Protecting kūpuna from the COVID-19 virus has been our community’s shared kuleana. Iwi kūpuna found in Native Hawaiian burial sites across ka pae ʻāina, however, are also in need of our protection. For decades, Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation has provided legal assistance to clients committed to caring for iwi kūpuna and keeping them safe from harm.
Safeguarding kūpuna during this pandemic warrants our vigilance. Likewise, iwi kūpuna threatened by construction and development warrant our attention and protection. In Wailuku, Maui, for example, large numbers of iwi kūpuna have been disturbed, disinterred and desecrated during ongoing construction of the Maui Lani Parkways project. Located within the Puʻuone Sand Dune complex that stretches from Maʻalaea to Waiheʻe, the Parkways project broke ground in an area well known to both kamaʻāina and the State Historic Preservation Division to contain a significant number of iwi kūpuna. Despite knowledge of this well-documented burial ground, development throughout the puʻuone has been substantial, revealing a tacit disregard for ancient burial sites sacred to Native Hawaiians.
“Hundreds of burials, if not many more, have been unearthed in these puʻuone over the years. This was to be expected: they are ecologically and culturally significant,” says Noelani Ahia, NHLC’s client in an ongoing legal battle over the Parkways project. “Due to decades of sand mining and inappropriate development, the dunes have been decimated and far too many iwi kūpuna have been desecrated.”
The initial archaeological study performed for the project over 13 years ago identified just five iwi kūpuna at the project site. An archaeological inventory survey (AIS), is required by law to identify all historic and culturally significant sites, including burials, that exist just beneath the surface. Since that first study, over 170 iwi kūpuna have been disturbed during construction. Their after-the-fact discovery is significant because their earlier identification during the AIS would have entitled them to more protection and more input regarding their treatment from descendants.
“Time and time again, we see archeological inventory surveys done which find very few historic properties, and then construction encounters significant numbers of iwi kūpuna. This practice facilitates development at the expense of, and irreparable injury to, iwi kūpuna,” says Ahia.
Ahia’s lawsuit, filed in 2019, seeks to compel the state and landowners to abide by burial protection laws by gathering sufficient information about the archaeological, historical and cultural significance of an area before construction begins. By doing so, all iwi kūpuna receive the law’s highest protections; laws intended to keep them safe from further irreparable harm.