Native Hawaiian burials have long been a political and cultural hot button in the Islands, where numerous disputes have raged over the discovery and disinternment of iwi kupuna during development.
But the issue has taken a bizarre new twist with the revelation that a Big Island activist intentionally placed bones on an ahu atop Mauna Kea in an effort to derail the Thirty Meter Telescope project.
|Mauna Kea sunrise, as seen from Hilo.
According to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald:
Palikapu Dedman, who is facing potential criminal charges, told the Tribune-Herald he placed iwi, or bones, belonging to an ancestor on the stone altar last September and then again earlier this month after realizing the first set of bones went missing.
He declined to provide details for how he got the remains but claimed they belong to relatives and that they are from Ka‘u, his ancestral home. Dedman said he has more.
He said he wanted to show the area is a Hawaiian burial site, a claim made by some opponents of the proposed telescope.
“It’s a traditional process,” said Dedman, an activist involved in geothermal and Native Hawaiian issues. “I had a right to do it.”
His actions were condemned by both telescope proponents and some cultural practitioners, who contend Dedman's use of iwi for political purposes was inappropriate, and thus tantamount to desecration.
According to a statement issued by Yes2TMT and signed by Amber Imai-Hong, Chris Stark, John Evans, Naea Stevens. Niki Thomas, Thayne Currie and Veronica Ohara:
While protest is a critical component of living within a free democratic society, this disrespectful and culturally inappropriate action is beyond the pale and far outside the bounds of respectful protest or socially conscious civil disobedience.
Our deceased loved ones’ remains should be revered, not used as political pawns. Disinterring a grave to promote a lie about the TMT site does not "protect Mauna Kea". It is not "kapu aloha". It is desecration: any TMT protester who assisted in this heinous act likewise has participated in desecrating Maunakea.
Traditionally, only the bones of chiefs were placed in such high places. It's unclear whether Dedman has royal lineage.
Though the 2010 EIS conducted for the TMT project identified five burials and 24 possible burials within the entire Mauna Kea Science Reserve, none are within a mile of the proposed telescope site, prompting a finding that the TMT would not adversely impact either burials or burial blessing practices.
Nevertheless, as the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reports:
Harry Fergerstrom, a participant in the contested case for TMT’s land use permit, recently submitted a “notice of burial claim under the proposed TMT site” as part of the quasi-judicial hearing. He said a relative told him that there are remains of his ancestors near the access road for the project.
Others noted that Dedman's tactics served to undermine the authority of Island Burial Councils, which are charged under state law with approving a burial plan for the relocation of any Hawaiian remains.
What I found especially disturbing was how Dedman's actions give ammunition to those who have criticized burial preservation efforts, claiming that kanaka have been “using” iwi kupuna to slow or stop development.
It also raises an ethical issue that has troubled me about GMO opponents and other activists whose behavior seems to reflect a belief that the ends justify the means.
The Yes2TMT statement also raised that point:
The TMT is a complicated issue for Hawaiians and Hawaii residents. We can respect those who oppose TMT on principled grounds and with honorable actions, even if we strongly disagree. This act, however, is unprincipled and dishonorable, communicating that the ends justify the means and the truth does not matter.
Thus far, TMT protesters have either been silent on this act or, incredibly, have supported it. No doubt, at some point the full truth of what happened will be revealed to all the island’s residents. But for now we call on upon those in opposition to TMT to join us in publicly condemning this desecration and challenge any others who participated in it to come forward and publicly apologize.
Curiously, an article posted on the KAHEA website reports Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the petitioners seeking to stop the TMT through the legal process, as saying:
"We have actual evidence that accounts for archaeological sites and burial grounds. Thirty more burials have been found since the [2011 BLNR] hearing. It is the burial ground and the place of our most sacred ancestors. The whole mountain is a burial site, and they haven’t even done a burial treatment plan.”
If that's the case, then why did Palikapu feel the need to import iwi from Ka'u?
According to Hawaiian scholar and educator Mary Kawena Pukui:
In the pre-Christian creeds of Hawaii, manʻs immortality was manifest in his bones. Man's blood, even bright drops shed by the living, was haumia (defiled and defiling). Man's body, when death made flesh corrupt, was an abomination and kapu (taboo). The iwi survived decaying flesh. The bones remained, the cleanly, lasting portion of the man or woman who once lived. The bones of the dead were guarded, respected, treasured, venerated, loved or even deified by relatives; coveted and despoiled by enemies.
With or without ʻunihipili [deification] rituals, there was a feeling that the spirit might yet be hovering near the iwi. If the bones were desecrated, the spirit was insulted. Even the living descendants of the profaned dead were shamed and humiliated. So the Hawaiians believed.