Meet Paulette Kaleikini: The woman who stopped the rail

To most, they’re just old bones in the ground. To Paulette Kaanohiokalani Kaleikini, the iwi kupuna are her ancestors, her history, her culture. Meet the woman who is stopping rail, getting developers to rework their projects and spending most of most of her time in the name of protecting the iwi.


Paulette Kaanohiokalani Kaleikini says protecting iwi kupuna is a "calling. This kuleana is not for everybody."

It’s 7 on a still Saturday night. The stars shine above, and the moon is no larger than a fingernail hung in the sky. The families living in this Hickam Air Force Base subdivision have all gone in for the evening. We park alongside a storage building near an open field. Everyone then dons handmade kukui-nut lei and black kihei (a rectangular cloth loosely tied at one shoulder). Paulette Kaanohiokalani Kaleikini—Kaanohi as many know her—has one for me that she knots at my right shoulder. The tops of her hands, fingers and wrists bear traditional tattoos symbolizing her lineage and protection for her kuleana.

For each reinternment of iwi kupuna, Kaleikini works with practitioners to have lauhala baskets, kapa and kaula specially made.

The nine of us, most of whom are part of Kaleikini’s ohana, stand in a small circle saying a pule, as cars zoom by on the freeway in the distance. Kaleikini wraps up with an oli and silently we enter the storage room. On a table sit three cardboard boxes, each containing paper bags. Inside the bags are iwi kupuna, human bones, 200 to 300 years old, found at the Neal S. Blaisdell Park. Kaleikini and her cousin, Jim Medeiros, take them out with deft fingers. Except for the buzz of the fluorescent lights above, the room is quiet. The remains—including ribs, vertebrae, a femur, hip bone and three intact skulls—are delicately wrapped in white muslin, placed with a ti leaf, a sprinkling of Kaua‘i red sea salt and secured with handmade kaula (rope), or placed into a lauhala basket. Staring at them being ceremoniously swaddled, I wonder what kind of people they were. How did they live? Were they happy? In total, there are 12 wrapped packages and three baskets.

It’s now 9 p.m. and we’ve driven to Hickam Air Force Base, near the historic Fort Kamehameha housing. Military personnel have already dug a tidy, 3- or 4-foot-deep trench in a preexisting burial area. Only the lights of a small backhoe light the burial. Medeiros lines the trench with a lauhala mat and ti leaves, and then the iwi are placed one by one inside, followed by more ti leaves and another lauhala mat. Lei are placed on top and a final pule is quietly spoken. Sand is then shoveled over the chamber and, in single file, we walk out. A half hour has passed. After a final ritual cleansing, we eat sushi, manapua and fried chicken from Popeye’s.

“I never look forward to the reburial of our kupuna,” Kaleikini tells me. The petite 60-year-old is folding her kihei as we stand near her Chevy Silverado. She’s still wearing the kukui lei on her head, her short salt-and-pepper hair tucked behind her ears. Despite having performed between 15 to 20 reinternments, she says it’s an emotional process each time. Yet she firmly believes in putting the iwi back in their original location, or as close as possible.

Sitting atop an ahu (altar) are bananas, fish and kalo—offerings for the Hawaiian god Lono as part of the Makahiki ceremony in Makua Valley.

You’ve probably seen Kaleikini on the news or read her name in the paper. Her lawsuit is the reason the rail project ground to a halt this past August, after it took years to get it started. Depending on how you feel about rail—and iwi, for that matter—you might either applaud her efforts, or grumble about the further delays. The case went before the Hawaii Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in her favor and all construction in Leeward Oahu stopped as archaeologists began working around the clock to complete an Archaeological Inventory Survey (AIS) of the entire 20-mile rail route, instead of in four phases as the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) originally approved. (As of press time, archaeologists were nearing completion of the AIS work.) You might remember Kaleikini’s involvement in the Ward Village Shops project six years ago, which effectively stunted development in the Kakaako area.

