The moon — just hours short of fullness —was low and yellow, playing hide and seek with pearlescent clouds, when Koko and I went walking last evening. It remained bright through the night, peeking in my window, penetrating my dreams, shining even through a sudden downpour that left rain dripping from the eaves, while in the distance, the surf roared.
It was still up, causing the wet leaves to sparkle, lighting our way as headed mauka this morning, until it was swept into a mass of gray to the south of Waialeale and succumbed, finally, to the pink-streaked murkiness of a windswept dawn.
Through it all, my mind was on the radio show that Jimmy Trujillo and I hosted yesterday evening, and how it had revealed to me — yet again — the many ways that the state pits Hawaiians against one another and places them in the quandary of opting out completely or participating in a system that isn’t really intended to serve their interests.
And that’s particularly true with the Burial Council, as Presley Wann, who just completed two four-year terms on the Council, outlined in recounting his tenure on that panel.
He applied to serve because he’d encountered iwi a number of times during his 34 years in the construction industry. Back in the days before the burial laws were passed, he’d simply wrap the iwi in ti leaf, say a short pule, return them to where they’d been found, backfill and keep on going.
As a Hawaiian, Presley was always bothered by whether he’d handled the iwi appropriately, so when he was approached to serve on the Council, he agreed, in hopes of learning more and broadening his understanding.
And while Presley looks to the day when kanaka will have their nation back, he also wanted to know more about how the state functions, so that he could work effectively on behalf of his people in the meantime.
He’s emerging from his tenure convinced that the burial law must be radically altered. The Council, he said, needs to be consulted up front, rather than at the end of the process “when everybody’s all frustrated. That’s why we took a lot of the heat. We need to be involved way ahead of time. As Hawaiians, we know where our burials are.”
And laws governing real estate transactions in the Islands need to be revamped to include the caveat that “nobody’s guaranteeing you the right to build.” Because some places, like the Naue site where Joe Brescia is building a house atop more than 30 burials, simply aren’t suited to development, Presley said.
The Council also was advised that by law, “we couldn’t totally stop a building,” Presley said. “We didn’t have that kind of power.”
Instead, they were limited to preserving the burials in place, or reinterring them elsewhere. And many times, he said, neither was the option the Council would have chosen.
The extent to which the Council could change the design of a house or its placement on a site was always a gray area, he said, and Judge Kathleen Watanabe’s ruling that Brescia proceeded at his own risk by continuing to build without an approved Burial Treatment Plan (BTP) “made it even more gray.”
A caller read from a letter she’d received from Pua Aiu, director of the State Historic Preservation Division, stating that the agency won’t be investigating a revocation of Brescia’s building permit — even though the permit’s conditions require an approved BTP — “as we don’t have the legal authority to do so.”
Does it? Perhaps that’s a question, like the full extent of the Council’s power, that’s intentionally left gray, unanswered, because to do so would almost certainly hamper development.
And truth be told, the purpose of the burial law is not to fully protect and malama the iwi, but to create a process by which they can legitimately be disturbed so as to allow development.
Still, as Presley pointed out, until there’s a day of sovereignty or a Hawaiian nation, the Burial Council is the only means afforded kanaka by the state to have a say in what happens to their iwi kupuna.
While Presley’s first-hand experience was valuable, I was especially touched by the way it affected Nani Rogers and Andrew Cababe, both of whom have been deeply involved in the Naue burials issue. Nani, teary-eyed, said she finally understood what it was like to sit in the chair of a Council member, and she apologized to Presley for the ranting and raving that the panel had experienced.
Presley, too, was teary-eyed, as was Andrew, because it was clear they’re all on the same page and deeply troubled by what has happened at Naue. They all want to keep the iwi from being disturbed and desecrated. Building on burials or digging them up and moving them elsewhere is not something that they consider culturally appropriate.
But that's the process created by the state, which sucks them into a system that serves not to further their cultural interests but to turn them against one another, make them believe that they’re on opposing sides.
Afterwards, in the parking lot, the three of them exchanged ideas on how to work both within the system and outside it, and they parted as friends and allies.
So yes, as long as the state is running the show, it’s good for conscientious and caring kanaka to serve on the Burial Council and work for dramatic changes in the law.
And they also need to keep coming together, communicating with one another, breaking down the barriers to their unification erected by the state whose interests are best served by the old technique of divide and conquer.