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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 25, 2009

Kawaiaha'o shows respect for iwi

By Frank Pestana

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bones found at this construction site behind Kawaiaha'o Church have been handled with care and respect, in keeping with Christian tradition and practices dating to the church's establishment in 1838.


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In the recent coverage of Kawaiaha'o Church and the issues related to construction of a new multi-purpose facility there, some reports have inferred the church did not exhibit appropriate sensitivity to burials and began construction without taking sufficient precautions.

It has also been alleged Kawaiaha'o ignored the advice of its archaeological consultants. Although these claims are not accurate, they have been given wide distribution in news coverage. The record needs to be set straight.

Kawaiaha'o is a cemetery where people bury their loved ones. There is a long history of moving burials, an acceptable practice in a variety of circumstances for Christian burials. In the case of Kawaiaha'o, it goes back to the establishment of the church in the summer of 1838, when Governor Kekuanaoa gave the order for workers to begin digging the foundation and basement of the existing sanctuary.

At the time, Quartermaster Levi Chamberlain noted, "The remains of several church members were removed to another place by their friends. It was a very impressive transaction ... and filled my mind with very solemn emotions."

Again, in 1940, when the congregation decided the church needed a meeting facility and kitchen, 117 sets of remains were moved and now rest in the main Kawaiaha'o Cemetery. This enabled the church to build Likeke Hall, the nearly 70-year-old building being replaced by the new facility.

While it was anticipated that burials would be discovered on the new project, since we were constructing within a cemetery, it was not known with certainty how many burials would be found. Accordingly, the Kawaiaha'o Church Board of Trustees established a Na Iwi Committee, which included native Hawaiian community leaders and burial experts, to develop protocols in the event that burial remains were discovered.

Notifications were published and anyone with a connection to or information about the cemetery was invited to meet and discuss the possible impacts on burials. Seven kahea, or calls to the community, were made and seven meetings held. Much of the excavation on the project has been done by hand, and discovered bones and fragments are carefully cleaned, wrapped and prepared for reburial using the burial protocols established by the NIC.

As for the project history, the congregation of Kawaiaha'o intended the new facility to address several needs, including parking, a long-standing problem for the church. The original design of the center, therefore, featured an underground parking garage, beneath the site of an existing parking lot and the old administration building.

The State Historic Preservation Division determined that the amount of excavation required for the parking garage was extensive enough to necessitate an archaeological inventory survey, which would have required the project archaeologist to dig test trenches to determine if any burials were in the proposed parking area.

After learning that the proposed design would be too tall in relationship to the sanctuary and would also require excavation to the water table, which could impact the sanctuary's structural integrity, it was decided the design should be more modest, limited basically to the footprint of Likeke Hall. Based on the new design, the Historic Preservation Division determined that an archaeological monitoring plan could be used, instead of an archaeological inventory.

At no time did the church lobby the division to avoid conducting an inventory or fail to follow the advice of its consultants in this matter. In fact, the church has complied strictly with the monitoring plan and cooperated closely with the division and its own archaeological and cultural consultants.

With regard to treatment of the remains discovered, Kawaiaha'o Church has a long tradition of caring for iwi kupuna. The church welcomed back the native Hawaiian remains returned to Hawai'i from museums and universities through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and made Kawaiaha'o Cemetery their final resting place.

Likewise, when the Department of Transportation widened Queen Street and discovered more than 100 burial remains, congregation members cleaned the bones, wrapped them in kapa and placed them in lauhala baskets. The church built a vault in the cemetery for the iwi, which is marked by a commemorative plaque.

Kawaiaha'o is committed to continuing to care for all burial remains within its cemetery as we resume work under the recently announced guidelines provided by the Historic Preservation Division and the Department of Health.

Frank Pestana is chairman of the Kawaiaha'o Church Board of Trustees. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.