Kaleikini is recognized by the state as a cultural descendant of Kakaako and Waikiki, which means, with birth certificates, land records and documents, she can prove her ancestors lived in an ahupuaa (land division) in these areas. Because of Hawaii’s burial laws, she and her family, also cultural descendants, have a say in the land development when it comes to the iwi kupuna in those areas; whenever there’s a new project, developers and descendants meet monthly to discuss it, sometimes for a couple of years. She is currently involved in six developments.

After her Supreme Court victory, Kaleikini says she had people approach her, hug her, congratulate her. “A lot of people finally understand what I do, but still some, like for the rail issue, they just [said], ‘Oh, mahalo for stopping the rail,’” she says. “But my lawsuit wasn’t about stopping the rail, so it’s clarifying for them what my lawsuit was really about, so they understand that if the rail continues, it’s not because I lost. I’ve already won, because my lawsuit was to get them to do the AIS for the entire project before they start construction. I’ve already won that.”

When I ask how she feels about rail, regardless of the iwi, she laughs softly. “There’s so many things I feel they sidestepped in planning rail, and that’s bad for the public. It costs so much money, they should have looked into these things before actual planning.” Following up with her after Kirk Caldwell’s victory, she says she’s looking forward to continued discussions with rail officials on the project, such as how Hawaiian history and aesthetics can be incorporated in the transit stations.


The rail project isn’t Kaleikini’s only legal battle. She’s currently involved in a lawsuit against Kawaiahao Church, claiming the church was desecrating iwi by moving forward with construction of a $17.5 million multipurpose center. To date, more than 600 burial sets have been counted in the area, to some of which Kaleikini can prove ancestral ties. You might have even seen her Sunday mornings by the church. For months, she and her family protested on the corner of King and Punchbowl streets with homemade posters reading “Stop the eviction of our ancestors.” One Sunday in March 2011, things escalated. Another protestor went inside the church grounds. Members called the police immediately. “I walked in to find out what they were arresting her for, what they were handcuffing her for, as soon as I walked in, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a mistake.’ They couldn’t wait for us to step out of line,” says Kaleikini. “So I turned to walk away and they grabbed me.” She was arrested, too, and both women posted bail. She had to go to court, but the trespassing charges against her were eventually dropped.

Long before Kaleikini was arrested in front of Kawaiahao, she took on General Growth Properties in the Ward Village lawsuit in 2006. (Former HONOLULU Magazine writer Ronna Bolante covered the story in the November 2007 “Bones of Contention.”) Kaleikini filed her first lawsuit in 2003, against the developers of Wal-Mart on Keeaumoku Street. The Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. has represented Kaleikini in all of her cases and, as a public-interest law firm, it gets its funding from grants, donations and fundraisers. Because of that funding, clients like Kaleikini don’t have to pay attorney fees, nor do they make any money from damages from their lawsuits.

Kaleikini’s litigious spirit raises the question: Is she simply antidevelopment? She says no. “I’m not against development, but I look forward to sensible development,” she says. This, she explains, means protecting the iwi first and foremost, and “development that leaves a legacy for our children and grandchildren.”

When it comes to iwi kupuna, Kaleikini says she considers herself an advocate, but “I was always an activist … for our kingdom.” For this, she gives credit to her mother, Alice Keliilumilani Kekahiliokamaku Keaweamahi, who likewise taught her the ways of protecting the iwi kupuna. “She … [talked] about the lands taken from our kupuna and that interested me more—what do you mean it was taken?” During her days at Sacred Hearts Academy, she remembers fellow students getting involved in the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana organization which formed in 1976 and others protesting to start hula on campus. “At our school they taught the French language, they taught Japanese, Spanish, and yet there were a lot of Hawaiian [students] and they didn’t [teach] Hawaiian.”

Since then, Kaleikini says she’s learned more about sovereignty “and what really happened to us.” Today, she is a member of a handful of organizations that align with her causes. One is Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, which advocates for the re-internment of iwi and cultural artifacts, and in some cases does so. It become well known in 2000 when some of its members borrowed more than 80 artifacts from Bishop Museum and then buried them in sea caves on the Big Island. After a member was jailed and the federal court intervened, the items were returned.

