Wal-Mart site holds
Some 25 sets of bones, possibly
dating to the 1800s, are found at
the Keeaumoku Street site
About 25 sets of human remains have been discovered at the Keeaumoku superblock site of the Wal-Mart/Sam's Club complex since Jan. 17, state Historic Preservation Division officials said.
State archaeologists believe the remains, found along Sheridan and Makaloa streets, are remnants of a smallpox grave site dating back to the 1850s.
"We thought there could be burials there, so we asked that an archaeologist be there if remains were discovered," said Holly McEldowney, acting division administrator. "Turns out we were right."
State archaeologists are attempting to contact the descendants of people whose remains have been unearthed.
McEldowney said most of the remains were apparently buried after the 1853 smallpox outbreak, the most devastating smallpox epidemic in Hawaii. But three of the remains may predate the outbreak because they were buried in the fetal position, a technique sometimes used by ancient Hawaiians.
Archaeologists said more remains may lie beneath surrounding sidewalks and streets.
Wal-Mart officials said they have been working with the state since the remains were discovered and, for now, have discontinued work in that particular area. Earlier this month, the company published a legal notice asking possible descendants to come forward so they can participate in deciding how the remains will be treated.
"We cordoned it off, and basically there is no construction going on there because it's important to us that the remains are treated with the utmost care and respect," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Cynthia Lin. "We have an on-site archeologist who is coordinating with SHPD, and we'll continue to work with them and follow their directions.
"We've already published a legal notice for possible lineal descendants, and that's where we are at this time."
Some community members who have been against the project from the beginning said they should have been informed at neighborhood board meetings about the discovery of remains.
"This is the first project to dig that deep down because before that, it was a bunch of low-rise businesses," said Jim Becker, a nearby resident who represents the group Citizens Against Reckless Development. "Before this there were only mom-and-pop stores, fruit stands, gas stations ... "Who knows how many bodies there are down there?"
Last December, Becker's group, along with the Local 489 of United Food & Commercial Workers Union, filed a lawsuit alleging that the city violated the Land Use Ordinance and failed to prepare an environmental assessment or consider the negative impacts the proposed project would have on the community. In February, Circuit Judge Gary Chang granted Wal-Mart's request to dismiss eight of nine counts in the suit filed and said the suit could go forward on a claim that the project presents a nuisance.
In response to Becker's comments, Lin said Wal-Mart was going through the proper channels in the care of the remains. She also said the company did not feel it was appropriate to let the community know about the discovery of remains before family members were notified.
"This is a culturally sensitive and private issue for the descendants," she said, "which is exactly why we are working with the state. ... We want to do the right thing."
McEldowney said state historic preservation officials are looking at two options: removing the remains and reburying them on the property, or leaving them where they are. McEldowney said with either option, the remains will not be under the store but set aside in a perpetual easement on the property to ensure their long-term protection and appropriate treatment.
McEldowney said anyone who believes they might have family members buried near the area of the construction site can call the state Historic Preservation Division at 692-8015.
"Either way, we need to make sure the area is secure," said McEldowney. "There's a real concern about long-term care that has to be addressed."