Skeletons in the Closet
What is going on at the State Historic Preservation Division?
December 06, 2007
There's a raging debate surfacing all over the state. And it bores down to the marrow of what Hawai`i is and where it's going. Iwi Kupuna means bones of the ancestors, and they're showing up all over the island. Hundreds are being stored right now in boxes in Wailuku.
"For Hawaiians, the iwi also contain the essence of the person," Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., the chairman of the Maui/Lanai Islands Burial Council, said. "This is unlike prevailing Western thought where the spirit of a person leaves the body when someone dies."
This plays a central role in Hawai`i politics. There are bones of Hawaiian ancestors buried all over the islands. And before anyone may build something new, or disturb the land in any way, they must check for significant archeological or cultural features. The mere presence of bones can be enough to stop a project.
In the last year or so, the presence of Hawaiian cultural artifacts and bones are sparking these debates over Makena; Turtle Bay, the Whole Foods and Wal-Mart on Oahu; Kaloko Heights and Hokulia on the Big Island and La`au Point on Molokai.
It was in this environment that on Nov. 7 David Brown, a former Branch Chief Archaeologist of the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD)—part of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR)—filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. His suit alleges that SHPDviolated his civil rights and includes allegations that "numerous practices at SHPD were illegal, unethical, or culturally insensitive."
In the suit, Brown names a dizzying cast of characters, including but not limited to the following: former Administrator Melanie Chinen; Laura Thielen and Peter Young, the current and former heads of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, respectively; Bob Awana, the embattled former chief of staff for Governor Linda Lingle; and even Melanie Chinen's daughter.
Brown's claims include the following:
• "[R]ecords and [the] library at SHPD are not kept up to date."
• "Bones that are found inadvertently are often exhumed."
• "Not all bones exhumed by agents of SHPD are reinterred."
• "Bones under custody of SHPD are not stored according to museum curatorial standards."
The last point is one of Brown's most sensational. In fact, his lawsuit alleges that bones discovered on Maui "are kept in a closet." The situation is apparently even worse on other islands. On Kauai, according to Brown's suit, bones "are kept outside in a metal container that in [sic] not sealed and exposed to the elements." Most incredibly, Brown's suit alleges that, "on the Big Island [bones] were kept in a bathroom closet with bathroom supplies such as plungers, toilet cleansers, and extra toilet paper."
DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward did not return repeated calls requesting comment for this story. Officials at the SHPD office on Maui, the Big Island and the Big Island Burial Council also refused to comment.
Citing the physical toll and emotional strain stemming from job-related controversy and litigation, SHPD Administrator Melanie Chinen—named in Brown's lawsuit as one of those official Brown alleges is responsible for SHPD's problems—will resign her office, effective Dec. 7. She spent three years in the position.
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More than 30 years ago a skull was taken from the Ka`anapali beach area during the construction of Whalers Village. In 2004 it appeared on eBay for $12,500 "buy it now" (bids were to begin at $1,000). Native Hawaiians protested and Jerry David Hasson, 57, of Huntington Beach, California was soon arrested on charges of illegally trafficking in human remains.
Depending on your perspective, this was the theft of an archaeological treasure—indeed, someone's ancestor. Or it was like bringing home a shell found on the seashore.
But this isn't really an open debate. It's a question of beliefs and culture. And you'll be hard pressed to find someone to say publicly that there are bones buried everywhere in Hawai'i; that they aren't sacred and are just the natural remains of the people before us. And if they're moved, they won't really be disturbed.
But actions speak volumes. Prior to 1988, new development was not required to do much to mitigate the effect a bulldozer has on an old Hawaiian cemetery. Construction workers dug up thousands of skeletons to make way for buildings and roads without much ado.
But in 1988, things changed. That was when the Kapalua Land Company began construction of the Ritz Carlton near Honokahua Bay. The company was diligent in consulting with a private archaeologist, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and state officials.
