Saturday, September 12, 1998

Ancient remains
disrupt state move
to Kapolei

The storage of Hawaiian bones
worries the agency caring for them
and a potential neighbor

By Burl Burlingame


It may just be a bad case of NIMBY, the Not-In-My-Back-Yard syndrome, or it might be karma or feng shui or ghost dancing or wherever your favorite cultural leanings may go. Or maybe they just have a bone to pick.

But the remains of a dozen or so ancient Hawaiians have derailed at least part of a massive state government move to new office spaces in Kapolei, a move that had such irresistible momentum that it's currently in feverish arbitration between the state and the Hawaii Government Employees Association.

It began recently, when the Waipahu office of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations -- one of the agencies slated to move to Kapolei -- received floor plans for its new office space. As staffers were poring over the blueprints, figuring out where the furniture would go, someone noticed that the room next to their office was labled "Burial Room."

"What was that?" said Norma McDonald, Oahu branch manager for the DLIR. "It was right next to our administrative space. We were concerned and asked about it."

The space had been allocated to the Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, a government department downtown also slated to move to Kapolei. One of the jobs legislated to the archaeologists at the division is the care and reinterment of human remains, which it handles through a sub-agency called the Hawaiian Burials Council.

There is a locked space in the division's downtown office that at any moment contains several sets of human remains. The office workers at DLIR didn't want these remains resting right next to them.

"We really needed to assess this," said McDonald. "It was such a surprise. We had not been informed. In addition to basic respect for the Hawaiian culture, our people just didn't like the idea."

They wrote a letter of concern to the Department of Accounting and General Services, which administers public structures, and to the HGEA.

This week the DLIR was told the bones were staying downtown.

"That's our understanding from DAGS," said Pat Stanley, DLIR information officer. "If that's the case, then we'll be able to move our people."

"There were actually two concerns raised," said Randy Perreira of the HGEA, who also was told the DLIR and the remains don't have to co-exist in the same building. "One was the storage of remains at the new office, the other was a rumor that bones had been found at the site and had not been blessed properly. That appears to be just a rumor, but it tells you how people feel about this."

As of this week, according to DAGS Leasing Branch Manager Ivan Nishiki, no blessings have been performed for the new office building, even though government employees are already at work there. "We're planning a blessing, though," he said.

But if the bones are staying downtown, what about the agency that takes care of them?

"We will not be separated from the remains," said Kai Markell, director of the burials program. "We are the kahu, the caretakers, of these people. They are under our care. You can't just put them in a storage locker somewhere."

The remains, some hundreds of years old and reduced to a few indecipherable chunks of bone, are blessed, wrapped in kapa and placed in lauhala baskets. Flower petals are regularly scattered on the shelves holding the baskets. Out of respect, Historic Preservation head Don Hibbard would not allow photographs to be taken of the room.

Hibbard is also not sure of the status of the division's planned move. "I just talked to folks at the chairman's (Mike Wilson) office, who in turn have been talking to the governor's office. At this point, we've been told no decision has been made."

"Until we get it in writing," McDonald said, "we're going to wonder if there are bones next door or not."

The Historic Preservation division "would love to parlay this as a reason to stay in town," said Perreira, who also was told DLIR's problem was solved, but that the final way station for the remains and the division was "still up in the air. There are all sorts of good reasons for Preservation not to move out to Kapolei; this is just one of them."

While some remains are promptly reburied -- the division keeps a secret map -- others may sit on the shelf for years, pawns in disputes between developers and tenants. The goal is always to reinter them at the location they were found.

Polynesians generally consider the bones of a person to contain spiritual power, and plant them in the ground as a kind of renewable spiritual and natural resource.

Other cultures may feel differently. "Some ethnic groups are more concerned than others," admitted Hibbard.

Hawaiian remains held longest by the state government -- nearly 15 years -- were inherited by the division in 1991, soon after the burials program began. They were nine sets of remains unearthed during construction of the Liliuokalani Gardens condominium in Waikiki. Although the Liliuokalani Trust, which owns the property, offered to rebury them and foot the cost of landscaping and markers, it needed a consensus from condominium owners to do so.

Approximately 300 of the building 385 apartment owners reside in Japan, and consensus was never close to being achieved.

The division then asked nearby Jefferson School. "Turned down flat," recalls Hibbard. "They didn't like the idea at all."

So, one evening earlier this year, the remains were quietly buried on the grounds of the Waikiki Library.

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