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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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Photo by Olivier Koning

Concerns over the SHPD have made unlikely allies of local archaeologists, including Thomas Dye (left), and Hawaiian advocates, such as William Aila, a board member of Hui Malama.

A History of Hawaiian Burials

Why is the State Historic Preservation Division in charge of burials in Hawaii? It started with a resort on Maui, the Ritz-Carlton near Honokahua Bay. It was 1988, the peak of a statewide building boom, and hundreds of Hawaiian remains were being removed to make room for a fancy new hotel. Local government and developers hadn’t displayed much cultural sensitivity to Hawaiian bones before. They’d dug up thousands of remains and paved over historic sites for highways, condos, private homes and parking lots—business as usual in Hawaii.

At Honokahua, developer Kapalua Land Co. hired a private archaeologist to remove and study the ancient burials at the site, with the consent of the state, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and a Hawaiian activist group in the area.

But when local news reports started covering the excavation of 900 bodies from the property, public opinion of the project began to turn. It was as if a line had finally been crossed. Hawaiians staged a 24-hour vigil at the state Capitol, protesting what they viewed as a desecration.

“That was a large cemetery that didn’t have equal protection under the law—you couldn’t bulldoze Punchbowl and build a hotel on it, but that’s what was happening at Honokahua,” says Edward Halealoha Ayau, executive director of Hui Malama, an organization that advocates for the culturally appropriate treatment of Hawaiian remains.

The project divided Hawaiians and archaeologists, whose ideas about honoring the past were often mutually exclusive. Archaeologists wanted to excavate the bones for study, while Hawaiians believed that remains should be left in peace.

Under Gov. John Waihee, the state paid an unprecedented $6 million to the developer to redesign the resort, moving it 500 yards mauka and restoring the burial ground to its original state. The dispute also led to a change in Hawaii’s historic preservation law, which creating the Burial Sites Program within SHPD in 1990. The change gave Hawaiian burial sites—especially those with large numbers of remains—additional protection and formed the Island Burial Councils, intended to give Hawaiians more say over their ancestral remains.

Last year, Ayau made headlines when he was jailed for refusing to disclose where Hui Malama had buried Hawaiian artifacts taken from the Bishop Museum. But few people know that he is also an attorney who helped write Hawaii’s burial law.

"A lot of people were born and died all over these Islands.  They don't just disappear." —William Aila

“The law was designed to create a planning tool—if you’re going to develop a property and you follow the process, you’ll know before you start constructing what’s in or on the ground,” Ayau says. “In the Ward Village case, there was a breakdown in that process. And as a result, you have construction going on and the discovery of Hawaiian burials at the same time.”

Over the past 20 years, SHPD has made tough calls on developments across the Islands. It’s no coincidence that so many burials have been discovered at beachfront developments. Lands that were once the most livable for early Hawaiians are now the most valuable for modern-day developers.

“People have estimated that there were 800,000 to a million people living here when Westerners arrived [in Hawaii in 1778]; some people estimate it was much higher—that’s one era,” says William Aila, a board member of Hui Malama. “You have many generations prior to that. A lot of people were born and died all over these Islands. They don’t just disappear.”

As contentious as it was, Honokahua eventually became a model for compromise for Hawaiians and developers—where all interest groups could win. That kind of happy ending does not look likely with the Ward Village Shops project, where the foundation has already been poured.

“The government agency tasked with protecting Hawaiian burials is not doing that,” Aila says. “The way the law was written was: ‘Let’s never let Honokahua happen again.’ But that’s what’s happening now.”

A Call to Action

While the controversy over Honokahua split Hawaiians and archaeologists, their mutual concerns over SHPD have brought them together.

“Hawaiians and archaeologists are working together, when they used to be on opposing sides of the fence,” says Kehau Abad, a member of the Oahu Island Burial Council who is both a Hawaiian practitioner and an archaeologist. “Archaeologists have come a long way in understanding that Hawaiian ways of thinking don’t have to undermine what we do. And archaeology, done respectfully, helps Hawaiian causes.”

