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Native Burials: Human Rights And Sacred Bones

Traditional Native Hawaiians believed n... iwi (the bones) to be the primary physical embodiment of a person. Following death, only n... iwi were considered sacred, for within the bones resided the person's mana (spiritual essence). Mana was greatly valued, and Native Hawaiians spent their lives maintaining and enhancing their mana. Thus, supreme care was accorded to iwi following death. Ancestral bones were guarded, respected, venerated, and even deified. It was believed that the 'uhane (spirit) of a person hovered near n... iwi. Desecration of n... iwi resulted in an insult to the 'uhane and trauma and harm to living descendants.

In the Hawaiian language, the word kanu means to plant or to cultivate, and to bury, as with a deceased person. The burial of the deceased was considered a planting by traditional Native Hawaiians and was followed by physical and spiritual growth. The Hawaiian people believed they were nourished from foods fertilized by the bones of ancestors. According to Native Hawaiian belief, when n... iwi are planted in the bosom of Haumea, Earth Mother, they eventually become part of the '...ina (land). Through this planting and decomposition, n... iwi impart the maria of the deceased to the '...ina, and the '...ina becomes imbued with spiritual essence and energy necessary to sustain it and the families. This planting serves to strengthen the ancestral foundation, by placing n... iwi where they belong.

Traditional Hawaiian belief maintains that it is the kuleana (responsibility) of the living to care for and to protect 'ohana (family) burial sites and to pass on this knowledge and responsibility to the next generation. These practices assure that living Native Hawaiians will always provide perpetual care and protection to their ancestors, thereby maintaining the integrity of the family. Central to the physical and spiritual well being of Native Hawaiians is the inheritance of mana from their ancestral past. In turn, the k...puna (ancestors) care for and protect the living, affirming the interdependent relationship between them and living descendants, where each cares for and protects the other. This relationship is best expressed by the traditional Hawaiian value of lfkahi.


When the first documented Europeans arrived at Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawai'i in 1779, they showed little regard for the Hawaiian burials they encountered. However, in the years that followed, that lack of regard would escalate into wanton acts of desecration. During this period, radical social, economic, and political changes in Hawai'i had devastating consequences for Hawaiians. By 1832, less than fifty years following contact, the Native Hawaiian population collapsed, declining from 800,000 to 130,000. These drastic changes also resulted in Native Hawaiians being separated from their ancestral homelands, effectively interfering with their ability to protect 'ohana burial sites. Over time, Hawaiians became alienated from cultural values and responsibilities, including the kuleana to care for n... iwi k...puna.

The loss of cultural values had a severe and adverse impact on n... iwi k...puna. Over the next century, looting, archaeological collection, erosion, and construction resulted in the desecration and removal of thousands of ancestral Native Hawaiians. Many of these ancestral remains were shipped to institutions throughout the United States and Europe and studied in the name of science. In the last century, the burial sites of more than 5,000 k...puna have been desecrated with their remains removed to museums around the world.

The continued separation of these ancestors resulted in the severe loss of mana (spiritual essence) from the land, the families, and the Hawaiian nation. The consequences of the separation of n... iwi k...puna have been tangibly felt throughout this century. Native Hawaiians face the worst economic, social, health, housing, and political conditions. It is therefore imperative that efforts be undertaken toward healing the Hawaiian people. A fundamental means by which to heal both the living and those ancestral Hawaiians who await reunification with their homelands, is to bring them together, to kanu (bury, plant) the iwi and thus restore precious mana to the land and the families.

The largest disturbance and desecration of ancestral Native Hawaiian remains took place between 1915 - 1990, during which time the iwi of approximately 3,000 ancestral Native Hawaiians were systematically removed from the sand dunes of Mfkapu Peninsula, located on the island of O'ahu. The majority of the ancestral remains were archaeologically disinterred through a joint excavation coordinated and conducted by the University of Hawai'i Department of Anthropology and the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum between the years 1938 through 1940. During this period, approximately 800 ancestral Native Hawaiians were disinterred.

Following the completion of the 1938-40 excavation, the United States condemned the Mfkapu Peninsula to construction of a Marine Corps Base. During base construction, and throughout World War II, another estimated 250 ancestral Hawaiians were disturbed and removed from Mfkapu. When all was said and done, archaeologists, bulldozers, and maha'oi people removed about 3,000 ancestors from their final resting places at the sand dunes known as Mfkapu, Heleloa, and Ulupa'u. Due to the lack of notification by the Bishop Museum, University of Hawai'i, and U.S. Marines, most Native Hawaiians never knew about the burial disturbances at Mfkapu. As of this writing, ancestral Native Hawaiian remains are still being disinterred and removed from Mfkapu Peninsula. Sadly, the mass desecration does not stop at Mfkapu.

In 1988, the remains of approximately 1,100 ancestral Native Hawaiians were archaeologically removed to make way for construction of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the island of Maui. The place known as Honokahua became the focal point for Native Hawaiians with respect to the legacy of burial site disturbance. This time, Hawaiians were keenly aware of what was taking place. However, a lack of legal protection limited their ability to prevent the desecration.

Following vociferous protests, the excavations were halted, and a settlement was reached wherein the hotel was relocated, the ancestral remains were ceremonially reinterred by Hui Alanui O M...kena, and the reburial site set aside in perpetuity. An important lesson from Honokahua was that legislation was needed in order to protect and to promote the cultural responsibility of Native Hawaiians to determine the proper treatment of ancestral burial sites. A second lesson was that Native Hawaiians needed to relearn cultural protocols relating to the care of ancestral remains. A Native Hawaiian Organization called Hui M...lama I N... K...puna O Hawai'i Nei was born from the tragedy and enlightenment of Honokahua.


