Bones of Contention
As encroaching development threatens the resting places of Maui's iwi kupuna, who will speak for the voiceless?
January 15, 2009
Maui was once two islands. As the Pacific pounded at the base of the eastern and western highlands it churned up enormous mounds of sand between the two volcanic landmasses, in what is now the valley that inspired Maui ’s nickname. Then the ocean receded, leaving an eight and a half-mile stretch of 200-foot high sand dunes in its wake between Kahului and Maalaea Harbors.
Many of the dunes lithified over thousands of years, but even stone was no match for Western man. Sand mining and grading left few remnants of these ancient and culturally vital formations. The dunes now signify two very different definitions of sacred: that of Westerners and that of kanaka maoli.
For the former it’s individual gain, development and the “American Dream,” as one can plainly see when looking toward Haleakala from any high point in Wailuku. For the latter the importance of sand dunes lies in cultural preservation, in the practice of using dunes as burial sites for iwi kupuna, the bones of their ancestors.
Many believe that a swath of land in Central Maui, an area that is being rapidly developed, is rich in burial sites and is in serious danger if adequate attention isn’t given to preservation.
There are burial sites all over Maui, says Kahu Uncle Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., chair of the Maui/Lanai Islands Burial Council. (Maxwell has also done consulting work for developer Dowling Co.) In its heyday, Wailuku was like Washington D.C., Maxwell says, and Lower Main Street has a high concentration of burials. A small group of Maui residents, mostly kanaka maoli, recently showed up to deliver testimony at meetings of the Cultural Resources and Planning Commissions concerning the next phase of Maui Lani Partners, LLC’s development of more than 1,000 acres in the area nestled between Wailuku and Kahului. They claim that the area is clearly a traditional burial ground and may have even been the resting place of warriors from a historic battle. Yet others, including cultural practitioner and project consultant Les Kuloloio, say that Maui Lani Partners is doing all it can to preserve every burial the developer finds, and that no battle artifacts have been found at the site.
The question becomes: who is right? And, more importantly, what is pono?
According to ancient beliefs, the dunes that cut through Central Maui “are like the vertebrae of a mo‘o (lizard),” Maxwell says. The word mo‘o also means a high ridge or raised surface extending between two points. One’s mo‘oku‘auhau is one’s genealogy.
Sand dune burial sites were seldom marked, as wind-swept sands helped conceal them from grave robbers wishing to steal the bones and the mana, or life force, they carried. Dunes rich in burials, then, serve as a vital link between Maui’s kanaka maoli and their ancestors. “We are of the iwi,” Maxwell says. “We are of the bones. The bones are the most important factor of our spirituality because they connect us with our past.”
The efforts of Maxwell and others in the late ‘80s at West Maui’s Honokahu sand dunes, where developers had moved over 800 iwi and planned to move 1,500 more to make room for the Kapalua Ritz Carton, resulted in Hawaii Revised Statute 6E, which established burial councils for each island as well as laws for handling the iwi that have been found. It took them three months to wrap and re-inter the remains at their original resting place, which Maxwell says included the iwi of 16 ali‘i (royals). The hotel’s building site was moved farther inland.
State law now requires landowners to adhere to burial council or State Historic Preservation Department recommendations, depending on the nature of the archaeological find.
Lisa Rotunno-Hazuka of Archaeological Services Hawaii, Maui Lani’s site consultant, says that a developer must contract a firm like ASH to survey the land, first on foot for surface indications of iwi, then by backhoe testing, which attempts to get a representative sample of the site by digging in a handful of areas. They are required to report any iwi they find to the burial council, which will either tell them to preserve the bones in place or move them to a nearby preservation area. Maxwell says the council tries to keep as many iwi in place as possible. Ninety percent of the burial sites that have been discovered, he says, have been preserved in place.
Rotunno-Hazuka says there’s a catch-22 when it comes to discovering burials, since most are found during construction monitoring, the next phase. This is partially due to the unmarked nature of the burial sites; only occasionally are burials marked with rounded river rocks. “You can’t get a full picture of a property during a survey,” Rotunno-Hazuka says. “But we can’t get a permit if we don’t do a survey.”
Construction monitoring involves assigning a staff archaeologist to every piece of earth-altering machinery to watch for iwi during actual construction. Every iwi found during the monitoring phase is considered an “inadvertent” find, which must get reported to SHPD. Contrary to what many believe, Rotunno-Hazuka says, inadvertent finds are the more difficult of the two discovery types. Although reporting to SHPD instead of having to wait for a monthly burial council meeting to roll around expedites things, the cost of halting a project already underway is high. The developer has altered its construction plans several times to accommodate burials, Rotunno-Hazuka says. But sometimes it’s the iwi that have to move.
