“We would not be here without our kupuna who came before us, it is their iwi that created our foundation, our ʻāina.” – Keomailani Hanapī Hirata, keiki o ka ʻāina

Last year, iwi kūpuna, human ancestral remains, eroding out of the ground on Molokaʻi were found along a beach path. Erosion, sea level rise, development, and human traffic are contributors to many of the iwi that have been surfacing in the past few years. Exposed iwi kūpuna need to be preserved in place, if possible. However, erosion makes it difficult and sometimes impossible do that.

“We, the Kupaʻāinas on Molokaʻi, we have a hui that has to mālama our kūpuna that come up on our island,” said Keomailani Hanapī Hirata, a keiki o ka ʻāina of East Molokaʻi who can trace her family genealogy back to time immemorial.

Photo: Kakahaia Beach
Kakahaiʻa Beach Park Molokaʻi Hawaiʻi. – Photo: Pat McNally Wikimedia Commons

Growing up in the late 1980s, Hirata saw her parents and other families caring for iwi kūpuna.

“Our kuleana lands became Molokai’s unofficial repository for our tūtūs and kūpuna that we’re being dug up,” she said. “We had to learn cultural protocols at a young age to mālama the kūpuna and [know] what we can and cannot do on our own ʻāina.”

But it was only in 2021 that she agreed to apply to the Molokaʻi Island Burial Council (MIBC). Because of the large number of open cases, she was asked to join the council.

Growing up she learned to balance the ʻeha, or pain; the kaumaha, or grief; and spiritual unrest that comes with the kuleana of protecting and preserving the rest for iwi kupuna in modern times.

“This kuleana cannot be taught,” Hirata shared. “It’s the voices of our kupuna that echo through us, that choose us and guide us.”

Ahupuaʻa ʻo Mapulehu

One case in particular has been ongoing for over 33 years. “That case has not been able to be mihi [resolved] yet,” she said in her testimony to the Senate Hawaiian Affairs and Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committees in February this year.

In the early 1990s, a discovery of human skeletal remains was uncovered during a development phase of land clearing, with a bulldozer on the parcel of land formally known as the Mapulehu Glass House.

According to the testimony of Halealoha Ayau at the MIBC meeting for the Burial Sites Working Group, the archaeologist at that time estimated the iwi of 60 individuals had been unearthed. The bulldozed iwi were crushed and scattered over four acres. The landowner was prosecuted and fined for this desecration.

Since then, the land has been sold multiple times for various proposed developments. Each endeavor would bring more iwi kūpuna into the light.

Today, the land at Mapulehu is currently in the hands of Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen’s office. Hirata noted positively that with the support of Mayor Bissen and councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez the county recently “expensed funds … to help put our tūtūs and kūpunas to rest, come up with a burial management plan, hire consultants to make it happen and work with the recognized descendants.”

Recent Erosion

The iwi recently found on a beach path was reported to police. The landowner allowed the burial council members to conduct a ceremony and keep the iwi secure on site while the legal processes are followed. The law states the iwi of a single individual that arise on a Neighbor Island are to be processed within two working days.

Photo: Laʻa Poepoe, Keomailani Hanapī Hirata and Kawehi Soares
Laʻa Poepoe, Keomailani Hanapī Hirata and Kawehi Soares, the most recent members of the Molokaʻi Island Burial Council. – Courtesy Photo

The process entails numerous steps and individuals to the scene: identify the age of the iwi by a coroner, and archaeologist; a burial sites specialist must gather information such as oral histories to document and determine a plan to work with the burial councils; as well as notify OHA and other relevant organizations, especially if the iwi need to be removed from the location.

After a week of waiting for State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD), Hirata and community members worked with the landowner to kanu, or bury, the iwi in a more protected and secure location on the property.

“On the island of Molokaʻi we get no support from the State Historic Preservation Division. They never come here,” Hirata said. “We have multiple open cases of inadvertent discoveries, disturbances, and some intentional desecrations.”

A lot of the cases that remain open are because they have police reports attached to them. Police are first on the scene, then Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) officers attend to the scene and submit their report to SHPD to start their process.

Every other island has had some type of staff member from SHPD but Molokaʻi has none. The law says the state is to come up with a burial management and treatment plan when iwi are inadvertently discovered. In the case of the iwi arising due to erosion a plan must be made and that requires SHPD, archaeologists or burial sites specialists to review the area.

