After months of legal dispute over the jurisdiction of iwi found on the grounds of the Kawaiahao Church’s new multipurpose building site, the court has ruled that the church may proceed with construction because the burials found there are part of an established historic cemetery and therefore do not come under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Oahu Island Burial Council — but instead, are under jurisdiction of the state Department of Health. Under DOH regulations, all disinterment and burials are handled by the issuance of permits, which Kawaiahao Church has qualified for.
As a former member of the Oahu Island Burial Council, a recognized expert on historic cemeteries in Hawaii and a volunteer consultant on the church’s Na Iwi Committee, I totally support this ruling and all of the efforts made by the church to plan for the disinterment and relocation of any unmarked burials found during construction.
Before one spade of dirt was dug up, the church recognized the need to proceed with the utmost respect and due diligence. In that regard, it formed the Na Iwi Committee and selected some of its members based upon their expertise with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and state cemetery and burial laws.
At every step of the planning process, much thought was given to issues that have surfaced in past construction projects around the state.
The committee also held a series of public meetings, which were widely publicized, and attendees were given every opportunity to ask questions and express concerns.
The burial treatment plan that was developed addresses how iwi should be disinterred, cleaned and wrapped; what kind of containers they would be placed in, and where they would be placed, temporarily and in the long term.
To assure the safety and security of the iwi before final reburial, a special secured storage area was built. Several sites on the grounds have been considered for reburial. In addition, old paper cemetery records were consolidated into a digital database and a current map of the cemetery was created to reconcile differences in old maps. All of these records were open for review at the community meetings and continue to be accessible to the public.
In my more than 25 years of cemetery research, I have been to more than 500 cemeteries around the state, and I can say categorically that virtually all historic graveyards established before World War II have unmarked graves that were placed there after the cemetery was established. I have come across hundreds of unmarked graves in cemeteries around the islands that have been physically identified by family members as being historic burials.
For opponents to say that all unmarked graves found in the Kawaiahao construction area were in place before the cemetery was established is misguided. This graveyard has been in use since the 1820s, and as such is the oldest historic cemetery in the state.
I must repeat that the court’s ruling is a correct one: that the iwi discovered in the Kawaiahao construction site came from a long-established historic cemetery and therefore should rightly fall under the jurisdiction of DOH, not DLNR and the Oahu Island Burial Council.
I have every confidence that all of the iwi removed from the construction site will be treated with the utmost respect and love, and that they will continue to rest in peace long after they are relocated within the graveyard.