Kaleikini is also a member of Hui Pu, which formed in opposition to the Akaka Bill, the namesake bill introduced by outgoing Sen. Daniel Akaka that, if passed, would create a process for Native Hawaiians to gain federal recognition similar to Native Americans. Kaleikini doesn’t think it would do any good. “It’s legislation that was formed without Native Hawaiians in mind,” she says, adding that she’s also against the state’s Native Hawaiian Roll Commission. Hui Pu even protested in front of Iolani Palace in 2005, when the bill was first heard in Congress. Members walked through the gates ready to be arrested, although they never were. “I advocate for the return of our kingdom,” she says, “I support people like Keanu Sai, who is doing just that.” Closer to her home, she’s actively involved with Malama Makua, which lobbies for the demilitarization of Makua Valley.

On an early Saturday morning, Kaleikini and other members of Malama Makua perform the opening ceremonies for Makahiki in Makua Valley. This photo was taken during noa (a rest period during a sacred ceremony); the actual ceremony is never photographed.

Every month, this group visits the valley, sometimes accompanied by fellow members William Aila, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Aila is perhaps unlike anyone else with whom Kaleikini associates: The two are both members of Hui Malama and Malama Makua, and yet Aila’s department oversees SHPD, the division tasked with protecting iwi. He’s been personally named as a defendant on her lawsuits. “I think she takes some very strong stances and, because she takes some very strong stances, in my official capacity I can’t agree with her, thus resulting in several lawsuits that we now have,” he says. The two have known each other for close to 15 years and, while he’s transitioned from activist to government director, he says he still respects Kaleikini’s work. “I think we’ve remained friends because we both share the same values. However, my personal values and my professional values have to be different sometimes,” he says. “People misinterpret what she’s doing as antidevelopment. One thing is clear with Kaanohi, she’s pro-protection of iwi and, if people perceive that as antidevelopment, that’s their misinterpretation.”

Kaanohi Kaleikini's tattoos symbolize her lineage and her kuleana for protecting the iwi kupuna, and were traditionally done.

For Kaleikini, disputing a Kakaako developer, questioning the city’s transit plan, filing a lawsuit or protesting in front of the palace all carry a deeper meaning. It’s about a kuleana to which she’s dedicated years of her life, one for which she’s culturally recognized by the state and for which she’s gotten traditional tattoos: Malama na iwi kupuna.







 A Full Calendar

Kaleikini is actually busier now in her retirement than when she worked as a receiving coordinator for Hawaiian Electric Co. at its Kahe power plant. That job is what originally brought her to Nanakuli from Alewa Heights in Kalihi, along with some of her family. She has one son, two daughters and seven grandchildren. (Kaleikini’s husband passed away in 2010, but, she says with a smile, “He was very supportive.”)

“I was born in the town area and I really liked being in town. When we first built this house and moved out here, it took me awhile to get used to it. I used to go to town every day, even on the weekends, until finally, I just wore myself out,” she says. “And I used to go to town to go to the beaches, of all things! We’re surrounded with beaches over here. Now it takes a lot to get me out of here.” In her downtime, among her favorite things to do is head down to Nanakuli Beach Park, or watch the sunset from her lanai.

Downtime isn’t something she has an abundance of, though. During our email exchanges, it wasn’t unusual to receive an email from her before 5 a.m., or after 11 p.m. And she’s back into making frequent trips into town. Sometimes it’s to touch base with attorney David Kimo Frankel, or to meet with developers, community members or city officials. She says people regularly ask her if she gets paid for her consulting or practitioner work, but, with the exception of being one of 22 cultural monitors on the rail project, for which  she makes $34 an hour, she volunteers her time.

The developer/descendant meetings take place in the evening, to accommodate people’s work schedules. I meet Kaleikini outside of the Waihonua construction site, a half block from Ala Moana Center. With her are her nephews JR Keoneakapu Williams and Kekaimalino Kaopio, both kalo farmers in Waianae. She’s training the two men in the kuleana. The construction space is compact, the trade winds billowing its black-tarp walls. It has already been excavated for iwi kupuna, with 27 burials discovered, but Kewalo Development (an affiliate of Alexander & Baldwin) called the meeting because an additional 18 sets had been found. Kaleikini walks near the trenches, her hands hovering over them. She and five others say a pule. When they are finished, there are tears in her eyes.

