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Meet Paulette Kaleikini: The woman who stopped the rail


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To most, they’re just old bones in the ground. To Paulette Kaanohiokalani Kaleikini, the iwi kupuna are her ancestors, her history, her culture. Meet the woman who is stopping rail, getting developers to rework their projects and spending most of most of her time in the name of protecting the iwi.


Paulette Kaanohiokalani Kaleikini says protecting iwi kupuna is a "calling. This kuleana is not for everybody."

It’s 7 on a still Saturday night. The stars shine above, and the moon is no larger than a fingernail hung in the sky. The families living in this Hickam Air Force Base subdivision have all gone in for the evening. We park alongside a storage building near an open field. Everyone then dons handmade kukui-nut lei and black kihei (a rectangular cloth loosely tied at one shoulder). Paulette Kaanohiokalani Kaleikini—Kaanohi as many know her—has one for me that she knots at my right shoulder. The tops of her hands, fingers and wrists bear traditional tattoos symbolizing her lineage and protection for her kuleana.

For each reinternment of iwi kupuna, Kaleikini works with practitioners to have lauhala baskets, kapa and kaula specially made.

The nine of us, most of whom are part of Kaleikini’s ohana, stand in a small circle saying a pule, as cars zoom by on the freeway in the distance. Kaleikini wraps up with an oli and silently we enter the storage room. On a table sit three cardboard boxes, each containing paper bags. Inside the bags are iwi kupuna, human bones, 200 to 300 years old, found at the Neal S. Blaisdell Park. Kaleikini and her cousin, Jim Medeiros, take them out with deft fingers. Except for the buzz of the fluorescent lights above, the room is quiet. The remains—including ribs, vertebrae, a femur, hip bone and three intact skulls—are delicately wrapped in white muslin, placed with a ti leaf, a sprinkling of Kaua‘i red sea salt and secured with handmade kaula (rope), or placed into a lauhala basket. Staring at them being ceremoniously swaddled, I wonder what kind of people they were. How did they live? Were they happy? In total, there are 12 wrapped packages and three baskets.

It’s now 9 p.m. and we’ve driven to Hickam Air Force Base, near the historic Fort Kamehameha housing. Military personnel have already dug a tidy, 3- or 4-foot-deep trench in a preexisting burial area. Only the lights of a small backhoe light the burial. Medeiros lines the trench with a lauhala mat and ti leaves, and then the iwi are placed one by one inside, followed by more ti leaves and another lauhala mat. Lei are placed on top and a final pule is quietly spoken. Sand is then shoveled over the chamber and, in single file, we walk out. A half hour has passed. After a final ritual cleansing, we eat sushi, manapua and fried chicken from Popeye’s.

“I never look forward to the reburial of our kupuna,” Kaleikini tells me. The petite 60-year-old is folding her kihei as we stand near her Chevy Silverado. She’s still wearing the kukui lei on her head, her short salt-and-pepper hair tucked behind her ears. Despite having performed between 15 to 20 reinternments, she says it’s an emotional process each time. Yet she firmly believes in putting the iwi back in their original location, or as close as possible.

Sitting atop an ahu (altar) are bananas, fish and kalo—offerings for the Hawaiian god Lono as part of the Makahiki ceremony in Makua Valley.

You’ve probably seen Kaleikini on the news or read her name in the paper. Her lawsuit is the reason the rail project ground to a halt this past August, after it took years to get it started. Depending on how you feel about rail—and iwi, for that matter—you might either applaud her efforts, or grumble about the further delays. The case went before the Hawaii Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in her favor and all construction in Leeward Oahu stopped as archaeologists began working around the clock to complete an Archaeological Inventory Survey (AIS) of the entire 20-mile rail route, instead of in four phases as the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) originally approved. (As of press time, archaeologists were nearing completion of the AIS work.) You might remember Kaleikini’s involvement in the Ward Village Shops project six years ago, which effectively stunted development in the Kakaako area.

Kaleikini is recognized by the state as a cultural descendant of Kakaako and Waikiki, which means, with birth certificates, land records and documents, she can prove her ancestors lived in an ahupuaa (land division) in these areas. Because of Hawaii’s burial laws, she and her family, also cultural descendants, have a say in the land development when it comes to the iwi kupuna in those areas; whenever there’s a new project, developers and descendants meet monthly to discuss it, sometimes for a couple of years. She is currently involved in six developments.

After her Supreme Court victory, Kaleikini says she had people approach her, hug her, congratulate her. “A lot of people finally understand what I do, but still some, like for the rail issue, they just [said], ‘Oh, mahalo for stopping the rail,’” she says. “But my lawsuit wasn’t about stopping the rail, so it’s clarifying for them what my lawsuit was really about, so they understand that if the rail continues, it’s not because I lost. I’ve already won, because my lawsuit was to get them to do the AIS for the entire project before they start construction. I’ve already won that.”

When I ask how she feels about rail, regardless of the iwi, she laughs softly. “There’s so many things I feel they sidestepped in planning rail, and that’s bad for the public. It costs so much money, they should have looked into these things before actual planning.” Following up with her after Kirk Caldwell’s victory, she says she’s looking forward to continued discussions with rail officials on the project, such as how Hawaiian history and aesthetics can be incorporated in the transit stations.

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