Wednesday, November 25, 2015         

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Burials are 'kapu,' public tells church

Descendants of those buried at Kawaiahao share grief, hurt and ire over construction work

By Andrew Gomes


Expressions of pain, anger and sorrow filled Kawaiaha o Church at a Tuesday evening meeting held to discuss construction of a building on church grounds that unearthed 69 sets of unmarked native Hawaiian burials.

Kawaiaha o Church officials announced last month that they would resume construction of the $17.5 million multipurpose center after overcoming two lawsuits challenging the project and after obtaining a blanket permit from the state Department of Health to rebury any unidentified remains it unearths.

Tuesday's meeting was set up by church officials to hear concerns about the moving of burials.

The meeting began with an invitation to visit the bundled remains, or iwi, that have been held in a basement under the church bell tower since excavation work for the project was halted two years ago.

What followed in the sanctuary occupied by roughly 100 people was largely an outpouring of grief, and pleas not to resume construction that has a significant likelihood of disturbing more iwi at Hawaii's oldest church and Christian cemetery.

Daryl Kealoha Cardines told church officials that his kupuna, or grandparents, taught him that it was forbidden to disturb iwi.

"I am saddened," he said. "Any iwi -- I was taught from my kupuna -- was kapu. They wouldn't dig up bones to build something new. We need to respect that. Shame, shame on the people who decided to proceed with this."

A view shared by several people who spoke at the meeting was that the church values its mission to spread the word of God and make disciples more than it values the native Hawaiian culture that regards burials as sacrosanct.

The church contends that its inadvertent discoveries are exempt from the state's native Hawaiian burial law, which gives special protections to such burials, because the remains are Christian burials of native Hawaiians mostly in coffins on the grounds of a church cemetery.

A Circuit Court judge in a preliminary injunction hearing in December agreed with the church's position. The state Attorney General's office, according to the church, also has deemed the matter to be outside the purview of the Oahu Island Burial Council, which typically has jurisdiction to recommend whether iwi -- or construction -- should be relocated in such conflicts.

Legal determinations notwithstanding, a clash between Christian religion and Hawaiian culture persists, with the conflict centered largely between the church's mostly native Hawaiian congregation and Hawaiians outside the church with ancestors buried at Kawaiaha o.

At Tuesday's meeting, which lasted three hours and was moderated by entertainer Kimo Kahoano, a few speakers expressed support for the project. The multipurpose center is designed to provide classrooms, conference rooms, a social hall, a $1 million kitchen, administrative offices, a library, bookstore, space for church archives and a small museum of church antiquities.

Supporters said the church's mission is paramount, and that the facilities are badly needed and could not feasibly be built anywhere else on church property.

But most who spoke at the meeting said it is wrong to disturb their ancestors. Several spoke of the pain they felt when viewing the iwi in the basement, and the hurt they felt in the sanctuary. Others chastised church leaders for their willingness to disturb graves.

"My tutu's bones are not to be disturbed or touched by anyone," said one woman. "They deserve to rest in peace forever and ever."

One person at the meeting asked how many more iwi might be unearthed if the building is completed. Church representatives responded that they don't intend to dig up any more iwi but cannot be certain that more will not be disturbed.

Only about 25 percent of ground excavation work for the building has been completed.

Previously, a consultant hired by the church told state officials that another 83 bodies might be buried at the construction site based on information from a ground-penetrating radar test.

The church has no records of burials in the construction area, which for many years was the site of a church building, Likeke Hall, built in 1940 and demolished in 2008.

While building Likeke Hall over part of the church's known cemetery, Kawaiahao officials disinterred 117 bodies. Those remains were initially reburied in Moiliili and then relocated to the southwest corner of Kawaiahao's cemetery in 1968.

The church said it historically was up to families to share information for burials, and not all have shared records.

Hawaiian cultural specialist Dana Naone Hall said Kawaiahao grounds were a burial area before Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii, and she questions whether some of the disinterred remains are non-Christian burials.

"We just don't have a situation of only coffin burials here," she said.

The church estimates that the remains date to sometime prior to the early 1900s. Kawaiahao Church was built in 1842.

Naone Hall, who has relatives buried at Kawaiahao, filed a lawsuit seeking an archaeological survey before the church proceeded with more construction. But an injunction she sought was rejected in December. Naone Hall said she intends to appeal.

A lawsuit filed by Abigail Kawananakoa, a relative of Queen Kapiolani, who alleged that trenching work encroached on the family burial plot, was settled in November.

Tuesday's meeting was the ninth time the church organized a meeting for anyone to express views on the project. Church leaders have said that most participants at previous meetings have been supportive of the expansion plan.

The first meeting occurred in May 2006. Trenching work that unearthed burials began in January 2009. Work stopped in March of that year. The most recent meeting, before Tuesday's, was held in July 2009.

Kawaiahao officials plan to re -establish a committee comprising members of its congregation to handle any more unearthed burials. A prior committee, which included community and church experts on Hawaiian burials, established cultural and Christian protocols to care for disinterred iwi.

The Rev. Curtis Kekuna also said more meetings will be held, and prayed that stakeholders could find common ground and understanding.

"Let's walk away (from this meeting) knowing that we are committed to listening and helping one another," he said.

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