Meet Paulette Kaleikini: The woman who stopped the rail

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This meeting wasn’t as tense: They joked with each other and commented on how much they liked the purple silk aloha shirt of John Simon, the executive vice president for strategic planning. Yet Kaleikini is frank with the architects, archaeologists, engineers even the OIBC representatives present, in asking for more trenches to be dug, for the iwi to remain in place, even for the entire development to be redesigned. She speaks out at meetings, standing up straight when she talks, her hands at her side, her voice clear. She is never without her black vinyl legal-pad portfolio—inside are her notes, meeting agendas, documents, archaeologist survey maps and filled-out calendar.

“I’m there on my own time; I’m a volunteer. The focus is on what to do when we encounter kupuna. And, for me, that’s where I get my strength,” says Kaleikini. “[Developers] want to meet with us … Just because they provide the meeting place and the dinners doesn’t mean we have to accommodate their requests.”

While Kaleikini and her closest ohana remain single-minded in their kuleana, they say there have been improvements in the process of speaking with developers. “I think it’s definitely changed over time,” says Kepoo Keliipaakaua, Norman’s son and also a recognized cultural descendant. “When we first started with Wal-Mart, they were just going through the motions: ‘OK, we need to consult, we’ll sit down with [descendants] and listen to them; it doesn’t mean we’re going to do anything about it.’” Keliipaakaua says Kaleikini’s lawsuits have played a large part in giving descendants a voice when it comes to the iwi kupuna. “I think that was a huge example for all the developers after that, where there’s been a gradual change, to the point where now it really seems apparent that our input is, in fact, influential.”

The Woman Who Beat City Hall

Those who aren’t already standing in the Honolulu Hale chamber get up, as former councilman Tom Berg asks everyone to rise. Kaleikini’s grandsons blow into pu shells, and, when she walks in, draped with flower lei, her ohana behind her, some carrying kahili (feather standards), the large room is hushed.

On Oct. 3, Berg presented Kaleikini with an honorary City Council certificate. It was missing the signatures of two council members; Breene Harimoto and Stanley Chang declined to sign it. (“I certainly have nothing against her,” says Chang on the phone afterward, but adds that he wasn’t “comfortable” signing it. Harimoto didn’t return calls for comment.)

“Justice has no boundaries,” says Berg, addressing the room. “Whoever said you cannot beat city hall? You’re looking at a woman and she beat city council! This is not about rail—this is about the pursuit for the compliance of the rule of law.”

“Uh-huh!” cheers a supporter near me, nodding vigorously. Others clap. Some are there in support of Native Hawaiian rights; I think others are just glad that the rail project is at a temporary standstill.

“What an honor for me to honor Paulette,” Berg tells me on the phone the next week. He compares Kaleikini to a local Rosa Parks. “The best part about Paulette,” he says, “is she never shook her finger, she didn’t raise her voice, she never used foul language, she didn’t show disrespect for the law.”

She was also tenacious. Kaleikini says she voiced her concerns early on about how the archaeological work was going to be done in four phases after construction began on the Leeward side, rather than all at once before the project broke ground.

Kaleikini wasn’t alone; the OIBC shared her sentiments. In pouring over the council’s meeting minutes, concerns were raised as far back as 2010. “We should be honoring and supporting the descendants recognized through our process, both lineal and cultural,” says current chair Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu. “We should echo and amplify their voices. Under my leadership, that’s what it’s gonna do.” She adds that the council never supports or opposes any developments—and states this at both of the public monthly meetings I attend.

Building Her Network

Kaleikini filed her rail lawsuit against the city and state in January 2011, the same month the project’s programmatic agreement was finalized. Fast forward a year and almost nine months later, through a court appeals process and the involvement of the Hawaii Supreme Court, Kaleikini walked away with what she’d been asking for all along: a complete archaeological survey.

“Each case [involving Kaanohi Kaleikini] has different facts, but there are a couple of overarching themes,” says Frankel, who has represented her in all but one of her lawsuits. “One is that developers have been delaying their archaeological work and the State Historic Preservation Division has been allowing them to delay that work, and it is that delay that has caused so many problems, both for the protection of iwi kupuna and also for the developer’s projects. By cutting corners it has resulted in delays and increased construction costs in the long run.”

But Dan Grabauskas, the CEO for Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), says the city is on track, with the AIS and with rail, and her lawsuit against his employer aside, he wanted to reach out to Kaleikini to work with her. “As far as I’m concerned, if lawyers are involved, it means that there’s already been a breakdown in communication.”


Kaleikini and her cousin, Kaleo Paik, both of whom are cultural monitors for the rail AIS work.

They first met for lunch last October to discuss starting a cultural monitor program that would allow cultural descendants and other familiar community members to be on site during the AIS work. Kaleikini says it took more than a year of her asking to be involved in the archaeological work, but says that Grabauskas actually made it happen.

“While we need to have development today, we need to also respect the cultures and wishes and actions of people that came before us,” says Grabauskas.

Since then, Grabauskas says he and Kaleikini email and talk on the phone on “a fairly regular basis,” and have “a positive working relationship. Kaanohi has been an excellent resource for information and understanding when it comes to the Native Hawaiian community,” explaining he’s only been on the job seven months.

It helps to have an in with the people at the top. I visited Kaleikini and her nephew Williams one evening where archaeological trench work was being done for rail near River Street. I borrowed a friend’s steel-toe boots and was told all I needed to do was sign a liability waiver and I would be able to borrow a monitor’s hardhat, safety glasses and vest. When I got there, though, it wasn’t so simple. A safety official got on her cell—I apparently didn’t have clearance. Kaleikini waited around with me for 15 minutes.

“Oh, I’m just gonna call Dan,” says Kaleikini, taking her red cell phone out of her pocket. The next minute, I’m on site with her.

During their other conversations, Grabauskas says he’s also promised Kaleikini and other descendants that, if necessary, city engineers will “reengineer and redesign if we find that there are iwi kupuna that are in designated places.”

The two evenings I was on site, no iwi were found. As of press time, four iwi finds had been made, including an entire set of human remains thought to be 200 to 300 years old.


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