Opponents of a Kawaiaha’o Church construction project that might continue disturbing unmarked native Hawaiian graves took a stand yesterday on the steps of Hawaii’s oldest Christian sanctuary to protect their ancestors, or kupuna, buried on the grounds.
The peaceful protest began before dawn with a Hawaiian prayer and nearly ended with police arrests.
"We’re calling this a protest but we’re standing for our kupuna," Halealoha "Eddie" Ayau told the group, which grew to about 50 people.
Kamuela Kala’i, whose great-great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Moses Mathew Kuaea, was ordained at Kawaiaha’o in 1854 and buried somewhere on church grounds after he died in 1884, said it’s her responsibility to make sure no one digs him up.
"I have asked, I have pleaded, now I am demanding … this is where we take the stand," Kala’i said. "I am not going to let anybody touch my tutu."
The gathering prompted the church to tell those assembled that no excavation work would take place for the day but that arrests would be made if demonstrators didn’t move off church property.
Members of the group countered that they, as native Hawaiians with ancestors buried on church grounds, had a right to be on the property and protect their departed family members as well as their cultural values that decry disturbing human remains, or iwi.
Protesters prepared to be arrested as police arrived, but church leaders ultimately reversed their position on arrests.
Still, church officials said their intention is to proceed with excavation work for a long-planned $17.5 million multipurpose building and that it believes they believe the concerns of opponents are invalid because the burials and disinterments follow Christian beliefs.
"This is our hale pule" — our house of prayer, Kawaiaha’o Pastor Curtis Kekuna told the protesters, saying that the group’s concerns already have been heard at numerous meetings over the last few years. "When does this end?"
The protesters vowed to keep a watchful eye over the construction site and return if necessary. They said yesterday’s event was a small victory in what could be a long battle.
"This will help us to build as we struggle on," said Kalei Baldwin, who traveled from Maui to participate. "Our kupuna are under attack."
After the demonstration, many who gathered at the church attended a meeting of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees and asked that OHA rescind or recover a $1 million grant made to the church for the multipurpose building project.
Emily Kandagawa told trustees she is disturbed that OHA supports a project whose leaders have dismissed the cultural values held by many OHA beneficiaries.
"It’s unacceptable," she said.
OHA has been urging the church to work out its differences with project opponents before doing any more excavation work, but the church hasn’t agreed to the request.
Opponents said they will ask the Legislature to rescind a $1 million appropriation made for the project.
To some involved, a physical protest appeared to be a last resort. "What’s the use of having discussions if you’re not going to take the manao (opinion) to heart?" asked Kaanohi Kaleikini. "(The church) agrees we need to talk but in the meantime says we will start digging."
Added Kamuela Kala’i: "If they bring the shovels out, we’re going to stop them. It really doesn’t have to come to this."
The multipurpose building has been in the works for more than five years. The two-story facility is designed with classrooms, conference rooms, a $1 million kitchen, a library, bookstore, church archives and a small museum of church antiquities.
Likeke Hall, a building dating to 1940, was torn down in 2008 to make way for the new building. But trenching work for utilities begun in January 2009 unearthed 69 sets of unmarked human burials. Work was halted that March, and two lawsuits challenging the proj-ect were filed.
In recent months the church overcame the lawsuits — settling one and winning an early round in the other — and announced in January that construction would proceed without an archaeological inventory survey.
The church also obtained a permit from the state Department of Health to disinter any more remains on the site.
Kawaiaha’o officials contend that any inadvertent discoveries are exempt from the state’s native Hawaiian burial law, which gives special protections to such burials, because the remains found so far were Christian burials of native Hawaiians mostly in coffins on the grounds of a church cemetery.
State officials, including the attorney general, have accepted this view.
Opponents of the church project also say the church is misrepresenting the role of a committee of cultural experts that advised the church on the project. Some former committee members said they never condoned or approved digging up whole sets of remains.
"This is a fundamental, core cultural issue," said Maui’s Baldwin.
"We are here making a stand to say no kupuna will be dug up."