Group wants newfound lava tube artifacts shared
Hawaiians who viewed the carvings oppose their burial
A group of native Hawaiians say dozens of carved wooden images accidentally found last fall in a Big Island lava tube should be studied and viewed rather than permanently sealed away.
"These are treasures of our kupuna (ancestors) that should be shared," said William Hoohuli, 64, who says he is a descendant of those kupuna and that his family has lived in the area of the cave for almost 300 years.
In late January, Hoohuli, his brother Josiah and seven other local native Hawaiian men were granted permission to enter the cave to photograph the carved wooden gods and to assess the safety of the cave by Rutter Development Corp.
Rutter, an Irvine, Calif.-based developer, is building the Shores at Kohanaiki, a championship golf resort and 500 luxury homes over 450 acres about three miles north of Kailua-Kona.
Hoohuli, a retired superintendent from a cement company, and others who have visited the cave said no human remains have been found, leading them to believe it is not a burial site.
Hoohuli and others said they believe the cave served as storage or a hiding place. Some have also suggested that it might have been a secret place of worship.
In 1820, Chiefess Kaahumanu outlawed the Hawaiian religion. Kamehameha II issued an edict to burn kii, or carved images that were made as personal gods. Hawaiians who continued to practice their religion often hid kii in caves to protect the items from roving groups that threw them into bonfires.
"Different people have told me that we should bury them because they are not for us or for our eyes," Hoohuli said. "I feel differently. If the kupuna hadn't wanted us to see it, they would have destroyed it already. They wouldn't have left it. When it was discovered, it was time for them to reveal themselves."
Hoohuli and members of his informally organized group of local native Hawaiian men call themselves Na Kai'i (guardians or protectors). They said they formed to protect the caves and their families. Asked why the group members are all male, one member said, "In ancient times men were the protectors and the caretakers, so we kept it all men."
The men said that they were prepared for kupuna who did not want them to enter the cave but that they offered prayers, chants and protocols asking for entry.
"In my innermost self, I felt welcomed," Hoohuli said.
Bryant Mock Chow, another Na Kai'i member, said, "How could we just sit back and trust what the developer said? We needed a locally based group to go in make sure everything was pono (right)."
"Everyone said leave it alone, cover it, but how can we leave it alone and not know what is in there and if something comes up for sale online?" Chow said.
"We have the satisfaction of knowing that a locally based group of Hawaiian people went in there and surveyed it and inventoried it, and we'll know if something is sold online," Chow said.
The items were discovered Sept. 21 when heavy construction equipment breached a lava tube. The State Historic Preservation Division, developer Rutter and landowner Kennedy-Wilson International kept the discovery secret for several weeks, partly because they wanted the site secured from looters. The find became public when the Star-Bulletin published a story Oct. 19.
Under state law an inadvertent find is reported to SHPD, and all construction in the area is stopped and the site is secured.
According to correspondence between SHPD Executive Director Melanie Chinen and Rutter, state staff determined there were no human remains in the cave.
In an Oct. 10 letter to Chinen, Rutter wrote that under state law Rutter is "the owner of a historic property located on private property and lacking in any human skeletal remains" and has the right to "assume the leading role in determining the appropriate protection, treatment and ultimate disposition of the site and its contents."
David Eadie of Rutter Development could not be reached for comment on why he chose Na Kai'i to inventory the cave rather than another group.
Several of the men in Na Kai'i stressed that they feel this cave served a different purpose from Kawaihae, or Forbes Cave, which is at the center of a heated public dispute playing out in a federal court suit among competing native Hawaiian groups.
For those who have entered the lava tube, the question is how to share what was found.
"Clearly, these are not burial objects. They are of cultural significance and should be shared with other Hawaiians. If we seal them up, how can they be appreciated?" asked Chad Baybayan, a navigator and member of Na Kai'i.
He called the discovery "an accident of fate."
"We are fortunate to have this discovery," he said. "But discovery is one thing; the bigger task is how to take care of it and manage it."
Several Na Kai'i members said the cave site was fragile and would not wear well under the traffic of hundreds of visitors. They said the find should be shared through photographs and scholarly studies.
Hoohuli said he believes the site should have limited access as a "learning center," where scholars may visit and study the handwork of kupuna.
Baybayan also believes the items "should remain in the cave because removing them would do harm. There was certain sanctity in how they were placed. They were not just stored. They were presented in a purposeful way."
He said that when he entered the chamber containing the kii, after walking through a 60-foot-long lava tube that was 10 to 15 feet high, he was amazed to see four or five dozen facing him.
"It was like a council of gods standing in judgment of you," he said.