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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 4, 2004

Family feels ignored on reburial of bones

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

A family that claims descent from individuals buried on the site of the new Wal-Mart complex has told the governor that their concerns are being lost in efforts to quickly rebury the remains uncovered there.

A letter signed by Regina Keana'aina-Rash and listing other family members was sent Nov. 24 to Gov. Linda Lingle. In the letter, the family charged that Melanie Chinen, the new head of the State Historic Preservation Division, is siding with other families who differ in how the bones should be prepared for burial.

Chinen denies the claims.

The Wal-Mart case, riddled with conflict for two years, has stirred an intensely personal reaction among the extended Keana'aina clan, who discovered their family ties to the land and the remains about eight months ago. They are the first to assert their direct descent from those buried there, burials that date to the mid-19th century.

"We're here only to claim our family," Keana'aina-Rash said in an interview with The Advertiser. "We just were called to this by our kupuna, and that's all we want to do, make them ready to be returned."

A cousin, Miles Keana'aina Takaki, was working for a Wal-Mart contractor on the site when he spotted an aunt's name on a list of Hawaiians genealogically linked to the area and realized his whole family could share a connection.

Research has produced land documents that, they said, show some of the discovered burials lie beneath and around an ancestral family home, so they believe they are direct descendants.

"The iwi (bones) have brought the family together for a good reason," Takaki said.

Among the family's concerns is that some remains will be reburied "co-mingled," without being separated into individual sets — a process that, according to the archaeological consultant, Aki Sinoto, will take until March.

In her letter, Keana'aina-Rash wrote that Chinen "is more accepting of information being given to her by others that are associated with Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei," referring to a nonprofit burials group that has been a consultant to other claimant families.

A spokeswoman for the governor's office said the letter had been received and a response was being prepared.

Chinen, who officially started her job Oct. 15, defended her work with all the descendants as even-handed, adding that she has supported the Keana'aina's desire to "reassociate" the bones into individual sets. However, Chinen has advised Sinoto against doing any unnecessary studies that can pinpoint ethnicity and other details about the remains. Sinoto said the additional studies have been set aside.

"Our position has always been, to the extent that it is reasonable, in favor of reassociation," Chinen said. "If we were not trying to do that, the burials would have been done already."

The Wal-Mart burials controversy started when the remains — representing an estimated 44 to 50 burials — were discovered nearly two years ago.

Since then, dispute has flared at several points over the way the state burials law was applied to this case, including the way the investigations were conducted and the decisions to remove the discovered remains for later reburial.

The Keana'ainas and their extended family have favored relocating the remains to a spot near the corner of Makaloa and Sheridan streets, where they would be less disturbed by delivery trucks and other heavy traffic, said Keana'aina-Rash and her sister.

Largely because the family produced land documents and genealogical data, the O'ahu Island Burial Council decided last March to follow their recommendation and have the remains disinterred, said Van Horn Diamond, the council president.

That decision put them at odds with other claimants, and with Hui Malama, who favored leaving the burials in place; they staged a protest when the retail complex opened for business Oct. 13 with the remains are still housed in a trailer on the Wal-Mart property. Those claimants include Paulette Kaleikini, who said yesterday the claim by rival families was recognized late in the process.

"I think they should be disqualified," Kaleikini said.

Kaleikini said she talked with Chinen and was told the reburial would be expedited.

"My last conversation with her, she was looking favorably with reinterring soon and she mentioned Dec. 13," Kaleikini said. "If that does fly, it's going to happen real fast."

But Chinen said that after investigations by her staff, she has concluded that reburial won't be able to happen until sometime after the burial council meets Dec. 20. She declined to name a target date but said that it would be "much sooner than March."

Donna Leong, Wal-Mart's attorney, said company officials defer to the descendants on cultural issues.

"Our primary goal is to treat the iwi with respect and rebury them in a culturally appropriate manner," Leong said. "When there's disagreement over cultural issues we need to step back let them try to come to a consensus."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.