NAGPRA in Hawai'i -- The cases of Honokahua and Mokapu

(c) Copyright 2003, Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

In Hawai'i there have been many occasions when ancient Hawaiian bones or artifacts have been unearthed, either by the intentional acts of archeologists or the possibly unintentional acts of construction workers. This section of the webpage deals with two such occasions: Honokahua, and Mokapu. Both of these controversies came to a head in the late 1980s, before the NAGPRA law was enacted in 1990. Honokahua was completely resolved before NAGPRA was enacted. Mokapu, however, remains controversial all the way up to the present moment. Most of the Mokapu bones involve archeological work done before 1940, in which scientists intentionally dug up bones for study and delivered them to a local museum. Honokahua was entirely excavation for a short-term construction project, and some of the remains unearthed at Mokapu also were discovered incidental to construction work. Both Honokahua and Mokapu are areas clearly known beforehand to contain ancient Hawaiian burials -- indeed, "Mokapu" is a contraction of "Moku Kapu" which clearly means "Sacred Island" and identifies a small peninsula widely known to have been a sacred burial ground. The study of bones and artifacts is an important part of archeology, without which today’s people would not know important facts about their ancestors. For example, bones from Mokapu showed that ancient Hawaiians were skilled at properly setting broken bones, and that high chiefs continued to live and rule effectively for many years after important bones had been broken. See, for example:



A major incident occurred at Honokahua, in Kapalua, Maui, where a corporation was excavating near the shoreline to build a large hotel. About 900 sets of skeletal remains were excavated from the sand dunes during the initial stages of construction. The project was redesigned to set the hotel back farther from the shoreline, and the bones were reburied more or less where they had been found. There is now a landscaped burial ground on the ocean side of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, set off from the rest of the hotel property by bushes and informational signs asking tourists to show respect. The Honokahua controversy appears to have been brought to a final conclusion reasonably satisfactory to both the developers and the ethnic Hawaiian activists. The entire matter arose and was settled during a period of about three years, 1986-1989, before NAGPRA was enacted.

A brief story of what happened, and pictures, can be seen at:

The Maui News, a local daily newspaper, published a retrospective briefly describing the history of the controversy, at

Here is that article:

On the Shoulders of Their Ancestors

The Maui News

HONOKAHUA BAY-- The Hawaiian burial grounds at Honokahua Bay, a scene of controversy and angry protests 14 years ago, stood solemn and spiritual on Saturday morning for a formal Hawaiian ceremony.

Aloha Festivals Maui 2002 held its investiture of Maui's new Royal Court at the Honokahua Preservation Site, which is the resting place for more than 2,000 Hawaiians.

The site is a 13.6-acre sand dune overlooking Honokahua Bay that was grassed and preserved in an agreement that allowed construction of the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua.

"We envision Aloha Festivals Maui as a cultural event that goes beyond the fanfare and pageantry," said Clifford Nae'ole, cultural adviser/public relations manager with the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua. "Thus the symbolism and message exhibited here is to allow the royal kahili to fly over this land again." He said the Aloha Festivals alii were literally walking upon the shoulders of their ancestors.

Kupuna Leslie Kuloloio called the site "one of the most sacred sites in Hawaii." "Beautiful place," he said, of the rolling slope that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. "It's important the court feel proud of who they represent, the alii."

The state historic site, neat with its upkept lawn, it didn't look that way in the past. "At one point Honokahua looked like out of the pages of National Geographic," said Dana Naone Hall. Hall was among the Hawaiian leaders who saw their ancestors' remains being dug up from the rolling sand dunes on the south side of the bay.

It began with a request from the Kapalua Land Co. for a special management area permit for a hotel on the dune overlooking Honokahua Bay and its sandy beach.

The Maui Planning Commission approved the SMA permit in late 1986, but Hui Alanui O Makena appealed the approval because of the archaeological sites that were known to be on the site. The commission refused to reconsider the permit approval but did require Kapalua to work out an agreement with Hui Alanui and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs on handling the archaeological sites and the ancient Hawaiian burials that were known to be in the sand.

