Regarding SHPD’s Care, Management and Protection of Our Iwi Kūpuna

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On Jan. 19, 2021, in proximity to the sacred ancestral interment site of Pohukaina located on the grounds of ʻIolani Palace, island burial council leadership announced a “Statewide Protest to Uphold Their Kuleana (Responsibility) to Protect Hawaiian Burial Sites from Systemic Mismanagement by the State Historic Preservation Division.”

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) administration shares similar concerns expressed by the island burial councils, and notes that it has long sought to help the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) better comply with its statutory responsibilities to protect our iwi kūpuna and sacred historical sites.

OHA urges state policymakers, including SHPD leadership, to heed the calls of our island burial council leaders, and address issues that have long been raised by Native Hawaiian community members and cultural practitioners, archaeologists, the state auditor and OHA itself.

As recently as Nov. 11, 2020, OHA expressed in a letter to SHPD administrator Dr. Alan Downer its “serious concerns over repeated inconsistent interpretation and implementation of [SHPD’s] statutory duties;” “the observable lack of consistent and reliable administrative support of the island burial councils;” and an apparent “refusal to comply with both Chapter 6E, HRS and Chapter 13-300, HAR in fulfilling [SHPD’s] public trust responsibilities to our beneficiaries.”

OHA also noted SHPD’s continual failure to notify OHA of inadvertent discoveries of human remains, as required by law, and the longstanding need to better support the Maui/Lānaʻi Islands Burial Council, particularly given the council’s ongoing requests for consistent access to legal counsel and administrative follow-through on their recommendations. OHA has yet to receive a response to its 52-page letter and the numerous recommendations it offered to address its concerns.

OHA has also highlighted numerous longstanding historic preservation issues in two measures introduced as part of OHA’s 2020 legislative package. One bill sought to give SHPD more enforcement tools and to lower its administrative burden in ensuring compliance with the law. The other measure, a resolution, urged an update of SHPD’s decades-old administrative rules, and identified numerous needed changes to amend procedures for the classification and treatment of “inadvertent” burials, provide a certification process for contracted archaeologists, and clarify island burial council authorities, among others.

We appreciate Dr. Downer’s promise to improve communication with island burial council members. However, the island burial council members’ protest demonstrates that much, much more must be done, to regain the trust of our councils and those who rely upon SHPD to protect our ancestors, to whom we, as Native Hawaiians, remain deeply connected.

Trust is earned and can be such an easy thing to lose. I hope that SHPD will finally heed these concerns and take all steps necessary – including working with community members and OHA – to earn the trust of the Native Hawaiian community lost through years of apparent neglect, failed promises and unanswered concerns.