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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He points out that the hired archaeologist surveyed just 3 percent of the property’s sandy area. “It stands to reason that there are many more in the other 97 percent—this is common sense,” he says. “I believe that there are about 330 sets of remains on the property. But SHPD’s review appears to have been very cursory. This issue isn’t brought up at all.”

Dye worked at the division for six years in the mid-1990s, so it’s incomprehensible to him that SHPD did not ask for more archaeological work at the site before construction began. It should have been a given, he says, since archaeological evidence shows that the property was once the back end of a beach—the kind of environment where early Hawaiians often settled—and, over the past 20 years, more than 300 unmarked graves have been discovered in Kakaako.

He is especially concerned about the unique archaeological site on the Ewa end of the property, in the footprint of the planned condo—a rare find that could not only tell us how Hawaiians died, but lived. “In Kakaako, archaeologists have been looking for at least a quarter-century for an old Hawaiian living surface—the top of sand where people were making their houses, raising their families and digging holes to bury their dead,” Dye says. “We could find out when Hawaiians lived there, what kind of houses they built, what kind of wood they burned, whether they were fishing with nets or building canoes and going out in deeper water.”

The issue is so sensitive that even General Growth, which has millions of dollars at stake, has not uttered a single public complaint about the delays.

Even a layperson like Paulette Kaleikini is upset by SHPD’s response to the discovery of the first 11 burials. She’s so positive that the division was wrong that she’s suing the state over its decision, in addition to developer General Growth and the Oahu Island Burial Council.

Kaleikini is what the state considers a cultural descendant of the area. Court documents dating back to the 19th century prove that her ancestors owned a piece of land in the vicinity.

When she was a child, her mother told her that her kupuna (ancestors) had cared for a fishpond in Kakaako that fed the alii. It sickens her to think that it’s their bones being ripped from their resting place.

When the Oahu Island Burial Council held a hearing last fall on whether to relocate the 11 sets of remains at the Ward Village Shops or leave them in place, Kaleikini testified that more archaeological work needed to be done before any decision was made and before any construction began. The council disagreed with her, voting 6-4 to relocate the burials to another area on the property.

That’s why Kaleikini was livid last April, after learning that while archaeologists started to remove those 11 sets, they discovered another 10 unmarked graves. Some were just two feet from the earlier find. Two months later, archaeologists started hitting burials left and right, revealing a burial pit that contained the remains of at least 30 people. As archaeological work continued alongside construction crews, heavy equipment—rather than the expert hands of scientists—damaged additional bones. By October, the burial count had risen to 62.

“I think it’s barbaric,” Kaleikini says. She gets emotional talking about how the remains of a child were among those found at the site and worries that the baby had been separated from its family. “This is my ohana. How would you feel if we were talking about moving your grandparents’ bones?”

The fight over Hawaiian burials at development projects is a familiar one, dating back to the late 1980s with the construction of the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua. The issue is so sensitive that even General Growth, which has millions of dollars at stake, has not uttered a single public complaint about the delays. Jan Yokota, vice president of Hawaii development for the Chicago-based company, insists that it does not keep track of how much money it’s losing each day. What’s most important, she says, is “making sure we are respectful of the iwi kupuna (bones of the ancestors).”


Illustration by Andrew Catanzariti
Source:  Burial Treatment Plan for Ward Village Shops Project

Since 2002, General Growth has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase and redevelop the 65-acre Ward property. The collapse of the Ward Village Shops project would disrupt the company’s grand effort to turn Kakaako into a model live-work community for Honolulu.

Work on the condo has halted since General Growth can’t build the tower where it wanted to. The company is considering whether it can redesign its plan and move the high-rise elsewhere. The parking structure is still on track for completion in 2008. Construction of the Whole Foods store continues in fits and starts, as workers and archaeologists find more bones and Kaleikini’s lawsuit makes its way through court.

Projects like Ward will continue to divide communities across the Islands. We’ve seen it happen at the Hokulia project on the Big Island, the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore and Wal-Mart near Ala Moana.

That’s why SHPD needs to work, archaeologists and Hawaiians advocates say. As development changes the landscape around us, SHPD must ensure that Hawaii’s heritage is not destroyed, paved over or forgotten. So why, in this crucial juncture for the state, do so many people say the division is at its weakest?

A Timeline

  • Amid federal and states efforts to inventory cultural resources, the Mokapu sand dunes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • The state creates its Historic Preservation Program, declaring that “the historic and cultural heritage of the state is among its important assets and that the rapid social and economic developments of contemporary society threaten to destroy the remaining vestiges of this heritage.”
  • Construction begins on a Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Kapalua on Maui. A group of Hawaiians fights the excavation of 900 remains from the property. Gov. John Waihee halts the excavation.
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