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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 26, 2004

Bones to stay on Wal-Mart site

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

The state has determined that the 42 sets of human remains found during the construction of the Wal-Mart /Sam's Club project on Ke'eaumoku Street will be moved to a reburial site on the property rather than left where they were found or grouped together with other iwi kupuna (ancestral bones) at another location.

The property owner and cultural descendants support the decision by the State Historic Preservation Division, but one Hawaiian group says the state did not follow its own guidelines in handling Hawaiian remains, and the group is considering filing a lawsuit to stop the process.

The decision by the state follows months of meetings with the various groups and a unanimous vote by the O'ahu Island Burial Council supporting the move.

"We are satisfied with the bones being placed in an area that they will be undisturbed," said Ashford Kekaula, a descendant whose family once owned the property. "It works for us. It was a long drawn-out process, but we tried to do what we felt was right."

According to state law, when iwi is found at a construction site, work must stop in the area, and police and the state Historic Preservation Division must be notified immediately.

A preconstruction survey of the site concluded that the property had been urbanized for so long it was unlikely any remains would be found. The state does not require that an archaeological survey be conducted on private land, and determined that archaeological monitoring was sufficient for the project.

Six burial spots were subsequently found on the property and an archaeologist has determined that some of the remains may be from the 1853 smallpox epidemic that struck Honolulu.

Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, an organization that oversees perpetual care of the remains of Native Hawaiians, said if the state had required an archaeological survey, the iwi would have been found and treated properly.

"Obviously, we are shocked and upset that the state wasn't being more protective of these burial sites," said Hui Malama member Edward Halealoha Ayau. "If they had followed the historic preservation review process more closely, these remains, especially the cemetery where the concentration is, would have been identified up front before plans were made for development."

Ayau said 25 sets of remains were found in one location and said it was inappropriate for Wal-Mart to continue construction around that burial site after it was found.

"It was almost as if they were forcing the relocation decision," Ayau said.

Holly McEldowney, acting administrator for the Historic Preservation Division, said the decision to move the remains is final and in accordance with the law.

Kekaula said if the iwi were left in place, they would be covered with concrete and disturbed constantly by commercial activity at the busy site.

"It was a matter of pouring concrete over where the remains were discovered and having vehicles roll over it," Kekaula said. "That just didn't sit good with the family."

Wal-Mart must now prepare a burial treatment plan for how the remains are to be removed and for the design, construction and maintenance of the proposed relocation site, McEldowney said. The plan will be sent to the cultural descendants, burial council members and other interested parties for approval. Then Wal-Mart must implement and pay for the project.

Wal-Mart purchased the 10.5-acre property in May 2002 for an estimated $35 million, and plans to build a Sam's Club and Wal-Mart on the block bounded by Sheridan, Makaloa, Rycroft and Ke'eaumoku streets. The stores are expected to open this year.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Cynthia Lin said the company is satisfied with the decision.

"Since the remains were discovered over a year ago now, we have been committed to treating the remains with respect and in accordance with appropriate cultural protocol," Lin said. "We met with recognized decedents to hear their concerns and gather their feedback.

"We recognize and respect the care and effort that went into the SHPD's decision to relocate the burials at the Wal-Mart project site."

Kekaula said the family would like the iwi to rest in a quiet corner and fit in with the landscaping.

"That way it does not draw too much attention to it." he said. "And knowing it's not going to be disturbed and in a place that is still on the property gives us peace of mind."

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.