But when digging began, workers found the remains of about 900 Hawaiians (no exact number of how many were found). As digging continued they put the remains in a steel container. And while most all involved believed that the site was important and significant, the debate roiled on about what to do about it. Some wanted to continue to remove the remains for future study, while others wished to leave them undisturbed. Some wanted to bury them in another location and others simply wished to do nothing.
Native Hawaiian groups began to demand that the site remain intact. They demanded that the iwi kupuna must not be disturbed.
Eventually, after vigils and fierce protests, the state ended up paying Kapalua Land Company $6 million to re-bury the bones where they found them, and redesign the resort to leave the cemetery area intact and alone.
This fight led to changes in Hawai`i's historic preservation law. Soon the Department of Land and Natural Resources' SHPD had a new branch dealing specifically with burials. SHPD then created island burial councils to give local people more of a say in situations like this.
Or, better yet, to prevent situations like these by making decisions and coming up with clear guidelines that developers could follow before large investments of time and money were made. Or before taxpayers would have to pay for changing the rules of the game midstream.
Two years later, in 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which gave federal support for the protection and return of cultural items to Native American, Native Hawaiian and Native Alaskan groups.
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Putting those changes into practice hasn't been easy or straightforward. Today, SHPD is the poorest DLNR division. SHPD's Maui branch office lacks a PhD archaeologist. Since 2004, 22 of 24 SHPD officials have resigned their positions. And for various reasons, January 2008 will mark the fourth year since the Molokai Burial Council has officially met.
One source on Maui familiar with land development issues said that building permits are often hung up because of SHPD. "They're the slowest," the source said. "If 30 days goes by, when we get other comments from the other agencies [on the permit], then we forward the paperwork to the applicant and just say 'SHPD pending.' Then the [applicant] has to go after them."
Melissa Kirkendall, the former Chief Archaeologist for Maui—who is also named in Brown's suit—recently resigned her post after seven years. In a letter to colleagues, she explained that there were more than 400 permits and reports pending review. "Given the present state of the Historic Preservation Division, we are no longer facilitating our ethical obligations," she wrote.
"The problems are really bad," Maxwell said. "There are lots of burials, hundreds of them that are unattended because the SHPD office is understaffed."
Some of those problems apparently include bones simply lying on the ground, exposed to the elements.
"There are skulls being washed out to sea during every storm from the point at Tavares near Paia," Jeff Bartunek, a Paia resident, said. "I've seen ones where the teeth are sharpened to a point."
So now everyone's paying a price. Local land developers are particularly chafing.
"Basically you're paying just to have [the land] sit there," Matt Slepin, senior planner at Wailuku-based Chris Hart & Partners, said in the November 2007 Honolulu Magazine story "Bones of Contention." "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."
Why has the system been so ineffective? Some blame a lack of direction. "I know [Governor] Linda [Lingle] really well and when it comes to SHPD she really dropped the ball," Maxwell said. "It's her last term. She's just cruising."
But others say we're suffering because Lingle awarded high-level government jobs to "pro-growth" people who lacked proper experience. This in reference to the fact that Peter Young, the former head of the DLNR, came from the real estate industry. In addition, Melanie Chinen apparently had no experience in historic preservation before Lingle tapped her to head SHPD.
Most involved with land development—pro and anti-growth—on Maui agree that SHPD must hire qualified archaeologists, improve the review process and reduce the current backlog of permit applicants. In fact, at least one developer sees higher review fees as a potential solution.
"Limited resources are preventing adequate staffing levels,"Everett Dowling of Dowling Co. wrote in a Dec. 1 email. "one thought is for SHPD to put in place review fees that are at high enough levels to fund SHPD staffing needs."
Outgoing SHPD Administrator Chinen agrees, saying she hopes the state approves funding to help make these things happen.
In many ways, the old questions from 1988 still haunt us. What do iwi kupuna mean? Which portions of Maui's heritage are important enough to halt development and save? And most importantly, what lengths will we go to in allowing someone to "rest in peace?" MTW
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