Defending the Departed
More than 20 years ago, the state approved the creation of island burial councils, to give Native Hawaiians a voice to protect their iwi kupuna, or ancestral remains, after plans to build a Maui Ritz Carlton at Honokahua had uprooted 1,100 unmarked graves.
“There is a connection between our [kupuna] and us. We’re not who we are without them.” said Opu`ulani Albino, a past Molokai burial council member. “You should never, ever have iwi [bones] in the sun. That’s the highest desecration you can do to iwi in our culture.”
Each island has a council made up of community members and land developers who decide whether remains found on a development site must be preserved in place or relocated. Today however, Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) representatives say the councils are having troubles performing their jobs.
“Unfortunately [Molokai’s] burial council hasn’t held a meeting in over 10 years,” said Kamaile Maldonado, a public policy advocate for OHA during an island burial council application workshop held last Wednesday on Molokai. “One of the priorities…this year is really to try to make sure we can get all of the islands burial councils up and functioning.”
Though two seats are currently filled, both council members’ terms are soon to expire and the state is looking for representatives for all four regions on Molokai: the east, west and central as well as Kalawao — or the Kalaupapa peninsula — on the north side, according to the OHA database.
According to Maldonado, because council members hold unpaid positions and often work with difficult or controversial cases, it’s “not something that everybody is banging on the door to be a part of.”
“I’m hoping with more outreach and more information about how this works and what it is, people would be willing to step up to that responsibility and bring the councils back to function,” said Maldonado.
In 1988, Ritz Carlton construction plans at Honokahua were delayed because of the high number of Native Hawaiian graves excavated. Developers pressured archaeologists, hired to investigate the remains, to finish their job faster. The remaining graves were uncovered using high-pressured water hoses.
“The worst part about it was that the plans called for the building of a parking lot [over the remains],” said Halealoha Ayau, Molokai’s acting district supervisor for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands as well as member of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, an organization dedicated to the care of ancestral native Hawaiians. “So what you have here is one segment of society saying ‘We value a parking lot far more than we value the final resting place of these people.’”
After a series of protests from residents across the state, construction relocated further inland and the iwi were reburied. Ayau helped create legislative Act 306, passed in 1990, providing protection for historic burial sites, as well as sites associated with individuals who have known lineal descendants.
“It’s not our fault our people buried their families where they did,” Ayau said. “If we were a responsible society, we would be smart enough and creative enough to design our current needs around these sites.”
Kuleana to Preserve
In addition to deciding how iwi kupuna are managed at development sites, the burial council also maintains a list of Native Hawaiian organizations that should be notified in the case of discovery of burial sites, reports unmarked burial sites to provide protection in the future, and seeks to recognize existing lineal and cultural descendants in connection with burial sites.
“We believe the council is the most appropriate venue to make this decision,” said Maldonado. “They are the ones who have the kuleana and the motivation to hear from descendants and to do the extra research to hear from all sides on what should be done in any particular situation or project.”
The council has to meet a timeframe in order decide what should be done with the sites, otherwise the decision reverts to the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).
According to Maldonado, the DLNR neither has the motivation nor the responsibility to do extra research or listen to additional stakeholders other than the developer and the proposal they bring, which can lead to unfavorable outcomes.
Reworking the Structure
Molokai’s council requires five total members, composed of at least four regional representatives and up to one developer representative.
Although councils are meant to meet monthly to conduct business, Molokai’s hasn’t met in a decade due to quorum problems and lack of applicants.
Maldonado said that because a minimum number of regional and developer representatives were required to attend meetings, often developers would not attend in order to waste time and move cases to the DLNR.
OHA, Island Burial Council leadership and the Governor’s office collaborated this year to amend the act that originally created the island burial councils. They are still required to meet each month with a minimum of three members to attend, however a developer is not required to be present.
Maldonado held a workshop to inform the community about openings on the council and how to apply.
“If anyone is interested, please apply or tell anyone you know who may be interested,” said Maldonado.
How to Apply
The governor will select a Hawaiian community member to serve on the council after an application process that demonstrates their understanding of the region’s history, culture, and burial customs.
“Someone who accepts appointment to the island burial council is serving a very heavy role because they are standing in place of ohana,” said Ayau. “People who are selected are people who represent their communities and who know all the families so they know if a burial is in an area and they know which ohana to go talk to.”
To apply, an individual must submit an application form, which can be obtained and submitted through the Governor’s office, OHA or DLNR, a resume and a letter of interest. Applications are due Oct. 18.
“Iwi is all you are and all that’s left of your physical part and that’s not something you would expose and step on if you knew,” said Albino. “That’s the reason we do what we do. We love them. We want to give back at least the smallest degree of what they gave us.”