Photo: Maui development protesters holding signs
Mālama Kakanilua was founded more than 15 years ago to protect burial sites in Central Maui. - Courtesy Photos

When Noelani Ahia filed a lawsuit against the State of Hawaiʻi, Maui County, and the developers of Maui Lani in 2019 over the desecration of over 180 iwi kūpuna, she did so because “I felt it was important to utilize every legal mechanism available to us to ensure the kūpuna were treated with the respect they deserved. They required our advocacy.”

The lawsuit was recently settled through arbitration with a stipulation that no roads would be built over the iwi kūpuna burials.

But Ahia’s lawsuit speaks to larger issues of iwi kūpuna protection.

Photo: Signs in front of an excavator
Iwi kūpuna advocates placed these signs in front of a construction vehicle at the Maui Lani development site. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Central Maui is home to several important burial sites. It is also where mass development is desecrating a number of these burial sites. “When you look at these projects like Maui Lani, it looks like Orange County [California]. It erases us from our own landscape and disconnects us from our ancestors. The removal of our iwi kūpuna is part of that erasure from our homeland and continuing generational trauma,” Ahia said.

The Puʻuone o Kahaluʻu Sand Dunes, the Maui Lani development, and the Grand Wailea Hotel in central Maui are areas of ongoing concern. Some of the best-known burial sites are in this area, all of which are in close proximity to each other. The area also includes the sand hills of Waikapū and Wailuku where the Battle of Kakanilua was fought between warriors from Hawaiʻi Island and Maui.

Photo: Noelani Ahia
Noelani Ahia has emerged as a leader in the fight to protect iwi kūpuna from development in Central Maui. She was inspired to become involved by Clare Apana, a long-time iwi kūpuna advocate and co-founder of Mālama Kakanilua. – Courtesy Photo

Ahia was inspired to become involved in iwi kūpuna issues by long-time iwi kūpuna advocate and co-founder of Mālama Kakanilua, Clare Apana. Ahia met Apana in 2016 when Apana was fighting for the protection of the iwi kūpuna of the Puʻuone sand dunes. Apana, herself, was involved in at least four separate iwi kūpuna-related cases.

Apana was born and raised on Maui near these burial sites, as were her ancestors before her. She explains that she was called to speak up on iwi kūpuna issues in 2006 during the construction of a Safeway supermarket at Maui Lani. She originally filed a case pro se (without legal counsel) until she was able to get help from the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation (NHLC) which felt like a “small miracle” to her. Other lawyers helped too. “I can not sing the praises of Lance Collins and Bianca Isaki enough for their help,” she said.

It was around that time she initiated Mālama Kakanilua to protect the burial sites in the area. Mālama Kakanilua’s mission also includes upholding the “Act for the Protection of Places of Sepulture,” an 1860 law passed by the Hawaiian Kingdom to protect burial sites and graves.

Apana went on to challenge the mining of sand from the dunes at Puʻuone. The sand was being mined for construction projects – including for making the concrete used for the Honolulu rail project. An Archaeological Inventory Survey (AIS) completed for Wailuku, Waiʻale, and Waikapū in 2010 noted several pre-contact burials, including a dozen remains, and recommended preserving these cultural resources. However, sand mining continued for eight years despite protests from iwi kūpuna protectors and environmental groups until a moratorium was finally put in place.

Around the time that the AIS was completed, more burials at Maui Lani Phase VI were being uncovered due to digging for sewage lines and road construction. Despite subsequent recommendations from the Maui Burial Council and from groups such as Mālama Kakanilua, construction continued and at this point, over 180 skeletal remains have been uncovered. More than 40 people tried to claim “cultural descendency” under the rules set by the State Historical Preservation Division (SHPD). Only Ahia was granted that status – which then allowed her to file her 2019 lawsuit against the developers and the state and county governments represented by attorney David Kauila Kopper of NHLC.

While Ahia’s case has reached a settlement, other iwi kūpuna issues remain unresolved at Maui Lani and at the Grand Wailea Hotel.

Noureddine Amir, chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in a letter on May 10, 2019, wrote “…the Committee is concerned about the lack of protection of the burial sites of Kānaka Maoli the Indigenous peoples…[and that] the legal framework seems to be focusing on mitigating desecration rather than ensuring full protection of all burial sites….”

Ahia believes that “developers do the bare minimum to follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law – which is meant to protect our iwi kūpuna. The way we survey these sites needs to be upgraded.”

Kopper echoes this and suggests using non-invasive methods and equipment such as using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Predictive Modeling. “The goal should be to preserve and protect iwi kūpuna. If we can find them before construction begins, they are more likely to remain in place and undisturbed.”

For Apana, there needs to be accountability, including the need for a professional ethical board for archaeologists. “Before we advocate for our iwi kūpuna, we need to have hope,” Apana said. “We win little cases here and there but it causes a reaction. Change will come if we stay the course. Then our future generations will be in a stronger place to grow from.”

OHA supports proactive protections and mālama iwi kūpuna initiatives statewide through grants and services that strengthen pilina ʻohana, moʻomeheu and ʻāina. For more information on the Island Burial Councils visit