In one recently approved Maui Lani project phase—a village mixed use (VMX) area totaling 91 acres—around 30 burials (the count differs, depending on who you ask) have been found, including sites along what will be an extension of Kuikahi Drive. The road will eventually intersect with Maui Lani Parkway and serve as a connection between the southern reaches of Wailuku and Kahului. Numerous burials were discovered at or near the site of the future road. Most, according to Leiane Paci of Maui Lani Partners, are being preserved in place while some had to be relocated to a preservation area near the road.
Perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding this area is the grand total of iwi buried throughout. Some people estimate as many as 1,000, but that number has yet to be quantified. Maui Lani has come before the burial council numerous times after having found burials at parcels throughout the entire project area. But each phase of the project is viewed separately, so the burials haven’t been totaled.
Maxwell says that the council should see that change by the end of the month. “I have ordered them, as chairman of the council, to tell me what the count is.”
But that’s not as easy as it sounds, says Rotunno-Hazuka.
Some burials are intact, she says, but other sites contain “scattered” remains, which make things more complicated. She says that 30 in situ burials and 11 scattered remains does not equal 41 burials. Bones found at those 11 sites could constitute the skeleton of one individual or five, but it takes time to find out.
The scattering is likely to have resulted from a number of things that have taken place on the land since Westerners sank their teeth in: mining, which tore millions of tons of sand from the belly of the mo‘o; agriculture in surrounding areas; and, according to Rotunno-Hazuka, the land’s having been used by the National Guard.
Despite these complications, the total number of iwi that have so far been discovered at the site is set to be reported at the next meeting of the burial council on January 29.
To Kihei resident Daniel Kanahele, whose interest in the issue is of a personal nature, the accumulation of burial discoveries “reaches a point where it becomes offensive,” though he does not disparage any of the preservation efforts or the work of the cultural practitioners. If Maui Lani is a big pie, they’re bringing pieces of it before the Planning Commission, he says. “When it comes to iwi I think it’s important to look at the whole pie.”
In its approval of the VMX, the Maui County Planning Commission attached conditions to the development requiring a space that would memorialize those buried there as well as a plan for dealing with archaeological sites. Paci said that Maui Lani Partners finds the conditions reasonable, but that it’s too early in the game to know what such an effort to memorialize would look like. People like Wailuku resident Clare Apana are advocating for a more intensive survey process and active recognition of what’s there.
“You can put up a plaque somewhere and say that’s memorializing them,” Apana says. “[But] we’d like to see the history remembered of the historical burial practices. We’d like to see the sand dune preserved. We need to use all the tools that we can [to] prove that we had a viable, rich culture. We need to incorporate all of the tools modern science gave us as well as our kupuna stories.”
The development is going to happen, she acknowledges, but an intelligent and painstaking effort to preserve the area is in order.
For example, she thinks “sensitive” areas should be incorporated into General Plan-mandated Necessary Green Areas.
“For us it’s about making peace and recognizing what would be a sacred area,” says Apana.
Apana is one of a number of people who believe that the 1776 Battle of Kakanilua, in which Chief Kahekili’s army defeated the Big Island Chief Kalani’opu’u’s elite Alapa warriors with the help of Oahu Chief Kahahana’s forces, took place at what is now Maui Lani. She and others gave a presentation to the CRC and the Planning Commission based on oral accounts that they believe place the battle squarely at that location.
Maxwell says that no archaeological evidence has been found to support this. But he contends that, battle or not, the area is sacred.
“A burial is a burial,” he says.
The heart of the issue doesn’t necessarily lie with developers like Maui Lani. Instead, the problem stems from the clashing of two opposing mindsets—a deep-seated conflict born of imperialism and conquest.
“When the Western man came in 1820, land became a commodity,” Maxwell says. “The gods own the land. How can you sell the land that belongs to the gods?”
The law that’s being administered in situations like this may be too far removed from the mindset, and the culture, that shaped this land for centuries prior to Western contact.
“We’re under Western law. It’s foreign to Hawaiian law,” Maxwell says. “The question is, how can we stop this?”
Maui is still two islands. Only now the rift is no longer physical, but mental and spiritual instead. MTW
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