The construction site for the proposed Waihonua condo.

Afterward, we walk over to the Waihonua sales office on Kapiolani Boulevard. An intricate model of the planned 341-unit condominium is lit in the front window. Everyone is asked to sign in and put on a name tag, even though everyone already knows each other. Kaleikini introduces me as her guest; some Alexander & Baldwin employees seem uncomfortable that I’m there. There’s dinner, and cupcakes from Hokulani Bakery. I learn there’s usually food—and a decent spread, at that—at these meetings.

“I don’t want them moved,” says Kaleikini firmly. It’s the first time I see how resolute she can be about what’s known as “preservation in place” when it comes to iwi kupuna. During any development, when iwi are found, they are documented, and either reinterred to their original location, or relocated. This decision involves stakeholders, such as cultural and lineal descendants, and, ultimately, SHPD, along with recommendations from the Oahu Island Burial Council (OIBC), a volunteer council with administrative ties to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, charged with protecting iwi.

Interestingly, even the descendants disagree on what to do—both on this specific development and in general. Kaleikini and her family are steadfast in demanding that the iwi remain where they were laid to rest hundreds of years ago. “The bones still carry the mana, and that is why we don’t want to move them,” says Keala Norman, Kaleikini’s niece, who is also active with the Waihonua project. Yet, at this meeting, another recognized descendant said he’d rather have them moved than be under the loading zone of the building. (He didn’t return calls for an interview.)

Kaleikini and Norman leave the meeting looking drained. This particular development is going to be difficult, they both say. “I hope it doesn’t become like Wal-Mart,” she later says on the phone. Kaleikini is referring to the way the remains on that project were relocated, and explains that she’s heard Kewalo Development wants to move forward by relocating the iwi and beginning construction. During my time working on this feature, the Wal-Mart project was always brought up by descendants as an example of how not to go about a development.

The burial mound near Wal-Mart Keeaumoku where iwi were reinterred.

I ask Kaleikini what keeps her motivated, especially when faced with oppositional fellow descendants or culturally insensitive developers. “It’s always the same argument. I’ve gotten good at it, I’ve gotten better,” she says with a laugh. But then she gets serious. “Before I leave the house, or when I’m driving, I call my ancestors. Today we do battle. I need your help. I feel them with me. When I speak, a lot of times I feel it’s them talking and not me.” While Kaleikini says she isn’t religious, particularly in the Western sense, she lights up describing her ancestors’ roles in her life and other spiritual pursuits.

For the past eight years, Kaleikini has been practicing feng shui. “I feel the Chinese have been around longer than anybody else,” she says, showing me a five-tier pagoda, and dragon and phoenix figurines she’s placed in her house. She visits a practitioner in Chinatown each Chinese New Year, and before she travels. Last time she saw him, he gave her a green braided bracelet with a health charm to ward off illness. She wore it to a recent OIBC meeting, along with a jade pendant around her neck.

Two evenings later, we’re at another meeting, seated around a thick wooden table. Outside the honeycomb-grille-covered windows of the IBM building is the construction site next to T.J. Maxx owned by the Howard Hughes Corp. Two years ago, the Dallas-based company acquired the 60-acre Ward Centers property from General Growth Properties, a defendant in one of Kaleikini’s lawsuits. Howard Hughes is now taking a stab at redeveloping the Kakaako area and late last year unveiled its master development plan. The Honolulu office also seems keen on avoiding another lawsuit: Each month they meet with descendants, and reveal to them their updated master plan for the area before sharing it with anyone else (although they were wary of my media presence). Again, there was dinner and dessert.