"It was very difficult for us; nothing in the state and county law protected prehistoric burials," Hall said.

An agreement was worked out to provide for respectful excavation of the burial site in May 1987. At the time, no one knew about the number of burials to be found.

Hall said the hui couldn't do much in the courts but decided to keep involved. "Reason for that, it became clear to us we could not abandon the kupuna in the burial place. We knew our kupuna were there, we knew it was our responsibility out of our love for them, we had to be there to bear witness when they were uncovered," Hall said. She said they couldn't prevent their kupuna from being excavated, but by being there they could "minimize" the handling and examination of the remains.

The excavation of the dune, which was overseen by archaeologists and members of Hui Alanui O Makena, stretched over more than a year as hundreds of burials were discovered. By November 1988, archaeologists had removed 800 human remains with no clear indication of how many more remained. "There was no end in sight," Hall said. "The number began mounting, 600, 700 . . " When the extent of the burials was made public, Native Hawaiians from around the state staged protests against the desecration of a massive burial grounds. Gov. John Waihee in December 1988 called for a halt to the disinterment process.

A new agreement was worked out in 1989 involving the state government, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hui Alanui O Makena and the Maui Land & Pineapple Co. that resulted in moving the hotel site 500 yards mauka, with the burial grounds to be restored and preserved. The state paid $5.5 million for a preservation easement to keep the parcel open. The state also provided $500,000 for restoring the excavated site.

Kamika "Mika" Kepaa, attending Saturday's ceremony, said the controversy over the site made Hawaiians "stand as one." "Malama our past, our past is our future," Kepaa said. Kepaa is a member of "Nakoa Kau I Ka Meheu O Na Kupuna" of Lahaina, or "Warriors who walk the footsteps of our ancestors," an organization assisting with the ceremonies. He said it was appropriate for Aloha Festivals to hold the investiture of the Maui Court at the site. "It's good because we practice this today to keep it alive, to keep our structure alive, to make ourselves known we are still here," Kepaa said. "Now this area can present a new life, rebirth," said Nae'ole. "It's significant for me. Aloha Festivals for so long have been pageantry. "Now this court has called and said they wanted to go beyond that. They want to understand who the alii were. By going there, they can understand who they will portray for the next year," he said.

During the excavation of the burials, archaeologists determined that the remains could be dated back to A.D. 850. The discovery of ornaments and other artifacts with the burials showed that the site was more significant than originally thought. Materials found with the burials indicated that high-ranking Hawaiians were among the ancestors buried in the sand.

Nae'ole said the site also includes a preserved portion of the 16th century Alaloa or King's Trail, which was a footpath that once encircled Maui.

The preservation site now is reserved exclusively for Native Hawaiian ceremonial and religious practices. Public entry is prohibited.

Rosalind Leina'ala Chin, a past Maui Aloha Festivals queen, attended Saturday's ceremony to offer her ho'okupu to the court. "I felt I needed to be there to put a closure, pass on my aloha, my love for the next mo'i (kane) and mo'i wahine (king and queen), so they could carry out their responsibilities," she said. Chin and her daughter, Christen Hokulani, 7, both chanted as they walked toward the court to present their gift. "I felt the presence of the ancestors that passed before us," Chin said, adding that she felt the presence of her mother, who passed away recently.

The site can now be seen as a healing place and a place of hope.

Despite the pain of having had so many burials uncovered, the Honokahua excavation led to a new respect for Native Hawaiian burial places, Hall said. In response to the Honokahua excavation, the Legislature strengthened the state historic preservation laws to include island Burial Councils that review all findings of human remains. "As tragic as it began, there were a number of revolutionary things that occurred as a result," Hall said.


The Honokahua controversy was, of course, used as a cause celebre by Hawaiian sovereignty activists. Here is a song (Hawaiian, followed by English) credited to the activist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell, Sr.; following the song is Mr. Maxwell's commentary on what happened.

