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.
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.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN
HAWAIIAN BURIALS ARE FOUND
It depends on whether they’re found before or after construction begins.
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.
|BATTLE OVER BONES
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.”
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
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?
|BATTLE OVER BONES
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.”
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.”
|BATTLE OVER BONES
SHPD administrator Melanie Chinen has an answer for every criticism leveled at her office. It’s no surprise, considering the numerous news reports over the past year documenting the agency’s troubles, including one editorial calling for her replacement.
There are several valid reasons 22 people have resigned since she took over the division, Chinen insists. When she became administrator, she instituted major policy changes—from requiring workers to account for time off to setting quotas on the number of archaeological reviews they needed to complete—and some employees were stuck in their old ways, she says. Other staff members, including some of her own hires, could not handle the stress of dealing with such a thankless job—the constant calls from impatient developers, the emotional pleas from Hawaiian families, even physical threats from the public.
“It takes a toll,” Chinen says. “There’s a high burnout. We believe that even given staff working to the highest level, there’s going to be a need for additional resources.”
Like every other state agency, SHPD has to beg the governor and the Legislature for funding. The division receives $1 million from the state—less money than any other division in the Department of Land and Natural Resources—and nearly $500,000 from the federal government. Most of the total $1.5 million goes to SHPD’s 24 positions.
The division’s budget has barely budged over the past five years, Chinen notes, despite its burgeoning workload. By the end of this year, she expects that her office will have received nearly 6,000 documents for review, compared with the 4,000 she saw in 2004, the year she took over the division.
Chinen has lobbied every year for more staff positions for the division. But, to no avail. The usual bureaucratic red tape makes it hard for her to fill even the positions she does have. “This is how ridiculous it is, every time I want to fill a position, I have to get the governor’s personal approval,” she says. “That’s how the system is so bogged down.”
Chinen says she has still managed to make progress on staffing and other issues at the division. As of late September, she had sent out job offers for all but two of the vacant positions, and planned to reopen the division’s Big Island office by the end of the year.
To help reduce the backlog of permits, Chinen is working with the counties and state departments to determine which plans actually need to come to the division for review. State law requires that all local government projects go through SHPD, but Chinen wants to streamline that number. She says it’s a waste of time for her staffers to evaluate plans to install new streetlights or repave a highway.
But critics say the problem with SHPD may be Chinen herself. During a confirmation hearing for DLNR chairman Peter Young in April, three former archaeologists of the division testified before a Senate committee. They questioned why Young would hire someone with no background in historic preservation to head the Historic Preservation Division, and then continue to support her after receiving numerous complaints about her management style.
Former archaeology branch chief David Brown called Chinen “verbally abusive.” Brown, whose contract was not renewed at the division, presented his work journal to the Senate committee, in which he wrote: “Melanie gave tips on handling employees. You want to ‘fuck with their minds’—set up a meeting, and not give any idea on what the meeting will be about. She says it’s mean, but effective, and will evoke fear.”
The testimonies from the former employees caused one legislator to remark, “I wasn’t aware that Ms. Chinen was up for confirmation.” Nevertheless, they made an impression on senators, who did not confirm Young for a second term.
“[The hearing] was not supposed to be about Ms. Chinen, but with this many incidents, there was a question about whether the head of the department was doing enough to address the root of the problem,” says state Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. “Many of us felt like not enough action was taken.”
Chinen dismisses most of her critics as disgruntled former employees or others who want to use the division for purposes other than historic preservation, including anti-development campaigns. “I’m here for the people,” she says. “I am not here for the politics.”
As for doubts about her qualifications for the job, Chinen acknowledges that she has no previous experience in historic preservation. She has a master’s in political science from the University of Hawaii and spent 12 years in state government, working for the legislative Finance Committee, the state auditor’s office and Lingle cabinet members Bob Awana and Linda Smith. She was selected to head the division mainly because of her management experience. After all, she had helped audit SHPD. If she already knew what was wrong, she could fix it.
“I thought maybe I could make a bigger difference here,” Chinen says. “Coming to the division, it made me realize that it’s very easy as an auditor to identify what should be done, but when you’re actually working in operations, it’s not so easy to fix.”
Most other complaints about the division are exaggerations, Chinen says. For example, one newspaper quoted a Hawaiian activist as saying that there were “thousands and thousands” of Hawaiian remains in the division’s care that needed to be reburied.
“That is absolutely untrue,” she says. “It’s more like a few hundred.” Plus, one of her staff members is now working with landowners and descendants to rebury those remains and document their locations, which is a time-consuming process.
She says she’s tired of having to defend herself. There are times when she has considered resigning from the job, she says. “Many nights, I have left this office, crying, thinking I cannot do this anymore. I am tired, I am burnt out,” she says. “My children don’t want me to be here. It hurts my whole family.”
What keeps her from leaving?
“I went to Maryknoll High School, and the motto there is, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’” she says. “It certainly is not fair, but in order to survive in this job, you have to be confident in what you’re doing. I knew people would try to destroy me, but the type of leader I am, my personal comfort does not come before this position.”
She applies that personal philosophy to the intense criticism she’s faced over the Ward Village Shops project. When more than 30 sets of remains turned up in the footprint of the planned condo, she ordered General Growth to preserve the bones in place because of their large number. But in the area where Whole Foods is slated, she has allowed the developer to remove more than a dozen sets of remains and proceed with construction.
The media, Hawaiian activists and archaeologists have blasted her decisions, but she stands by all of her choices. “We get criticized for being inconsistent and shutting down the project too late in the process, but it’s based on the information we have at that time,” Chinen says. “You’re always dealing with the unknown.”
|BATTLE OVER BONES
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.
“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?”
|BATTLE OVER BONES