This meeting wasn’t as tense: They joked with each other and commented on how much they liked the purple silk aloha shirt of John Simon, the executive vice president for strategic planning. Yet Kaleikini is frank with the architects, archaeologists, engineers even the OIBC representatives present, in asking for more trenches to be dug, for the iwi to remain in place, even for the entire development to be redesigned. She speaks out at meetings, standing up straight when she talks, her hands at her side, her voice clear. She is never without her black vinyl legal-pad portfolio—inside are her notes, meeting agendas, documents, archaeologist survey maps and filled-out calendar.

“I’m there on my own time; I’m a volunteer. The focus is on what to do when we encounter kupuna. And, for me, that’s where I get my strength,” says Kaleikini. “[Developers] want to meet with us … Just because they provide the meeting place and the dinners doesn’t mean we have to accommodate their requests.”

While Kaleikini and her closest ohana remain single-minded in their kuleana, they say there have been improvements in the process of speaking with developers. “I think it’s definitely changed over time,” says Kepoo Keliipaakaua, Norman’s son and also a recognized cultural descendant. “When we first started with Wal-Mart, they were just going through the motions: ‘OK, we need to consult, we’ll sit down with [descendants] and listen to them; it doesn’t mean we’re going to do anything about it.’” Keliipaakaua says Kaleikini’s lawsuits have played a large part in giving descendants a voice when it comes to the iwi kupuna. “I think that was a huge example for all the developers after that, where there’s been a gradual change, to the point where now it really seems apparent that our input is, in fact, influential.”

The Woman Who Beat City Hall

Those who aren’t already standing in the Honolulu Hale chamber get up, as former councilman Tom Berg asks everyone to rise. Kaleikini’s grandsons blow into pu shells, and, when she walks in, draped with flower lei, her ohana behind her, some carrying kahili (feather standards), the large room is hushed.

On Oct. 3, Berg presented Kaleikini with an honorary City Council certificate. It was missing the signatures of two council members; Breene Harimoto and Stanley Chang declined to sign it. (“I certainly have nothing against her,” says Chang on the phone afterward, but adds that he wasn’t “comfortable” signing it. Harimoto didn’t return calls for comment.)

“Justice has no boundaries,” says Berg, addressing the room. “Whoever said you cannot beat city hall? You’re looking at a woman and she beat city council! This is not about rail—this is about the pursuit for the compliance of the rule of law.”

“Uh-huh!” cheers a supporter near me, nodding vigorously. Others clap. Some are there in support of Native Hawaiian rights; I think others are just glad that the rail project is at a temporary standstill.

“What an honor for me to honor Paulette,” Berg tells me on the phone the next week. He compares Kaleikini to a local Rosa Parks. “The best part about Paulette,” he says, “is she never shook her finger, she didn’t raise her voice, she never used foul language, she didn’t show disrespect for the law.”

She was also tenacious. Kaleikini says she voiced her concerns early on about how the archaeological work was going to be done in four phases after construction began on the Leeward side, rather than all at once before the project broke ground.

Kaleikini wasn’t alone; the OIBC shared her sentiments. In pouring over the council’s meeting minutes, concerns were raised as far back as 2010. “We should be honoring and supporting the descendants recognized through our process, both lineal and cultural,” says current chair Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu. “We should echo and amplify their voices. Under my leadership, that’s what it’s gonna do.” She adds that the council never supports or opposes any developments—and states this at both of the public monthly meetings I attend.

Building Her Network

Kaleikini filed her rail lawsuit against the city and state in January 2011, the same month the project’s programmatic agreement was finalized. Fast forward a year and almost nine months later, through a court appeals process and the involvement of the Hawaii Supreme Court, Kaleikini walked away with what she’d been asking for all along: a complete archaeological survey.

“Each case [involving Kaanohi Kaleikini] has different facts, but there are a couple of overarching themes,” says Frankel, who has represented her in all but one of her lawsuits. “One is that developers have been delaying their archaeological work and the State Historic Preservation Division has been allowing them to delay that work, and it is that delay that has caused so many problems, both for the protection of iwi kupuna and also for the developer’s projects. By cutting corners it has resulted in delays and increased construction costs in the long run.”

