A Kuleana to Preserve and Protect Hawaiian Burials


Film producer, author, and director Keoni Kealoha Alvarez’s life took an unexpected turn when he was 8-years-old and he and his brothers stumbled upon ancestral remains in a cave near his home in Puna on Hawaiʻi Island.

This encounter with iwi kūpuna sparked in him igniting an ongoing kuleana to preserve the profound historical, spiritual, and cultural significance of Kānaka Maoli burials. “My family wasnʻt a traditional Hawaiian family, speaking the Hawaiian language, or dancing the hula, or practicing the Hawaiian beliefs, and this is because parts of our Hawaiian culture were not passed down to my family,” said Alvarez who comes from a long lineage from Puna and instantly felt a deep kuleana to this burial.

Aileen Alvarez, Keoni’s mother (who he affectionately calls his “pōhaku”), notified the police in order to document the burial. According to Alvarez, an archaeologist and a cultural practitioner then came to the site and positively identified the burial as being an ancient burial cave.

Ten years later, Alvarez saw a “For Sale” sign on the property containing the burial cave. This led to Alvarez’ discovery that the site had not been documented by the State Historical Preservation Department (SHPD).

“You know back in those days, there was no real system. Now you have a digitized system but back then it was a paper and pen kind of thing so all of our documents got lost,” Alvarez recalled. Seeing the possible destruction of site, Alvarez embarked on a long process to protect the iwi kūpuna, testifying at meetings and hearings by the Hawaiʻi County Council, the Hawaiʻi Island Burial Council, and SHPD.

Seeing no progress, Alvarez reached out to Kānaka Maoli leaders and cultural practitioners to learn more about burials and Hawaiian trust land mismanagement until he found his way to the Kānaka Council led by Kale Gumapac. Gumapac and community activist Palikapu Dedman offered their support and mentorship of Alvarez to prevent the desecration of the Puna burial.

This began 27 years of researching genealogy, moʻolelo, laws, burial customs, and talking to cultural practitioners, including those on other islands.

“It took me years to really document the site and to get it recognized as a historic site with a number from SHPD. I became recognized by the Burial Council as a ʻcultural descendant.’ We went through this whole circus on ʻwhat is a burial cave’ and ʻwhat is a burial site.’ They [the State] weren’t looking at it from a cultural practice of how we did things and how we protected things,” Alvarez said.

While researching burial laws, Alvarez learned about the many loopholes that developers use to circumvent laws to protect burials as well as the general absence of a meaningful understanding of ancient burials, particularly cave burials.

“In the state’s viewpoint, they will only protect burials from the top down. But in Hawai’i, we have cave burials. Our custom is that from the entrance of the cave to where the ‘iwi is at, is considered a whole burial site. It is all kapu or sacred. It is not just top down like the American way of ground burial. So the state is only going to recognize burials in chunks [not as a whole] and those chunks fall into people’s property,” Alvarez notes.

In the meantime, Alvarez began pursuing a career in broadcasting with the goal of bringing attention to the need to protect Kānaka Maoli burials. “Puhipau [Ahmad] from Nā Maka o ka ʻĀina was my biggest inspiration.” Alvarez graduated from WGBH Producers Academy in Boston and Nā Leo o Hawaiʻi Public Access Station and honed his skills working for multiple studios and on a variety of projects including shows on the History Channel, MTV, Oceanic Cable sport shows, and several films.

For 10 years, Alvarez began a one-person campaign to teach others about the sacredness and importance of Kānaka Maoli burials through interviews, talks at schools, articles, and sharing his research. He used his film production skills to document important Kānaka Maoli cultural practitioners on their manaʻo on burials. This would culminate in the completion of his important documentary, KAPU Sacred Hawaiian Burials.

Alvarez has also written and illustrated a book – The Boy and his Hawaiian Cave – an autobiographic children’s book that explores cultural values related to burials.

To help non-Kānaka Maoli understand the importance of burials, he encourages people to read his book and to check out his website, www.hawaiianburials.com.

After spending two decades fighting against developers and government agencies, Alvarez was able to purchase the property surrounding the burial cave so that he could continue his efforts to protect the burial cave and other burials.

“My mission is to honor and respect my ancestors’ burials and burial grounds. Our Hawaiian race survived because of our kūpuna iwi legacy. We have to always remember our iwi kūpuna are our ancestors, they are the root of Hawaiian existence,” said Alvarez.

“KAPU Sacred Hawaiian Burials” is available for viewing on the PBS Hawaiʻi Channel on YouTube.

OHA supports proactive protections and mālama iwi kūpuna initiatives statewide through grants and services that strengthen pilina, ʻohana, moʻomeheu and ʻāina. For information about OHA’s Iwi Kūpuna Repatriation and Reinterment Grant go to: www.oha.org/economic-self-sufficiency/grants. For more information about the Island Burial Councils visit: www.oha.org/burialcouncils.