HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The families of more than 600 burials — unearthed during a construction project at Kawaiahao Church — are nearly finished with a burial treatment plan.
But the years-long controversy is far from over.
Kawaiahao Church first unearthed the burials in 2009 during construction of its multi-purpose center. Since then, more than 600 iwi kupuna have been discovered and are in storage in the church’s downtown basement.
The project is on hold. The families and the church want the iwi kupuna reburied as close as possible to where they were found, but there’s debate over the details and future development.
That’s left the issue mired in legal limbo and years of conflict between the families and the church.
Emotions were raw at a meeting earlier this week at the Oahu Island Burial Council.
"To say that this is a Hawaiian church and there are Hawaiian things over there. That's bull. We don't dig up our kupuna," said Kamuela Kalai, a cultural descendant.
There are 60 individual claimants to the iwi kupuna and more are coming forward to be recognized by the Oahu Island Burial Council.
"All the different articles, clippings of different families, members that have been buried at the church and they (Kawaiahao Church) still have not kept good records," said Alesa Kneubuhl, a lineal descendant
But church trustees say they’ve made their best effort to find records, which is made more difficult since some Hawaiian families did not traditionally reveal where exactly their loved ones are buried.
“Who would imagine that any project would be caught between two laws. Historic and Department of Health. No one has had to navigate that before so the complexity is far greater than we expected or we wanted,” said Bill Haole, Kawaiahao Church trustee.
“We did not lose what we were given. We are going through what we have so it is a misstatement that we lost records,” said Haole.
The Oahu Island Burial Council gets involved when iwi have been discovered during a project.
The council has been has been advocating for Hawaiian families involved with the Kawaiahao issue, but the frustration over the government bureaucracy was palpable.
“Now we have this longstanding issue and at every turn it’s going to be a battle of people behind paper and pen,” said Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, burial council chair.
Kalai says families will meet in a couple weeks to finalize their burial treatment plan. She says it leaves no room for future development.