One man's crusade preserves sacred site

Keoni Kealoha Alvarez
Keoni Kealoha Alvarez
A burial cave
A burial cave
Palikapu Dedman
Palikapu Dedman
Alvarez put his appeal video on YouTube.
Alvarez put his appeal video on YouTube.

PUNA, HAWAII ISLAND - Keoni Kealoha Alvarez walks the path on a trail in Puna that he has covered countless times. It leads to a hole in the ground he discovered a long time ago that holds the bones of his ancestors.

"It was more personal because I had that connection to our ancestors. So that's what kind of drove me to try and preserve the site even more," he said.

The half-acre site houses the entrance to a lava tube Hawaiians used as a burial cave.

"There's several families that's in here. It's not only just one burial," he said.

Seven years ago, the landowner was a stone's throw from developing the parcel and burying the cave.

"At that time a home was being built. And every day you hear the bulldozers. And you're always thinking that the next lot is going to be the cave that's going to be bulldozed," he said.

"Since this is the Big Island, it's always being developed. Lots of people want to do the good thing but have no avenue to turn to," said Palikapu Dedman, president of the Pele Defense Fund.

Alvarez thought buy the land, save the cave. The landowner agreed to sell for $24,000. There were 24,000 reasons Alvarez couldn't afford it. But he thought of an idea, made a video, and put it on You Tube.

"Aloha, if you would to help save this burial cave from being destroyed due to development, this is how you can help," a smiling Alvarez said on the video.

"I just asked for a dollar. But not only a dollar came in. Nobody turned in a dollar. Usually, it would be like $20, $50, $100," he said.

People around the world saw it and contributed $2,000 toward his cause. His savings and paychecks added more money. In February, Alvarez had enough to take over the property. He said the land is priceless. So is the lesson.

"You don't have to build on something to make it valuable," he said.

Since Alvarez assumed ownership, the Island Burial Council and Hawaii County have recognized the burial ground as a protected site.

And now he has a bigger platform. Preservationists in Hawaii and on the mainland learned of his one-man campaign to preserve the cave. He's been invited to speak to groups in New York and Boston. And now National Geographic is interested in how he did what he did.

"I think that what he's done is real important," Dedman said. "I think he's set sort of a little precedent for his age."

Alvarez documented his seven-year crusade on video. He's weaving hundreds of hours of images into a documentary film. It's the story of the cave and its contents.

"They're going to remain. It's a resting place. Their final resting place," he said.

Alvarez maintains the site as a sacred place. He plans to keep it that way for future generations. And now he has a new goal, to buy the property alongside his that holds more burial caves and more remains.

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