Honokahua Nani E - Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell, Sr.
Music by Kenneth Makuakane
Hawaiian lyrics by Malia Craver

Ahe `âina nani o Honokahua
Ka hono kaulana a o Pi`ilani
Me nâ pu`u one ku i kâ mâlie
Hali`i mau ana nâ ` iwi kupuna

Ua `ike makou i nâ waiwai nui
O na mo`olelo a ke au kahiko
Mai ho`oni`oni i ka nohona lâ
I ka lahui e a o Amelika

Hui pu mei kakou no nâ kupuna
E malama pono i ke one hânau
E hui hou kakou a hali`alia
I ke one kaulana o Honokahua

E malama e ka`ehu kai
Me ka ahe makani kupa o ka `âina
Hui pu mei kakou no nâ kupuna
E malama pono i ke one hânau

Ha`ina `ia mai ana ka puana
E Honokahua `âina nani maoli
Na Hono kaulana a o Pi`ilani
`Ia wahi kapu nâ kupuna e
`Ia wahi kapu nâ kupuna e
`Ia wahi kapu nâ kupuna e

This beautiful land of Honokahua
The famous bay of Maui`s King Pi`ilani
With its peaceful sand hills
That covers the bones of our Kupuna

We have always known
This place contains the history of our people
It shall not be disturbed
By the people of America

People of Maui, unite for our kupuna
Protect our history, the place of my birth
May all unite in recalling
Famous sand of Honokahua

Drenched with sea spray
That fetches the wind of the land
People of Maui, unite for our Kupuna
protect our history, the place of my birth

Tell the story, give praise to
The beautiful land of Honokahua
With its famous bay of Pi`ilani
It shall not be distrubed,
this place where our ancestors sleep
It shall not be distrubed,
this place where our ancestors sleep
It shall not be distrubed,
this place where our ancestors sleep

Source: Pandanus Club CD "Ho`ike" Copyright Pandanus Club, Written January 4, 1987, verse 3, stanza 2 & verse 4, stanza 4 refer to the composer's birthplace of Napili, 1 mile from the Honokahua Burial Grounds. Hawaiians are lovingly connected to their keiki or future generations and also to their kupuna through their ancestors' iwi (bones, remains, life). This forms the Hawaiian circle of life. Honokahua was being developed when ancient bones and gravesites were uncovered. The people of Maui united to stop the digging at the site. Reports of the find were constantly denied by the developer and the Maui Planning Commission, who gave the developers permission to remove the iwi, with every assurance that the sacred iwi would not be disturbed. A photograph of the construction site was released to the media showing the iwi curled up in a grave. Hawaiians throughout the state gathered at Honokahua and the State Capitol in protest. John Waihee, then governor of Hawai`i, after several days of negotiating with the composer and others, immmediately stopped the digging. Eight hundred bodies were removed. A ceremony was held at the lab where the sacred iwi was housed with Papa Kawika Kaalakea officiating. Before the pule, Papa Kaalakea announced, "who knows their song, this people have been dead over 15 hundred years? Who knows their song? Pua Kanahele chanted, Papa Kaalakea prayed and 7 were selected, including the composer, to re-wrap the remains of more than 1200 articulated iwi. There were over a thousand still in the ground, untouched. That night , as Charles Maxwell watched the news about Honokahua, he increduously called out to his wife and proclaimed, "I have their song , I wrote their song a year ago"! He went to his computer, called Ken Makuakane and faxed him the song. Makuakane asked Malia Craver to put the Olelo Noeau to the translation. Charles Maxwell and his wife, Auntie Nina, journeyed to Kona to attend the Keiki Hula festival. There, Kihei De Silva presented the Hawaiian lyrics to the composer. Overwhelmed with emotion, tears were shed; the song was perfect. Two weeks later, Ken Makuakane called Charles Maxwell at 1:00 A.M. and played the song while Roddy Lopez of Pandanus Club sang it to the answering machine. The Ritz Carleton was moved away from the burial site and there was a celebration. Many witnesses will verify the lightning and thunder when the Pandanus Club performed this song at the dedication of the Ritz Carleton Hotel. Federal and State laws have since been enacted to protect Hawaiian burial sites and the iwi of nâ kupuna