But Dan Grabauskas, the CEO for Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), says the city is on track, with the AIS and with rail, and her lawsuit against his employer aside, he wanted to reach out to Kaleikini to work with her. “As far as I’m concerned, if lawyers are involved, it means that there’s already been a breakdown in communication.”

Kaleikini and her cousin, Kaleo Paik, both of whom are cultural monitors for the rail AIS work.

They first met for lunch last October to discuss starting a cultural monitor program that would allow cultural descendants and other familiar community members to be on site during the AIS work. Kaleikini says it took more than a year of her asking to be involved in the archaeological work, but says that Grabauskas actually made it happen.

“While we need to have development today, we need to also respect the cultures and wishes and actions of people that came before us,” says Grabauskas.

Since then, Grabauskas says he and Kaleikini email and talk on the phone on “a fairly regular basis,” and have “a positive working relationship. Kaanohi has been an excellent resource for information and understanding when it comes to the Native Hawaiian community,” explaining he’s only been on the job seven months.

It helps to have an in with the people at the top. I visited Kaleikini and her nephew Williams one evening where archaeological trench work was being done for rail near River Street. I borrowed a friend’s steel-toe boots and was told all I needed to do was sign a liability waiver and I would be able to borrow a monitor’s hardhat, safety glasses and vest. When I got there, though, it wasn’t so simple. A safety official got on her cell—I apparently didn’t have clearance. Kaleikini waited around with me for 15 minutes.

“Oh, I’m just gonna call Dan,” says Kaleikini, taking her red cell phone out of her pocket. The next minute, I’m on site with her.

During their other conversations, Grabauskas says he’s also promised Kaleikini and other descendants that, if necessary, city engineers will “reengineer and redesign if we find that there are iwi kupuna that are in designated places.”

The two evenings I was on site, no iwi were found. As of press time, four iwi finds had been made, including an entire set of human remains thought to be 200 to 300 years old.


Strong Cultural Roots

Kaleikini walks up to William Aila, chanting. In her hands are a small bunch of bananas. She hands them to him, he places them on top of the ahu (altar). The rain comes softly down as the sun tries to shine through the clouds. After each person has made an offering, the group dances hula, culminating in the end of the Makahiki ceremony, in which they honor Lono, the Hawaiian god of harvest.

Kaleikini has been participating in the sacred ceremonies in Makua Valley for 12 years. She even got Norman, Keliipaakaua and her grandsons involved in Makahiki. “She’s involved in the culture in more ways than one, and she’s willing to share that with you if you’re willing to learn,” says Norman.

In 1999 Kaleikini started Na Koa Opio, a nonprofit for at-risk Native Hawaiian youth. “I teach cultural practices, including taking them to burial sites [such as those near T.J. Maxx and Wal-Mart] and also keeping them clean,” she says. “That’s the beginning stages of the kuleana.”

It’s where her teenage grandson, Kilinahe, was first inspired to protect the iwi, says Kaleikini. He was at the reburial at Hickam and, although he isn’t allowed to touch the bones yet, he helped cut the kaula (rope).

“Some of my grandsons want their tattoos already, too,” she says. She’s not talking about a honu or the island chain, but rather traditional tattoos done by renowned practitioner Keone Nunes. Nunes did the ones on her hands and wrists, as well as those on her leg, ankle and tongue.

On her hands, fingers and around her wrists are niho, shark teeth. “That’s for protection while I’m doing the kuleana.” She also has some representing her lineage, as well as that of her husband’s. On the left hand, she has the iwi bird, “it’s the aumakua [spirit animal] of the malama iwi.” She also has the symbol of the goddess Hina that she got in honor of her only granddaughter. Getting them done three years ago was painful, she says, especially those on her fingers. “[Nunes] said, ‘It’s gonna be sore, it’s gonna be painful.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s a painful kuleana. When you go and fight for the iwi and they want to move them, it’s painful.’”

Kaleikini says her hands swelled terribly. The same hands that made protest signs to wave in front of Kawaiahao Church, dance hula in Makua Valley, sign papers to sue the city and state. The same hands that painstakingly wrap iwi kupuna. She says it’s all part of her kuleana.