Three years ago, Hawaiian advocates formed a group called the Friends of the Burial Sites Program to press Gov. Linda Lingle to fix SHPD. The Society of Hawaiian Archaeology, under its president Thomas Dye, has also signed on. The coalition has met repeatedly with members of Lingle’s Cabinet, who have promised to address SHPD’s staffing crisis.

But the problems at SHPD have only gotten worse under the management of Chinen, they say. “They’ve lost 22 people—qualified, degreed professionals who are the lifeblood of the organization,” Dye says. “The division managed to keep up a certain level of staffing until about three years ago, when the current administrator took over. Since that time, it’s been a revolving door.”

Other organizations have since stepped up to join the pleas of the Friends of the Burial Sites Program. Last August, the Oahu Island Burial Council urged the Lingle administration to reform SHPD. The Hawaii Island Burial Council has also thrown its support behind the call for change. Senators such as Jill Tokuda say they plan to take a closer look at the problems at SHPD in the upcoming legislative session.      

With mounting concern on all sides, so deep that it’s united former adversaries, there is tremendous pressure on the governor to intervene. But advocates say that Lingle hasn’t even come close to rescuing SHPD. “That’s just sad and bewildering,” Ayau says. “I don’t know what else the Hawaiian or archaeological community can do.”

In July, Lingle appointed attorney Laura H. Thielen as interim chairwoman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, after senators ousted Peter Young. Thielen is a former Board of Education member who also headed the state Office of Planning.

“I don’t know what this group expects,” says Thielen. She has already acknowledged that the high turnover is one of her biggest concerns at the department. “I’ve spoken frequently with the governor on this topic. The governor has asked to be kept apprised of the progress. She’s paying attention to it.”

Thielen echoes many of Chinen’s explanations for the staffing situation and other problems at the division. These are many of the same issues SHPD has dealt with in the past, she says. Now, she’s considering new ways to tackle them, she says, which includes “broadening” the qualifications for employees and privatizing some of the archaeological positions, although she knows there would be resistance to outsourcing regulatory jobs.

“We can always do things better, no matter how things are run,” Thielen says. “I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

Those are empty words for people who’ve invested three years in bringing the problems at SHPD to light. “They are so far from having things under control,” says Moses Haia, attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. “The administration is just sticking its head in the ground. There’s no way they’re going to catch up.” 

Nearly 20 years ago, the State Historic Preservation Division was created to guard Hawai‘i’s heritage in the face of rapid development. Today, blue-glass towers stripe the skyline in Kakaako, luxury resorts sprawl across the Big Island’s Kona coast and new multimillion-dollar developments are announced nearly every month. As Hawaii moves forward, many people rely on SHPD to ensure that the state brings enough of the past with it.   

That’s why the division needs to work, Haia says. “Hawaii had a history before there was Western contact, and that history is provided in the landscape for these Islands,” he says. “If most people truly believe that’s what makes Hawai‘i a great place to live and what brings people here, why isn’t the state protecting it?”


A Timeline

  • More than 50 sets of remains are discovered during the construction of Wal-Mart on Keeaumoku Street, halting activity on the site several times over the two years.  
  • Construction crews discover the remains of 30 people, buried in what may be a century-year-old cemetery, while working on the state’s Queen Street extension project in Kakaako.
  • General Growth announces plans for a mixed-use retail center with a parking garage and a 17-story rental residential tower on a 6.5-acre site bounded by Auahi, Kamakee and Queen streets. The site is home to Starbucks, Jamba Juice, an office building and warehouse.
  • In March, 11 sets of remains are discovered at the site of Ward Village Shops project. In September, the Oahu Island Burial Council votes 6-4 to relocate the 11 sets of remains at the Ward Village Shops.
  • In October, SHPD administrator Melanie Chinen asks Kuilima Resort Co. to conduct more archaeological work before proceeding with the expansion of the Turtle Bay Resort, which includes the addition of five hotels and a new roadway. Burials had previously been found in the development area. Kuilima declines.
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