In reference to this breakdown of the process, Kamakana Ferreira, OHA lead compliance specialist, inquired of SHPD about how inadvertent discoveries are handled without an archaeologist or SHPD staff on island.

Kealana Phillips, SHPD burial sites specialist, stated that they rely on the council and their resources when iwi are unearthed.

“It’s true we don’t have an archaeologist, or any representative from SHPD on island. It’s been the case, at least since I’ve been here at SHPD (seven years). I’ve always relied on the ʻike of the council members and the resources that they have at their disposal on island to kōkua when iwi become unearthed,” he said.

“I have full trust in their ability to make the best decision possible to care for the iwi kūpuna. Ideally, we would fly to Molokaʻi and conduct site visits (history, culture and archaeology) when we do get an inadvertent call, however that has proven challenging for a variety of reasons the last few years. Until that issue can be resolved, we will continue to work with the council and community to mālama iwi kūpuna.“

“That’s not our kuleana, for us Kānaka Maoli who are volunteers, to come up with [Burial Treatment] Plans. It’s the state’s position, but they can’t get here.” Hirata said. “It’s a dereliction of duty.”

Further clarification from Ferreira to SHPD to confirm compliance with the legal processes for dealing with Moloka’i cases, and from Ka Wai Ola newspaper, regarding this article received no response as of press time.

Hirata acknowledges that there are many fractures in the current state system. The laws and procedures need to be looked at and revised, she said, and SHPD needs staff support and resources.

“SHPD is so understaffed they cannot approve applications that come through the boards and commissions who apply for the burial council,” Hirata said. The MIBC cannot make quorum to do meetings.

According to the SHPD Burial Council webpage all the MIBC member seats are vacant. Hirata said she is still in a “holdover” status and the other two members, Kawehi Soares and Laʻa Poepoe, have termed out.

All of them have reapplied for their seats. They’ve received confirmation emails saying their applications were received and now they are waiting. If they are not confirmed before the legislative session ends for this year, the council could sit dormant and vacant this year and unable to address the multiple open cases.

Nā Wai e Mālama i nā Iwi?

“Molokaʻi needs the support of the state of Hawaiʻi. The SHPD is supposed to be the keeper of our history, our culture and all of our records and they are failing our people,” exclaimed Hirata. “Not just our people but our ancestors.”

For Hirata and her hui, taking care of iwi kūpuna is a generational kuleana. “There’s a lot of people like me, who are generational families who take care of and mālama this kuleana of our kūpuna,” said Hirata, “and we do this with or without the support of the state.”

“Our kūpuna never thought that they were going to be dug up, or climate change is going to be the way it is now, and have all of this erosion,” Hirata said. “That was a different time, we live in a different time.” The Kupaʻāina of Molokaʻi will continue to malama nā iwi kūpuna, no matter what.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) supported the creation of a Burial Sites Working Group (BSWG) to look at the systemic issues surrounding the Island Burial Councils (IBC) and the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) and propose recommendations for improvements.

The report’s findings came from listening sessions at IBC meetings and recommendations from expert analyses of the BSWG members who have extensive experience in matters relating to burials and burial law.

The final report was sent to the Hawai ʻi State Legislature in February 2023. Bills were drafted and submitted this legislative session based onthe report’s findings. Two bills have remained active though committees and hearings.

SB2591 Relates to Burial Sites on private property and imposes a fine on any private landowner that fails to disclose or record with the Bureau of Conveyances, or in documents used to offer real property for sale, the existence of burial or archaeological sites on their property that the landowner knew or should have known of.

This bill would fine violators for not following the current rules and processes for burials on their property.

“The frustrating part for descendants is that when it doesn’t get recorded with the deed and a new landowner comes in, they might not have the same access, and they might not have the same protection obligations,” said Kamakana Ferreira, lead compliance specialist at OHA.

SB3154 Relates to Archaeological Inventory Survey (AIS) recommendations. This bill clarifies that failure to comply with approved mitigation commitments, conduct an archaeological inventory survey, or comply with other administrative requirements pertaining to archaeology approved by the Department of Land and Natural Resources would result in civil and administrative violations.

Presently if the commitments to do an AIS prior to development is not done, it’s not technically illegal. This bill would strengthen the administrative rules already in place and hold people accountable to them.

As of print deadline these bill have been passed conference committee and will go to final floor votes.