The Awakening at Honokahua

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Photo: Edward Halealoha Ayau

The ability to care for and protect family burial sites had always been an instinctual element of Hawaiian identity. However, powerful social, economic, political and religious forces brought on by foreign intervention in the affairs of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi effectively stripped Nā ʻŌiwi (Hawaiians) of their ancestral home lands, sovereign authority, and life itself, devastating the native population from nearly a million to approximately 30,000.

Photo: Dana Naone Hall and Leslie Kuloloio
(L-R) Dana Naone Hall and Leslie Kuloloio, members of Hui Alanui o Makena with a young Halealoha Ayau, at a ceremony honoring the reburial of iwi kupuna at Honokahua in February 1990. – Photo: Courtesy

Lost in this upheaval was the kuleana (responsibility, duty, privilege) to care for and protect iwi kūpuna (ancestral Hawaiian skeletal remains) and moepū (funerary possessions). Protecting the bones from disturbance and exposure was critical to Hawaiian well-being. However, the exhumation of approximately 1,100 ancestral Hawaiians from the sand dunes at Kapalua not only ran contrary to tradition, it also epitomized all that was wrong with the historic preservation process. These disturbing events took place without informed consent from lineal descendants, meaningful discussion within the Hawaiian community, and with little regard for the sensitivities of the living. An ʻōlelo noʻeau provided the traditional belief: “Mai kaulaʻi i nā iwi i ka lā. Don’t expose the bones to the sun.”

In addition, the events at Honokahua revealed that a significant kuleana was missing from the Hawaiian conscience: how to culturally care for iwi kūpuna and moepū that had become exposed and how to healthily process the resulting kaumaha (physical, emotional and spiritual trauma).

Being disenfranchised in such a powerful manner had harmful impacts on the Hawaiian psyche. However, the power of Honokahua was that these same impacts helped form the foundation for cataclysmic change in the cultural, legal and administrative landscapes regarding burial site treatment.

Honokahua led to the enactment of Act 306 in 1990 to establish the island burial councils and gave birth to an organization who would work to repatriate iwi kūpuna and moepū for the next 25 years. What happened at Honokahua can be summed up in the words “hōʻala hou” (to awaken awareness). The ancestors woke us up to our kuleana in the interdependent relationship between the living and the deceased.