The rising sun was kissing the tops of Na Pali when I walked past the burials — flagged with sticks, orange survey ribbon and tiki torches — in the oceanfront lot at Naue this morning.
I slipped into the circle on the beach just as the pule was beginning, and joined hands with Andrew Cabebe, who cried softly during the blessing, and Hale Mawae, whose hand was still cold from his dawn hiuwai (cleansing) in a small tidepool exposed in the reef by the shrinking tide.
After Hale's pule and chant, Louise Sausen told the group how to respond if the police attempted to make arrests: everyone who chose to should pick a gravesite and sit with their knees up to their chest, in the same way that the women and children were buried in that sandy soil hundreds of years ago.
Over the next couple of hours, more people joined in, including some of the lua guys, who stood guard at both entrances to the burial grounds. In all, about 50 people were there.
As we waited, I talked with Andrew, who along with Ka`iulani Huff and Hale, among others, have been keeping watch, camping on the beach adjacent to the graves for about 10 weeks now.
He said being at the burial site had “really changed my life. When you spend nights praying to them, talking to them, listening to the wind, the surf, listening to the birds, then all the people who come malama, knowing it’s the thing to do, it keeps you going.”
Even visitors were surprised to discover that “our burial rights are not in place,” Andrew said, and that the state regularly allows iwi to be dug up and reburied elsewhere, or structures placed right over them.
“So here we are, pockets everywhere in Hawaii trying to do their little thing to improve what needs to be done for the Hawaiian people,” Andrew said. "We even have kanakas who are against what we’re doing. They want to be Americans and they have that choice.”
At about 9 a.m., the contractor, Ted Burkhart, showed up with a rather frail looking security guard and several members of his crew. They were followed by some of Esaki’s surveyors and an archaeologist.
One of the lua guys began pleading with Ted to walk away from the job and leave the burials in place, and Nani Rogers and Louise went to talk to them. The rain, which had been falling intermittently all morning, increased.
“This is not a political thing, it’s a spiritual thing and you must know the consequences of what you do,” Nani told Ted.
Added Louise: “That’s why the sky is crying. It’s our kupuna.”
Then Ka`iulani, who says she has a royal patent giving her ownership of the land in question, came up from the beach and said: “I have title to this land. I’ve called the police, and everyone who is not invited has to leave. You’re on my property. Get off.”
Ted and his crew agreed to move to the dirt road that runs through this neighborhood, which happens to be the very first place I lived upon moving to Kauai 21 years ago. Then, the beach side was all ironwood and false kamane. Now it’s densely lined with very large mainland-style houses — most of them vacation rentals — built on pillars, supposedly to protect them from floods and tsunami.
As they walked away, Louise, one of the few Hawaiians who still lives in the neighborhood, called out: “This is not the first time I’ve been up against him [Joe Brescia, the California developer who wants to build a house on the site]. He moved my kupuna for a septic tank.
“I’m the one who pays for the oil to light the torches so the kupuna can be seen,” Louise continued. “Meanwhile, you’re all making money off our land.”
She also noted that because of the high prices of houses along there, her property taxes have risen to an assessed rate of $110 per square foot — a price that’s increasingly difficult for her to pay.
“All you contractors, all you workers, you have a choice, you can walk away from this job,” Louise called out. “Enough is enough. Stop building vacation rentals on my iwi.”
As we stood on the road, a police car with two cops drove up. The one who was driving said, “Aloha,” and when no one responded, he said it again and flashed the shaka. Nani told him everything was fine and he wasn’t needed right then, and he pulled off to the other side of the road, and they remained in their car.
I talked with Ted for a little while then, and he said he had signed the contract a year ago, before more than 30 burials had been uncovered by a backhoe during excavation for the foundation. Some were broken up in the process.
If he were to back out now, Ted said, Brescia could sue him for breach of contract and most likely could prove he’d been damaged “because who could he get to the do the job now?”
“It’s affecting me very deeply,” he said. “The last thing in the world I wanted to do was have a conflict with anybody, especially the Hawaiian people, who have treated me very well.”
Ted said he’d built another house for Brescia just a few houses down, and that one burial was found nearly at the end of the job. At the direction of the state, it was reburied under the house. He’d also encountered burials on one other job on Kauai.
In this case, he said, since the Burial Council recommended the burials stay in place, an archaeologist would show them how to create a moat around each grave, then pour concrete around it. Seven burials would be under the house, with the remainder in the front yard on the makai side.
When I asked if any of his crew had backed out because of the burials, or if he was concerned about supernatural ramifications, he said: “No, I don’t fear for that, just for offending other people.
“I’ve thought a lot on this,” continued Ted, who was born in Iowa and moved to Kauai in 1962. “I’ve prayed on it in my culture and talked to other kupuna.”
He said that Nani was right; “The state law need to be revisted. There's been such a cultural renewal it’s obvious it needs to be done. Because when all is said and done, the law we all live under, as opposed to the Kingdom of Atooi, is the law of the land, and he [Brescia] hasn’t violated any.”
I joined the group for another pule, and then Lady Ipo, who had been retained by Brescia to do a job site blessing, showed up. Andrew told her he couldn’t let her on the land, and the two were engaged in a very emotional talk as I left for an interview in Kilauea.
Driving away, I saw no cops at the site, but there were two cop cars parked along the road about a mile away, and I passed another three, headed west, before I reached Hanalei. Later, I called a friend for an update, and he said that Lady Ipo had left in tears, without doing a blessing, and that all five cop cars had shown up at the site.
He said the cops were very low key and courteous, and talked to Ka`iulani about her ownership papers, which she declined to show them. In the end, he said, no one was arrested and Ted and his crew simply left, although those present felt they would return another day.
I couldn’t help but wonder why Brescia, who reportedly has built and sold another seven houses on the street, doesn't just deed this site over to the Kauai Public Land Trust. Yes, he would lose some money, but as someone in the crowd said, there's the moral issue to be considered. The entire lot is literally covered with burials; no structure could be built there without impacting them.
So will he find a way out of this standoff, or push forward with construction? I don’t know. I could only recall the last words I exchanged with Andrew:
“If you’re being led by the money, you’re going nowhere. I’d rather be led by the spirit.”