By Chris Cramer and Healani Sonoda-Pale
Wiliwilinui Ridge in Wailupe on the island of Oʻahu is one of the island’s most significant Hawaiian burial sites.
Wailupe was a puʻuhonua (place of refuge) during the time of King Kamehameha I. The burial caves found on this ridge safeguarded Hawaiian iwi kūpuna and their extraordinary moepū (funerary objects) such as canoes, a feather cape, and a cannonball, which mark the significance of these burials. Since 1926, there have been numerous archaeological investigations of Wailupe, so the existence of the burial caves has been well documented over the decades.
In 2006, local entrepreneurs Kent and Lori Untermann, property owners on Wiliwilinui Ridge, set out to build a townhouse development on their property. A routine public hearing for the proposed development was held, and longtime community members from the area testified passionately about the iwi kūpuna buried on the proposed development site.
After the hearing, the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) wrote to the Department of Permitting and Planning (DPP) requesting that no permit be issued for the site until an archaeological inventory study could be conducted. DPP denied the ownersʻ 2006 development permit applications.
Despite their awareness of the burial caves and the community’s concerns, 10 years later the Untermanns again applied for – and this time received – grading and building permits from DPP for the same property.
An Oct. 16, 2018, article by Blaise Lovell in Civil Beat (“City Mistakenly OK’d Permit for Site with Native Hawaiian Remains”) reported that a DPP employee apparently misfiled the 2006 letter from SHPD instructing DPP that no development permits should be issued for the property.
Moreover, the Wailupe and ʻĀina Haina communities were unaware that the permits had been approved – they found out when they saw three excavators working concurrently to level the cliffside.
After vocal community opposition, the Untermanns stopped the grading. However, by then the cliffside was badly damaged and truckloads of soil had been carted away. It remains that way today.
That same year the Wailupe ʻOhana Council brought to Kent Untermann’s attention that an open burial cave containing iwi, teeth, and other artifacts existed just a few feet from a dirt road on his property.
A burial plan to “preserve in place” was drafted and approved by the Oʻahu Burial Council and SHPD with the stipulation that the burial cave was to be sealed and a 25-foot protective buffer installed around it; a proper buffer has yet to be installed.
For several years there was no new activity – until the morning of Feb. 12, 2022, when the kūpuna’s fragile peace was shattered by the sounds of an excavator operating near the sealed burial cave. A handful of kiaʻi (protectors) quickly responded, converging at the Untermanns’ property and informing the workers that they were digging in a known burial area.
Work was immediately halted, and when law enforcement arrived the contractor showed the police the now-expired 2016 building permit. Although the work was stopped and the immediate danger to the iwi mitigated, neither the landowner nor the contractor was fined or held accountable for excavating the area without a permit or for the desecration of a known burial site.
Since then, the number of kiaʻi holding space and conducting daily checks of the site has grown. After numerous requests, the Untermanns recently allowed cultural descendants access to the burial cave, as required by the burial treatment plan. Two ceremonies were conducted by the grieving descendants to reassure their kūpuna.
Honolulu Councilman Tommy Waters has proactively addressed the lack of coordination between the DPP and the SHPD. On February 24 he introduced and helped pass Resolution 22-36 which sparked a long-overdue public discussion between DPP and SHPD representatives about how they can work together more effectively to protect sacred cultural sites.
Unfortunately, the struggle to protect the iwi kūpuna of Wailupe is not over. In late February the Untermanns submitted yet another grading permit application.
Because this issue has been ongoing since 2006, ignorance of the burial sites on Wiliwilinui Ridge is no longer an excuse for this willful desecration. However, until there are actual consequences imposed for uncovering and destroying Hawaiian burial sites, the threat of desecration continues and kiaʻi must remain vigilant.
Ola nā iwi! The bones live.
Chris Cramer is a historian with the Wailupe ʻOhana Council and steward of Kānewai and Kalauhaʻihaʻi fishponds. Healani Sonoda-Pale is a citizen of Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi and a kiaʻi of the Wailupe iwi kūpuna.