Bones of Contention

Nearly 20 years ago, the State Historic Preservation Division was created to guard Hawaii's history in the face of rapid development. Today, Hawaiian activists, archaeologists and even developers say it's not doing its job.


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Thousands of us stream through Auahi Street every day. We take our kids to the latest Disney flick at Ward theaters, sip pau hana cocktails at Ryan’s, browse the aisles of Marukai Wholesale and look for new throw pillows at Pier 1.  But more than 200 years ago, on these same grounds were the homes of Hawaiians—dozens, possibly hundreds of them. We don’t know much about them, except that their physical remains are still part of the land, long after their deaths.

You’ve passed the 6-acre parcel where General Growth Properties is supposed to build a 17-story condominium and introduce the first Whole Foods Market to Hawaii. The property is fenced off by plywood construction barriers, but the only structure close to completion inside is a parking lot.

Photography by Olivier Koning

The site of a planned 17-story residential tower, where 36 burials and a unique archaeological site have been found.  And, to the right, the site of a planned Whole Foods Market, where 26 burials have been found.

Discoveries of historic Hawaiian burials at the site, known as the Ward Village Shops, have halted construction of the condo and organic foods store several times over the past year. There are at least 60 unmarked graves throughout the property—an unusually high number, more than the typical two or three found at many construction sites across urban Honolulu. This could be an old Hawaiian burial ground. The only other remnant of the people who lived there centuries ago is a rare archaeological site that has remained inexplicably intact, the sand still stained black by their cooking fires.   

If you’ve followed the headlines, you know that bones keep turning up at the construction site, and it seems less likely these days that Whole Foods will open at Ward on time. General Growth risks millions of dollars if it can’t finish the project. Hawaiians, such as Paulette Kaleikini, are outraged that their ancestors’ remains continue to be dug up. And archaeologists worry that clues to Hawaii’s past could be destroyed before we can learn anything from them.   


It depends on whether they're found before or after construction begins. 

See a simplified version of the process.

No one is happy. Regardless of what happens at the site, as is the case when modern-day construction intersects with historic Hawaiian burial grounds, someone has to lose.

What separates Ward from most other controversial developments in the Islands is that Hawaiians and archaeologists insist that this mess could have been prevented. The two groups have often clashed over burials in the past, but with Ward Village Shops, they agree: the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) dropped the ball.

Ward Village Shops has become the flashpoint for broader concerns about the division itself. For the past three years, archaeologists and Hawaiian activists have sounded the alarm over SHPD’s operation under administrator Melanie Chinen. Since Chinen took over in 2004, nearly two dozen of the division’s archaeologists and cultural specialists have resigned, delaying hundreds of permits for developments and endangering Hawaii’s historic sites and burials.

Under state law, SHPD is tasked with protecting vestiges of Hawaii’s past. Its staff is supposed to review proposed projects for potential harm to historic sites and burials. If a site could be affected, SHPD is supposed to require the developer to hire an archaeologist to survey the property before any construction begins and make sure the survey is done right. That way, the developer can redesign the project while it’s still being planned, as opposed to being built.    
This never happened at the Ward Village Shops. The Hawaii Community Development Authority gave General Growth the green light for the $150 million development plan without submitting it to SHPD. The developer, knowing that burials had been discovered in neighboring properties, contracted a private archaeologist anyway and sent its archaeological inventory survey report to SHPD for review.

The survey told SHPD that there were at least 11 sets of human remains at the Ward Village Shops. With that information in hand, the SHPD should have foreseen that these burials were just the tip of the iceberg, says Thomas Dye, president of the Society of Hawaiian Archaeology, an association of 200 members.

A Timeline

  • As the military considers establishing an installation at Mokapu (in 1943, work begins on what’s now the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base), Bishop Museum archaeologist Kenneth Emory and UH’s Gordon Bowles excavate sand dunes on the peninsula. They recover the bones of 1,300 individuals.
  • With the intent of preserving historic sites, Congress passes the National Historic Preservation Act, creating the National Register of Historic Places and the list of National Historic Landmarks. It also creates the post of state historic preservation officer.
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