30 years ago, Maui development set the course for modern protections of iwi kupuna

Updated: May. 17, 2019 at 5:47 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Thirty years ago, roughly 1,200 ancient burials were re-interred in Kapalua on Maui.

The historic discovery at Honokahua sparked protests, altered the course of a luxury hotel and launched Hawaii’s burial protections.

News reports from the time said the bones from Honokahua dated from 950 AD to the 1700′s and were considered one of the most historic and important archaeological finds.

When they were disinterred, there were no state rules or regulations over their care.

In 1987, developers started excavating the sand dunes at Honokahua Bay to build the Ritz-Carlton resort.

The developer had agreements with the state, OHA and a Hawaiian cultural group, but the digging desecrated far more than expected.

“The problem was at a certain number," said former Gov. John Waihee.

“It was actually on a historic site.”

In 1988, Native Hawaiians rallied at the state Capitol for 24 hours with one goal in mind.

"They can do all the surveying and planning of the hotel that they want, but first they've got to stop digging," said one activist.

The grassroots activism succeeded. Waihee, governor at the time, met the landowner and got him to stop.

"We got away with all these bully tactics in a sense because he didn't want to do anything wrong," said Waihee.

The former governor recalled telling his staff that they had to stop the digging, but he ran into resistance from state attorneys. He pressed on.

“I don’t care. We’ve got a state Sheriffs Department. Stand them up there. We are not going to dig anymore,” said Waihee.

The state condemned the land for $6 million and the Ritz-Carlton resort was pushed further inland.

"They (activists) moved an entire hotel in getting the state to say they were wrong to move the burials out of this known burial area," said Clare Apana, a Maui resident and Native Hawaiian.

Apana's brother was paid minimum wage to help with the reburials.

“He says he would have done it anyway. They paid us $7 an hour and it was almost an insult for something so sacred,” she said, holding back emotions.

In 1990, Hawaii’s burial treatment law passed, giving unmarked burials the same protection as modern cemeteries.

The 14-acre site is now a historical and cultural landmark ― a symbol of Native Hawaiian resilience for iwi kupuna.

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