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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Photo by Olivier Koning

At Wal-Mart on Keeaumoku Street, cultural descendant Paulette Kaleikini pushed the state to rebury dozens of Hawaiian remains unearthed during the construction of the big box store.

A Problematic Past, An Uncertain Future

Trouble at SHPD started before General Growth announced its plans for the Ward Village Shops, even before administrator Melanie Chinen took over. In 2002, state auditor Marion Higa slammed the division for a laundry list of offenses:

  • Staff archaeologists often took months, sometimes years, to review reports.
  • A burial program staff member accepted $1,000 from a developer whose project unearthed 200 burials.
  • One-third of its employees took vacation or sick leave without recording it.
  • Staff members worked for other employers during state hours for which the division compensated them.

“We recommended that the governor intervene to ensure that the management of the State Historic Preservation Division is improved,” the auditor stated. “We also recommended that the department chair and division administrator take steps to improve the protection of the state’s historic properties and to prevent the misuse, abuse and theft of the division’s limited resources.”

Melanie Chinen was a member of that audit team. She understood the internal problems with the division. That’s one of the reasons Gov. Linda Lingle appointed her administrator in 2004. But in the three years since, some of the old troubles appear to have worsened and new ones have surfaced.

At least 22 people have left the division, which has only 24 positions, since Chinen took over. Half a dozen were people she had hired herself. The continual turnover at the division has left few remaining archaeologists to deal with the hundreds of development plans, archaeological surveys and reports that were already overdue for review, plus the new ones arriving every day.

In early 2006, Chinen hired Chris Monahan as the lead archaeologist for Oahu. The position had been vacant for a year when he arrived, creating piles of paperwork that needed SHPD’s scrutiny. 

“When I came in, there were literally stacks everywhere, so I just started shoveling, reviewing as fast as I possibly could,” Monahan says. “In the month of March, I did 112 reviews. A lot
of them meant digesting a 3-inch-thick report.”  

After four months, Monahan realized that nothing would change. After eight, he quit. “I was working as hard as I possibly could and doing my best trying to help the whole system, everyone who depends on the process working, and I rarely had more than an hour to look at something,” he says. “I look back, and I think I would’ve made different or better decisions if I’d had more time.” 

But there was never enough time for archaeologists at the division. Each of the four major islands is supposed to have its own lead archaeologist. Three of them are also supposed to have assistant archaeologists. But as of mid-September, there was only one lead archaeologist and two assistants—three staffers doing the work of seven. 

Maui’s lead archaeologist, Melissa Kirkendall, resigned from a post she’d held for seven years. She sent a letter to her colleagues, noting that there were more than 400 permits and archaeological reports pending review on Maui and the Big Island. “Given the present state of the Historic Preservation Division, we are no longer facilitating our ethical obligations,” she wrote.

Developers in the private and public sector, on all levels of government, are well aware of the slowdown at SHPD. For a government project, it could postpone work on a much-needed water main or highway. For a private developer, the bottleneck affects the bottom line.

“Basically you’re paying just to have [the land] sit there,” says Matt Slepin, senior planner at Chris Hart & Partners, a planning consulting firm on Maui. “Particularly on Maui, where you have relatively high construction activity, developers want to secure contractors as early as possible. So you’re paying them to do nothing until you have your permits in place. All that money’s been thrown away.”

"This is my 'ohana.  How would you feel if we were talking about moving your grandparents' bones?"

On the national level, SHPD has repeatedly missed deadlines to review proposed federal projects, many military-related, in Hawaii, according to the National Park Service. On the Big Island, the county public works division waited for months for approvals to repair roads damaged by the devastating October 2006 earthquake.

A year ago, SHPD’s last Big Island employee resigned, leaving no staff on the island to respond to public inquiries. “The division has been nonexistent,” says councilwoman Brenda Strong, who represents central Kona. “We’re not getting the scrutiny we need for developers. The state has got to make a supreme effort to get the division into shape.”

Archaeologists and Hawaiians also question the qualifications of the staff left in the office. The only full-time person doing reviews on Oahu as of mid-September, for instance, started at
the Historic Preservation Division as an intern, Monahan says. She has no graduate degree in archaeology or anthropology.

Another matter of a concern is SHPD’s inventory of Hawaiian remains. When bones are removed from a property, the division’s Burial Sites Program is responsible for ensuring that they’re reburied, usually in the same ahupuaa (land division) where they were found. Today, SHPD still has hundreds of remains in storage, unburied, including some that it took into custody more than 20 years ago.

SHPD’s geographic information system, which tracked historic sites, has also been out of commission for at least two years, according to Monahan. During that time, staff members have had to record newly documented historic sites by handwriting them in a notebook on an office shelf. “If there’s a fire, it’s gone,” he says. “That’s the pathetic state of the division.”

A Timeline

  • With the consent of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Hawaiian burial advocates, the state pays $6 million to the developer to redesign the Ritz-Carlton resort, moving it 500 yards mauka and restoring the burial ground. The site is reserved for Native Hawaiian practices.
  • Congress passes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), creating a process for museums and federal agencies to return cultural items to Native American tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. OHA and Hui Malama are recognized as native Hawaiian entities.
  • The State Historic Preservation Division is created as a division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Prior this date, historic preservation was handled by the State Parks Division.
  • The state’s historic preservation law is amended, providing additional protection for Hawaiian burials. The law creates SHPD’s Burial Sites Program and island burial councils, intended to give Hawaiians more say over their ancestors’ remains.
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