CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
General Growth Properties Inc. of Chicago is developing this site at Auahi and Kamakee streets, and plans to anchor the development with a Whole Foods Market store. But the project has encountered a roadblock: 11 sets of human remains believed to be ancient native Hawaiians. (Photographic panorama assembled from mulltiple photos via software.) CLICK FOR LARGE
Whole Foods in a PR pickle
The idealistic retailer must decide what to do about bones at its site
Whole Foods Market Inc. has built a $5 billion annual business selling organic groceries, gourmet cheeses and healthful prepared foods -- while at the same time being guided by a "vision of a sustainable future (in which) our children and grandchildren will be living in a world that values human creativity, diversity, and individual choice."
But now the Texas-based retailer known for its lofty ideals faces a thorny question as it tries to establish its first store in Honolulu: whether to locate the store atop several native Hawaiian burial sites.
"This is not something we've ever had to deal with before, and we're just trying to figure out what the right thing to do is," said Marci Frumkin, regional marketing director for Whole Foods' Southern Pacific region. "We're basically waiting to hear back from the developer."
General Growth Properties Inc. of Chicago is developing the site, located at Auahi and Kamakee streets, and plans to anchor the development with Whole Foods' 67,000-square-foot store.
The project would culminate a five-year effort by Whole Foods to establish itself in Hawaii and give General Growth's Ward Village Shops a unique retailer attractive to many of the well-heeled condominium owners who are flocking to Kakaako's new luxury high-rises.
But the project has encountered a roadblock.
Having discovered 11 sets of human remains on the construction site, General Growth has sought permission from state regulators to move the bones to a landscaped vault to be located near the new center.
The Oahu Island Burial Council, the state agency charged with deciding what to do with the bones, is considering the plan and must make a decision before the end of next month, said Jace McQuivey, chairman of the board that governs the burial council.
In the meantime, native Hawaiian families have come forward to oppose moving the bones, which are known as "iwi." McQuivey said the bones were buried in a way that suggests they pre-date Western contact and are placed in three to five separate locations on the site.
Experts on Hawaiian culture say that iwi carry enormous spiritual importance.
McQuivey said that the burial council is trying to determine the best solution, and General Growth exe- cutives have declined to comment, citing a desire to respect the council.
"We are not trying to stop development," said McQuivey. "We are just trying to do the right thing."
In the meantime, Whole Foods faces a public relations challenge particularly touchy for a company so sensitive to doing the right thing that it once built tiny "condos" in its live lobster tanks so the lobsters, which thrive on solitude in the wild, could have privacy. Whole Foods eventually quit selling the live crustaceans altogether, saying it was "not yet sufficiently satisfied that the process of selling live lobsters is in line with our commitment to humane treatment and quality of life for animals."
Whole Foods also is sensitive to people. It consistently ranks among Fortune magazine's Top 100 places to work, placing No. 15 in 2006. And the company has demonstrated a commitment to partnering with local producers to sell locally grown fruits, vegetables and other goods.
All of this raises the question: Assuming the burial council grants its approvals, would Whole Foods go forward with the project over the objections of native Hawaiians?
"Whole Foods will go out of its way to be politically correct, more so than most companies would," said Jack Plunkett, chief executive of Plunkett Research, publisher of Plunkett's Retail Industry Almanac.
At the same time, Plunkett said, Whole Foods will not simply shrink from the slightest controversy. In fact, Plunkett said, Whole Foods has forged ahead when facing more run-of-the-mill anti-development controversies while developing big stores in other markets.
"They'll be attentive. They'll be concerned," Plunkett said. "But I would suspect that they're a long way from walking away from it."
Dave Stewart, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, agrees that Whole Foods doesn't have to abandon the store altogether in order to protect its brand and image.
"If it's managed properly, they need not walk away from it," he said.
For Whole Foods to protect its hard-earned image, Stewart said, the company needs to "be seen as paying appropriate respect to native Hawaiians."
And the company should be proactive in getting out its message, he said.
Finally, Stewart said, it's important that Whole Foods not allow the debate to be framed in a way that moving the bones is necessarily an act of disrespect.
The company, he said, would "want to avoid getting in that box."
But that box might be hard to avoid.
Ty Tengan, an assistant professor of anthropology and ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii, said the primary issue concerning iwi is to keep them undisturbed.
In traditional Hawaiian culture, iwi are considered the repository of a person's spiritual power, or mana. And the word used to describe a human burial is kanu, the same word that is used to describe planting something.
In addition, iwi often connotes kinship. Thus Hawaiians sometimes refer to themselves as "kanaka oiwi," or people of the bone, Tengan said, and one's homeland is referred to as "kulaiwi."
To desecrate iwi is an affront not just to the dead, but also to the deceased person's descendants, Tengan said.
"The highest form of sacrilege is to disturb the iwi," he said.
All of this makes dealing with the iwi at the Whole Foods site especially touchy given that at least one "cultural descendant" of the iwi has objected to the plan to move them.
Because of the gravity of the situation, McQuivey said, the burial council is taking as much time as possible to weigh its options.
Although some have protested the plan to move the iwi to a memorial, McQuivey said the bones could face a far less desirable fate. For instance, he said, it is possible that the developer could simply build on top of the iwi.
"The families need to realize that it's possible there could be a concrete slab poured over the site," including the iwi, he said.
But, McQuivey said, that would probably leave everyone unhappy.
So while the burial council must try to forge a plan, the descendants must decide what, for them, is the best solution.
"What may be respectful in some peoples' eyes would not be respectful in another's," Tengan said. "That's when it comes down to the families and what they want."