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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.   

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