The primary goal of Hui M...lama is the care of ancestral Native Hawaiian remains through repatriation and reinterment and the protection of burial sites. Hui M...lama members have been trained in traditional protocols relating to the handling of ancestral remains and funerary objects. The Hui M...lama mission is to restore and maintain the ancestral foundation of Native Hawaiians by assisting families and communities to resume the responsibilities of care and protection of the ancestors, thus strengthening our sense of Hawaiian self-identity, and perpetuating our culture.

Hui M...lama members have been taught the importance of pule (prayer) through which we request the assistance of ke Akua (God) and n... k...puna (the ancestors) to provide us the tools necessary to conduct our work:

E ho mai ka 'ike Grant us knowledge

E ho mai ka ikaika Grant us strength

E ho mai ka akamai Grant us intelligence

E ho mai ka maopopo pono Grant us righteous understanding

E ho mai ka 'ike papalua Grant us visions, avenues of communication

E ho mai ka mana Grant us spiritual energy

As the living, we have a kuleana (responsibility) to care for our k...puna. In turn, the ancestors have a responsibility to care for and protect us on the spiritual side. Hence, there exists an inherent reliance and need for each other.


In addition to the need for cultural training relating to the care of ancestral remains, the events at Mfkapu and Honokahua pointed to the need for legal protection of ancestral Hawaiian remains and burial sites at the federal and state levels. Fortunately, between 1988 and 1990 discussions were taking place within the halls of the U.S. Congress to enact two pieces of legislation that would help address the need for proper treatment of ancestral skeletal remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony of Native Americans defined to include Native Hawaiians.

In 1989, Congress passed the National Museum of the American Indian Act in order to address two important needs. The first need was to construct a national museum in Washington, D.C. to house the Heye Collection, the largest collection of Native American Indian cultural items. This museum would be a member institution of the Smithsonian. The second purpose was to require the Smithsonian to inventory, identify, and in response to a request by the appropriate tribe or Native Hawaiian organization, repatriate ancestral skeletal remains and funerary objects. The law named Hui M...lama and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as Native Hawaiian Organizations authorized to repatriate.

On November 16, 1990, President Bush signed the measure into law, which became known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). In general, the law established two deadlines by which federal agencies and any institution that receives federal funding must identify all objects and human remains that meet the definitions of cultural items established in the law. NAGPRA authorizes federally recognized Indian tribes, Hui M...lama, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to exercise their responsibility to their ancestors, their belongings, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony by repatriating them to the possession and control of the culture's living descendants.


As a result of both cultural training and the authority of federal law, Hui M...lama has repatriated the remains of hundreds of ancestral Native Hawaiians.

Over the past nine years, Hui M...lama has completed repatriation projects involving the reburial of ancestral Hawaiian remains and funerary objects held in 26 institutions in Hawai'i, the continental United States, Switzerland, Canada, and Australia. In addition, Hui M...lama has assisted other Native Hawaiian Organizations to conduct repatriation. The number of n... iwi k...puna (ancestral remains) repatriated total approximately 5,607 individuals.

Some of the notable repatriation efforts include: (1) the American Museum and the Field Museum of Natural History in June 1991; (2) the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in August 1991; (3) Harvard and Yale Universities in March 1994; (4) Dartmouth College, Earlham College Moore Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in June 1995; (5) and dozens more museums since 1995. In November 1997, eight Hui M...lama members sailed 800 miles to repatriate and reinter nine ancestral Hawaiians to the remote islands of Nihoa and Necker. In 1999, Hui M...lama was one of 15 claimants that participated in the repatriation of approximately 3,000 ancestral Hawaiians from Mfkapu, O'ahu.

These accomplishments stand as a testimonial to the revitalization of traditional cultural values, traditions, and practices. Moreover, the repatriations prepared Hui M...lama for the tasks and challenges ahead including efforts to repatriate and reinter iwi k...puna now in institutions in London, England, Edinburgh, Scotland, St. Peterburg, Russia, and Dresden, Germany.


At the state level, Hui M...lama advocated for passage of a law that would prevent the type of desecration that took place at Honokahua. Following spirited negotiations with large landowners who opposed the idea of allowing for the preservation in place of unmarked Hawaiian burial sites, Act 306 was enacted into in May, 1990. This law restored Native Hawaiians to a position of decision-making authority over previously identified, unmarked Hawaiian burial sites over fifty years old. This was done by establishing five island burial councils for the island of Hawai'i, Maui/Lana'i, Molokai, O'ahu and Kaua'i/Ni'ihau. Moreover, the law requires the burial councils to have a member ratio of not less than two to one and not more than three to one in favor of Hawaiian representatives. Furthermore, when Hawaiian remains are inadvertently discovered, the burial councils have the right to make recommendations to the State Land Department relating to treatment. Finally, the law increased the penalty for violations by increasing the fines from $1,000 to $10,000 and making it a criminal misdemeanor to disturb a burial site.


As with many struggling Native societies, Hawaiians have persevered in their attempts to protect their families, resources, and rights. The return of ancestral skeletal remains back into the '...ina (land) strengthens the ancestral foundation, nourishing the living with mana needed to restore self-determination, and assure cultural perpetuation. Ola n... iwi, the bones live.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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