The coral-block church at the crossroads of historic downtown Honolulu is revered as the “Protestant mother church of Hawaiʻi,” ground zero in the missionaries’ faith-relocation blueprint. Kawaiahaʻo Church was founded in 1820 by the first missionaries to arrive in Hawaiʻi and is a congregational church devoted to the Christian faith. Kawaiahaʻo Church also remains the final resting place for many of Hawaiʻi’s most revered kūpuna. Burial sites are places that hold great significance for our people, as issues surrounding burial sites are about preserving our cultural identity of Kānaka ʻŌiwi. If we maintain and honor our kūpuna, we will maintain the highest integrity of our culture. Cultural identity is central; we cannot really be, in a sense, Hawaiian without this understanding of our iwi kūpuna.
However, Kawaiahaʻo Church took actions to disturb the very people whose families chose the Church grounds as their final resting place. In January 2009, Kawaiahaʻo Church began construction on a multi-purpose center without an archaeological inventory survey (which is required before construction can begin on a project) and immediately began encountering burials. In 2012, another 600+ burial remains were found during construction. This conflict embodies the ongoing tension between those who seek protection for unmarked Native Hawaiian burials and those who choose not to comply with rules for development projects. At stake are the wellbeing of ʻohana, the integrity of cultural practices and the future of multimillion-dollar development projects.
In December 2012, the Hawaiʻi Intermediate Court of Appeals ruled against Kawaiahaʻo Church saying that it failed to follow the State Historic Preservation Law when it unearthed hundreds of burials during the construction of a new multi-purpose center. The court also ruled that the State Historic Preservation Division violated its rules by failing to require an archaeological inventory survey of the site. After years of hoʻoponopono, the Church recently indicated that it would no longer pursue the construction of the multi-purpose center.
A burial treatment plan details the final disposition of burials that have been discovered, removed or put back. This burial treatment plan was unanimously approved by the Oʻahu Island Burial Council on April 22, 2020 prepared by recognized lineal and cultural descendants. This burial treatment advocated for preservation in place, meaning that all the kūpuna will be put back according to the historical map legend in Likēkē Hall. This historic action honors the spirit of aloha and the spirit of Kawaiahaʻo because it honors these families who have languished at the Church’s recent desecration. Protecting our iwi kūpuna is the natural thing to do. I thank the Burial Council, the Church and the lineal and cultural descendants of the kūpuna buried within the Church grounds for their courage to make things pono for our kūpuna.
Repatriation is just one aspect of an expansive effort to revitalize our customs and traditions. A burial treatment plan contributes to a positive healing process that Native Hawaiians are going through in general with the taking of our land, natural and cultural resources. Repatriation is just one small step in a much larger healing process of trying to reclaim our land, language and livelihood. The adoption of the burial treatment plan contributes to wellness and is part of the cultural revitalization movement. Returning our iwi kūpuna to their rightful place is the ultimate form of cultural preservation.
The more we protect our burials in place, the more we protect our own sovereignty. Ola nā iwi, the bones live!