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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 15, 2002

Heiau's history in jeopardy

 •  Graphic: Rendering of site when originally constructed

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

KAHALU'U, Hawai'i — Joe Castelli couldn't help but get emotional when he came upon the Ke'eku Heiau recently.

Joe Castelli, a self-taught historian in Kona, says tears came to his eyes when he found that someone had removed the last traces of a worship site for women at Ke'eku Heiau and probably used those stones in a new configuration.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

It was bad enough that last year he found major structural modifications to the walls and footprint of the heiau, one of Kona's more significant archaeological sites.

This time, the remnants of a hale o Papa, or women's temple, on the southeast corner of the heiau were missing. Its flat stones apparently were used to create new, nondescript features at the site.

Castelli, a self-taught historian who enjoys poring over archaeological maps and recounting ancient tales, said he has grown passionate and a little bit sentimental about the historical features that dot the Kona coastal region near his Kahalu'u home.

"I couldn't believe it,'' he said, recalling his visit to the heiau. "I was mad. But when I saw the hale o Papa completely gone, tears came to my eyes.''

Castelli isn't the only one troubled by the mysterious changes at Ke'eku Heiau, next to the abandoned Kona Lagoon Hotel. State archaeologists want to know who's making the alterations — and so does landowner Kamehameha Schools, which has guards patrolling the property that includes the hotel.

"God knows why anyone would do that,'' said G. Rick Robinson, senior asset manager with Kamehameha Schools. "We've never seen anyone doing that.''

While it is illegal to modify archaeological sites on state land without a permit, there is no law prohibiting private landowners from making such alterations on their property. However, landowners may pursue charges against anyone making unauthorized modifications to historic sites on their property. Violators can be fined up to $10,000 each time, according to state law.

Robinson said security guards have not reported any activity at the heiau, but if anyone were caught demolishing or maliciously changing the historic structure, Kamehameha Schools would prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.

"We don't condone that kind of stuff,'' he said.

The construction date of Ke'eku is unknown, but it is believed that the umbilical cord of King Lonoikamakahiki, who was born in the early 1500s, is buried there. It was a Hawaiian custom to bury a newborn's umbilical cord in a special place to ensure longevity.

Kamalalawalu, one-time king of Maui, was believed to have been executed there after an unsuccessful attempt to capture Hawai'i with a massive army. A petroglyph purported to be that of Kamalalawalu was carved on the spot of his execution near the temple at the time of his death and is still visible.

The temple was in use until 1819, when the old kapu system was abolished and before the arrival of Boston missionaries in April 1820.

But now the structure isn't the same — and not because of erosion and the passage of time.

The south wall has been extended toward the temple center instead of turning due south, as it did originally as part of an enclosure for a prisoner holding area.

The remnants of other original features within the temple have been removed to build modern additions, pathways have been created in and around the heiau, and Castelli fears that the rock-paved flooring of the drum house is about to be modified.

Castelli, who has examined maps of the heiau dating back 52 and 100 years, said that although many of the changes were carefully done and look authentic, the alterations undermine the historical integrity of the site.

"In the future, when archaeologists study this place, they're going to say, 'What the devil is this all for? What's the function of this?' " he said, pointing to the newly constructed heiau walls.

State Historic Preservation Division officials acknowledge that the unauthorized modification of archaeological sites is a persistent and ongoing problem in Hawai'i. However, the vast majority of the violations occur during development, when grading and grubbing demand state oversight of historical sites.

Joe Castelli has examined heiau maps dating back 100 years and says alterations undermine the historical integrity of the site.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Holly McEldowney, state historic preservation specialist, said her office, upon request, will examine any altered site and make an assessment — even if it's on private property. But there simply isn't enough staffing to pursue a full-blown investigation in such instances, she said.

In the case of Ke'eku Heiau, she said, state officials must rely on Kamehameha Schools to pursue the matter. The trust, formerly known as the Bishop Estate, hasn't always been the best steward of archaeological sites, she said, but its efforts are improving.

Castelli, a director of Pulama Ia Kona, a group working to preserve Kona archaeological sites and buildings more than 50 years old, said regulations protecting archaeological sites should be extended to private land.

"On the Mainland, you would quickly end up in jail by modifying a historic Indian site,'' he said.

Native Hawaiians say the state should be doing more to protect places such as Ke'eku Heiau.

"Everything is disappearing. Life is changing so fast. We need to preserve these places for the young ones,'' said Clarence Medeiros Jr., a West Hawai'i descendant of Hawaiian royalty.

Medeiros said he would be disturbed if the modifications are being carried out by individuals with no historical knowledge of the site.

Linda Delaney, a former Office of Hawaiian Affairs administrator, said it's upsetting any time a cultural site is altered.

"It's one of the most disrespectful treatments of property,'' she said.

Delaney, vice president of the Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club, said she's considering introducing a resolution at the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs convention in November, calling for greater protections for historic sites on private property.

Castelli said he can understand someone wanting to spruce up an ancient site that may appear to be neglected and forgotten.

"But the worst thing you can do is to change it from what it once was,'' he said

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.

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