouli, where the county — without requiring any environmental assessment — approved two resorts that will add some 547 rooms and a greater number of cars to that already congested corridor.
Waldeen was scowling, as anyone in the cultural know about Wailua often does when passing a scene that represents yet another intrusion upon sacred lands, another situation where Native Hawaiian concerns about unearthing ancient burials were overridden in the name of “progress,” “lifestyle improvement” and “the law” — by which, of course, are meant the modern Western versions of those words.
Waldeen’s efforts to stop the project were shut down by Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Watanabe, who expressed her sympathy and then urged Waldeen — as she did those fighting the construction of Joe Brescia’s house atop burials at Naue — to work with the state Legislature to toughen burial laws.
One such toughening action — HB155 — will be decided this morning by the House Committees on Hawaiian Affairs and Water, Land & Ocean Resources, which deferred a vote two weeks ago “so lawmakers could talk with the Hawaii Department of Transportation about the impact of the proposal on the construction of sewage lines and roads,” according to a report on Civil Beat.
The bill, which was introduced by Kauai Rep. Mina Morita, among others, seeks to amend the law to give Island Burial Councils jurisdiction over both “inadvertent” and “previously known” burials. Currently, the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, in cursory consultation with Island Burial Councils, determines the fate of “inadvertent” discoveries — a state of affairs that doesn’t sit well with burial preservationists and many Hawaiians.
The reason is two-fold. First, there’s the perception that the state is apt to favor the needs and wants of developers over cultural concerns. And second, there’s the reality that DLNR is allowing some developers — including the City and County of Honolulu — to skip the comprehensive archaeological surveys that identify “previously known” burials, or to conduct them at such shallow depths or limited scope as to avoid finding any iwi prior to commencing construction. As a result, burials uncovered during construction are considered “inadvertent,” which puts them under the purview of the state, rather than the Burial Councils.
If passed, the bill will give the Burial Councils the power to decide whether both inadvertent and previously known burials should be relocated or preserved in place. The bill also specifies the time frame that must be followed in dealing with burials.
According to testimony submitted for the Jan. 31 committee hearing, the DLNR and Society for Hawaiian Archaeology, which comprises the consultants paid by developers to dig up the bones, are opposed to the bill. Both cited logistical concerns, saying it might be difficult for the all-volunteer Burial Councils to respond in a timely manner.
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to understand that their primary concern is, to use language from DLNR Director William Aila’s testimony, “adverse impacts, if any, on the activity that resulted in the discovery.” In other words, the bill might serve to slow down development.
OHA Trustee Donald Cataluna, who testified as an individual (OHA also submitted testimony in support of the bill) sees things a little differently:
[T]his bill would provide much-needed parity in the treatment, care, and protection of Native Hawaiian graves.
Living on and representing the island of Kauai, I have seen firsthand how the issue of discovery and care of burial sites divides our community. Across Kaua’i and across Hawai’i, many people have heard about the Brescia case. Like many Native Hawaiians, I believe that construction such as this should stop. I further believe that HB 155 would help remedy future similar situations by creating a single standard for all to follow.
We all have ancestors; the desecration of ancestral graves should not be an acceptable practice, whether they are Native Hawaiian or not. RB 155 is a policy change that is well-done, balanced, fair, and culturally-appropriate in the 21st century.
The fate of the bill, which by no means would address all concerns related to the treatment of iwi kupuna, is uncertain. Its companion measure in the Senate has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing, which generally portends its death.
Meanwhile, on the island of Oahu, a protest is planned for tomorrow at Kawaiahao Church, where construction has resumed on a new multipurpose facility, even though some 69 iwi already have been disinterred under a state-sanctioned process that many find questionable. As evidenced by some of the comments I’ve read on emails, it’s becoming yet another heated, divisive, emotionally charged dispute over the treatment of iwi kupuna, with the state again taking actions that have pitted Hawaiians against Hawaiians, and preservationists against development occurring over burials.
In one of those emails, Kimberly Kalama expressed sentiments shared by others about the ongoing disturbance of iwi kupuna — acts of desecration that many believed the state burial law would stop:
I am outraged. I have stood in the shadows far too long. After hearing Kahu Kekuna yesterday, on channel 4 news, I know we are in serious trouble. I know our people are in grave danger. The bones of our ancestors hold the highest value of our culture. They are the foundation from the past to our future.
Open your eyes. We are not safe anywhere, dead or alive there is no regard. Where is the justice for all the ancestors from the past that were dug up. Our ancestor’s remains are not rubbish. When do we stand up for the rights of the human being. How many more ancestors will be unearthed? THIS INDEED IS A SACRILEGIOUS ACT.
Cultural expert Onaona Pomroy Maly expressed additional concerns on her Kumu Pono Associates website,
Never ever in my worst nightmare could I possibly imagine burials at Kawaiaha‘o cemetery would be allowed to be dug up in this day and age. Adding to the hewa, is the fact that this is a Hawaiian Church, and Hawaiians are facilitating the desecration.
Because it happened in the past, more so today, we cannot let it happen again. We have lost enough of our past, our history, our right as a people, it is time for all Hawaiians, all human beings who care, to make a stand. Watch out everyone, for if this is allowed to happen at this well known graveyard who is to stop other graveyards in the future of having this same fate.
Hawaiians seeking to protect their iwi kupuna are not going away. Regardless of what happens with HB 155, they'll be returning to the courthouses, Capitol and construction sites until their concerns, which speak to the fundamental integrity of their culture, are addressed.
Or as Halealoha Ayau of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai‘i Nei wrote in calling for the protest:
If we do not stand for our kupuna now, how will our descendants know how to stand for us tomorrow?