*** MOKAPU ***

Probably the largest number of skeletons unearthed in a single location were found in the shoreline sand dunes of the Mokapu peninsula on the island of O'ahu. From 1915 to 1992, about 1600 skeletons were removed and sent to Bishop Museum. Almost all the unearthings occurred before NAGPRA was enacted, with the largest number happening before the U.S. military became involved. From 1938-1940, archeologists Bowles and Emory, working for the University of Hawai'i and Bishop Museum, removed 965 sets of remains and delivered them to Bishop Museum for study and "safekeeping." By the time NAGPRA was enacted the U.S. military was in charge of the Mokapu land area, and only a few additional remains were unearthed. NAGPRA does not seem to have helped, and may be causing some difficulties. There have been many unsuccessful attempts at a resolution of the issue and the bones apparently have still not been reburied even though Bishop Museum is eager to give them away.

One of the claimants for the bones from Mokapu is the ethnic Hawaiian activist organization Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai`i Nei, which has been an active participant in nearly all major controversies regarding the application of NAGPRA in Hawai'i. Hui Malama has an excellent webpage devoted to the Mokapu controversy, describing the history of Mokapu and jurisdictional issues regarding who owns the land and who might be rightful claimants to the bones. There is also a chart showing who collected how many sets of remains in which years. The webpage points out that some of the claimants for the bones have demanded that the bones be subjected to DNA analysis in order to determine who are the lineal descendants that have a right to claim them. But Hui Malama argues that such DNA analysis would be a violation of cultural protocol and a desecration of those bones. Hui Malama claims that it is the premiere ethnic Hawaiian cultural group dealing with bones and artifacts under NAGPRA, and therefore should be presumed to have a general right to claim any and all ethnic Hawaiian bones and artifacts without needing to prove lineal descent. This dispute among claimants for the Mokapu bones mirrors the dispute in the Kennewick Man case. Local Indian tribes in Washington state claimed ownership of 9000-year-old bones on the general grounds that bones of such an age must clearly be racially Indian and should be given to the tribes with long histories in that area, while scientists demanded DNA analysis which they were confident would show that the bones were of European origin. In the Kennewick case, a federal court ruled that the public interest requires that DNA analysis must be performed to determine how NAGPRA should be applied and who is the rightful claimant, even though it might be seen by the Indian groups as a desecration. In the Mokapu case there is no claim that the bones might be European. But the basic issue regarding DNA testing is the same: should DNA testing be done to prove lineal descentand thereby establish who is the rightful claimant, or should DNA testing be prohibited because (some of the claimants say) it would be a desecration of the bones? Whether the court's decision in Kennewick would apply to Mokapu is unclear. The Hui Malama webpage on the history and jurisdiction of the Mokapu bones can be found at:

Here are two newspaper articles about the Mokapu bones. The first article, written in 1998, indicates that the bones are very soon going to be given to ethnic Hawaiian organizations for reburial. The second article, written almost five years later, in 2003, indicates that there are still disputes to be settled before the bones can be given to anyone or reburied.

------------------- Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Thursday, April 23, 1998

Ancestral bones to be buried at last

Native Hawaiians believe the return of the remains will help restore both the dead and the living
By Susan Kreifels

To native Hawaiians, the journey of more than 1,500 sets of ancestral remains from museum storage rooms back to burial sites will help restore the living as well as the dead.

"Your ancestors are your foundation," said Edward Ayau, a member of the native Hawaiian group Hui Malama. "The decomposition restores mana (energy) back to the land." When remains are removed, "it's a separation of the ancestors from the living. The belief is that this is the reason why there is so much social decay."

Hui Malama is part of Ka Ohana O Na Iwi O Mokapu, an umbrella organization of native Hawaiian groups that was one of seven claimants the Marines announced yesterday would receive the ancient remains.

The remains were found at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base over the last 80 years. The action complies with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The remains, held at Bishop Museum, were uncovered on the Mokapu Peninsula, many from the Heleloa burial area on north-facing beaches.

Hawaiians were notified through the Federal Register and advertisements they could apply as claimants. None of the applicants was turned down, said Kaneohe spokesman Capt. John Milliman.

