The fallout from these decisions has prompted vocal opposition in the Hawaiian community to laws that grant broad exemptions from land use and county zoning laws as a way to encourage private businesses to develop public lands.
But as Dana Hall points out, ancient burial sites didn’t always have the muscle of state law behind them.
In the late 1980s, the battle over a burial dune at Honokahua, Maui “changed that and did so in dramatic fashion,” Hall said.
At the center of the issue were plans to build the Ritz Carlton Hotel along the beachfront, where more than 900 burial sites were unearthed when excavation work began for the project. After the importance of the discovery was brought to light by Hall and others, the hotel was moved inland and the burials reinterred at the site.
“Unfortunately, that had to happen for the kind of awareness that got us to the point of actually providing more protection under our historic preservation law,” said Haia.
Dana Hall agrees, adding that “no one ever stood up for a thing like that before,” referring to the existence of ancient unmarked burial sites at Honokahua that were not protected by law. “No one knew how,” she said. “That’s one of the things that Honokahua changed.”
Paulette Kaleikini acknowledges that Honokahua was an eye-opener for her. “My first real understanding of desecration started with Honokahua,” she said. “Protecting our iwi kūpuna is a natural thing to do; it’s a humane thing to do. Who wouldn’t want to protect the graves of family members? And that is what we’re doing. The archeological inventory survey is the instrument that we use to move forward to protect our iwi kūpuna.”
In Hawaiʻi, an archaeological inventory survey is required before construction can begin on a development project.
If burials are discovered, the Island Burial Councils have the authority to determine how they should be handled. At the same time, if burials are found during construction, then the state Historic Preservation Division would have jurisdiction.
“I was very proud of the law when it passed,” Hall said. “That was because I knew that Hawaiʻi had the strongest law for protecting burials. And it was not just for Native Hawaiians, it was for all burials – 50 years or older.”
Haia sees the law as a welcome sign for his role in the ongoing struggle to protect ancient burial sites. “I’m responsible for making sure that they continue to hold significance,” he said. “I think that’s my obligation. It’s not just my obligation as an attorney, or the executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., it’s my obligation as a Hawaiian.”
Kaʻeo echoes the sentiment, saying that burial sites “are places that hold great significance for our people. If we maintain and honor these places, we will maintain the highest integrity of our culture.”