Meet Paulette Kaleikini: The woman who stopped the rail


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Kaleikini is actually busier now in her retirement than when she worked as a receiving coordinator for Hawaiian Electric Co. at its Kahe power plant. That job is what originally brought her to Nanakuli from Alewa Heights in Kalihi, along with some of her family. She has one son, two daughters and seven grandchildren. (Kaleikini’s husband passed away in 2010, but, she says with a smile, “He was very supportive.”)

“I was born in the town area and I really liked being in town. When we first built this house and moved out here, it took me awhile to get used to it. I used to go to town every day, even on the weekends, until finally, I just wore myself out,” she says. “And I used to go to town to go to the beaches, of all things! We’re surrounded with beaches over here. Now it takes a lot to get me out of here.” In her downtime, among her favorite things to do is head down to Nanakuli Beach Park, or watch the sunset from her lanai.

Downtime isn’t something she has an abundance of, though. During our email exchanges, it wasn’t unusual to receive an email from her before 5 a.m., or after 11 p.m. And she’s back into making frequent trips into town. Sometimes it’s to touch base with attorney David Kimo Frankel, or to meet with developers, community members or city officials. She says people regularly ask her if she gets paid for her consulting or practitioner work, but, with the exception of being one of 22 cultural monitors on the rail project, for which  she makes $34 an hour, she volunteers her time.

The developer/descendant meetings take place in the evening, to accommodate people’s work schedules. I meet Kaleikini outside of the Waihonua construction site, a half block from Ala Moana Center. With her are her nephews JR Keoneakapu Williams and Kekaimalino Kaopio, both kalo farmers in Waianae. She’s training the two men in the kuleana. The construction space is compact, the trade winds billowing its black-tarp walls. It has already been excavated for iwi kupuna, with 27 burials discovered, but Kewalo Development (an affiliate of Alexander & Baldwin) called the meeting because an additional 18 sets had been found. Kaleikini walks near the trenches, her hands hovering over them. She and five others say a pule. When they are finished, there are tears in her eyes.


The construction site for the proposed Waihonua condo.

Afterward, we walk over to the Waihonua sales office on Kapiolani Boulevard. An intricate model of the planned 341-unit condominium is lit in the front window. Everyone is asked to sign in and put on a name tag, even though everyone already knows each other. Kaleikini introduces me as her guest; some Alexander & Baldwin employees seem uncomfortable that I’m there. There’s dinner, and cupcakes from Hokulani Bakery. I learn there’s usually food—and a decent spread, at that—at these meetings.

“I don’t want them moved,” says Kaleikini firmly. It’s the first time I see how resolute she can be about what’s known as “preservation in place” when it comes to iwi kupuna. During any development, when iwi are found, they are documented, and either reinterred to their original location, or relocated. This decision involves stakeholders, such as cultural and lineal descendants, and, ultimately, SHPD, along with recommendations from the Oahu Island Burial Council (OIBC), a volunteer council with administrative ties to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, charged with protecting iwi.

Interestingly, even the descendants disagree on what to do—both on this specific development and in general. Kaleikini and her family are steadfast in demanding that the iwi remain where they were laid to rest hundreds of years ago. “The bones still carry the mana, and that is why we don’t want to move them,” says Keala Norman, Kaleikini’s niece, who is also active with the Waihonua project. Yet, at this meeting, another recognized descendant said he’d rather have them moved than be under the loading zone of the building. (He didn’t return calls for an interview.)

Kaleikini and Norman leave the meeting looking drained. This particular development is going to be difficult, they both say. “I hope it doesn’t become like Wal-Mart,” she later says on the phone. Kaleikini is referring to the way the remains on that project were relocated, and explains that she’s heard Kewalo Development wants to move forward by relocating the iwi and beginning construction. During my time working on this feature, the Wal-Mart project was always brought up by descendants as an example of how not to go about a development.


The burial mound near Wal-Mart Keeaumoku where iwi were reinterred.

I ask Kaleikini what keeps her motivated, especially when faced with oppositional fellow descendants or culturally insensitive developers. “It’s always the same argument. I’ve gotten good at it, I’ve gotten better,” she says with a laugh. But then she gets serious. “Before I leave the house, or when I’m driving, I call my ancestors. Today we do battle. I need your help. I feel them with me. When I speak, a lot of times I feel it’s them talking and not me.” While Kaleikini says she isn’t religious, particularly in the Western sense, she lights up describing her ancestors’ roles in her life and other spiritual pursuits.

For the past eight years, Kaleikini has been practicing feng shui. “I feel the Chinese have been around longer than anybody else,” she says, showing me a five-tier pagoda, and dragon and phoenix figurines she’s placed in her house. She visits a practitioner in Chinatown each Chinese New Year, and before she travels. Last time she saw him, he gave her a green braided bracelet with a health charm to ward off illness. She wore it to a recent OIBC meeting, along with a jade pendant around her neck.

Two evenings later, we’re at another meeting, seated around a thick wooden table. Outside the honeycomb-grille-covered windows of the IBM building is the construction site next to T.J. Maxx owned by the Howard Hughes Corp. Two years ago, the Dallas-based company acquired the 60-acre Ward Centers property from General Growth Properties, a defendant in one of Kaleikini’s lawsuits. Howard Hughes is now taking a stab at redeveloping the Kakaako area and late last year unveiled its master development plan. The Honolulu office also seems keen on avoiding another lawsuit: Each month they meet with descendants, and reveal to them their updated master plan for the area before sharing it with anyone else (although they were wary of my media presence). Again, there was dinner and dessert.

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