The law lists two criteria for claimants. One is proof of lineal descent requiring identification of remains, but none were identified. The other is establishment of a cultural affiliation by showing a group serves and represents the interests of native Hawaiians.

Brig. Gen. David Bice, Kaneohe's commander, approved the claimants after the military consulted with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Burial Sites Program in the State Historic Preservation Division.

Kai Markell, director of the Burial Sites Program, said native Hawaiian families in the area where remains are found may come forward to claim them, or else other Hawaiians may take responsibility. Markell said attempts are made to rebury remains close to the areas where they were found.

The Marines have left the fate of the remains up to the claimants, Ayau said, but will help carry out their decision. "I would suspect and hope that in working with the base commander, sites will be designated on base to return them to where they originated from," he said.

Markell said about 953 more sets of remains found around Oahu remain at Bishop Museum awaiting repatriation.

Ayau said native Hawaiians have been working to reclaim the Mokapu remains since 1988. He said the 1990 law represented a new way of thinking. "Before, museums around the country collected human remains," Ayau said. "When ancient remains of American Indians were found, they were carted off to the Smithsonian (Institution) for study while early settlers were promptly reburied. No society should be singled out for this kind of treatment. By passing this law, Congress recognized the need to allow ancestors to be returned to people."

Haunani-Kay Trask, director of the Center of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii, said the repatriation of remains is recognition by the federal government that it must respect native Hawaiian culture. "Part of sovereignty is controlling our destiny, including our ancestors," Trask said.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, a sponsor of the 1990 law, said he is pleased the remains are going to find a final resting place, and that the act "is clearly working as it was intended to."

----------------------- Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Museum wants ancient bones removed
By Debra Barayuga

Claimants of iwi, or remains of native Hawaiians, that were excavated at Mokapu on the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base during the 20th century are unhappy over the Bishop Museum's recent efforts to return the bones to them when reinterment plans are not yet final.

"I'm just very disappointed the Bishop Museum has chosen to do this and didn't allow us to work this out," said Linda Kawai'ono Delaney, of the Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club, one of 22 groups that have laid claim to the iwi based on cultural or family relations.

Bishop Museum filed a complaint in Circuit Court yesterday asking the court to authorize a party to receive the iwi, referred to as the "Mokapu collection," and that the museum be absolved from any liability related to the disposition of the collection. The complaint said Bishop Museum cannot determine to which of the groups the collection belongs.

Ruth Ann Becker, Bishop Museum spokeswoman, said the remains were never in the possession of the museum, but belong to the 20-plus groups that claimed an interest in them under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The claimants had asked Bishop Museum -- and they entered into a loan agreement in August 1999 -- to store the bones until they decide on their final resting place. The agreement drawn by the claimants was for no longer than three years and expired January 2001, but was extended by the claimants. Despite repeated requests, the claimants have not removed the collection from Bishop Museum. "We need for there to be a final decision on where they will go and move them out of here," Becker said. The complaint is a "procedural thing to get it moving along so we can free up the space," and not a contentious move on Bishop Museum's part, she said.

But claimants say they have no place to put the bones at this time and are working with Marine Corps Base Hawaii officials to decide where and how they will be reinterred. Also, before the iwi are reinterred, cultural rituals need to take place. Delaney said Bishop Museum began notifying them in May and August last year to take possession of the collection from Bishop Hall so that the building can be renovated. "We're aware that they've been patient with us, but for almost 150 years, they've held those ancestors and always had space when they wanted to study them," she said, adding that this has been a very difficult repatriation. Delaney said they recently sent letters to Marine Corps officials that they have agreed on a reinterment site and should be renewing meetings with them soon. They have asked the Marine Corps for permission to move the bones to the base. "Just be patient," Delaney told Bishop Museum. "This is something that has to be done. They have to be given a dignified reinterment."


GO BACK TO: NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) as applied to Hawai'i -- Mokapu, Honokahua, Bishop Museum Ka'ai; Providence Museum Spear Rest; Forbes Cave Artifacts; the Hui Malama organization