Hawaiian Bones -- History, Respect, and Rights (published August 4, 2007 in the Kona newspaper)

Following is a 1300 word commentary by Ken Conklin as published in the Kona newspaper "West Hawaii Today." The article was published in the print edition on Saturday August 4, 2007. It was then included in the newspaper's on-line edition on Monday August 6, at


This article is a compressed summary of a very lengthy and much more detailed analysis with source citations, news reports, and commentaries. That full-length version is available at:



Hawaiian bones: History, respect and rights

By Ken Conklin

Thanks to Jim Quirk, whose news report on July 27 pointed out “To date, $6.3 million has been spent on Kona’s Alii Parkway project, yet the road is no more than an idea on paper.”

A new webpage at http://tinyurl.com/253nj6 examines fundamental principles and reaches useful conclusions about the conflict between ancient burials and modern construction. Here’s a summary:

Living people have rights, but dead people have only whatever rites are voluntarily given to them by the living. Burials of individuals whose names are remembered and whose accomplishments are known by living people through personal acquaintance or stories handed down, are entitled to far greater deference than unknown burials of people whose names and lives have long been forgotten.

Throughout the world individual graves and entire cemeteries have been paved over or moved when necessary for construction of roads and buildings. Kona might consider how this matter is handled in Rome and Athens, where ancient burials are older than any in Hawaii. Even modern burials are subject to relocation through government’s power of eminent domain. A British government commission this year reported on the worsening shortage of burial plots — it recommended exhuming burials more than 100 years old (even burials of remembered individuals), re-digging graves much deeper, and stacking old and new coffins seven high.

People should respect each others’ wishes, needs, and cultural perspectives; including the wish to leave burials in place and also the wish to develop land for commercial or public use. Both kinds of wishes are worthy of a level of respect measured by the intimacy of connection between the wisher, and the deceased or the construction project. Disputes over bones should be settled in the same way as any other moral, political, or economic conflict, respecting the equal status of races and cultures.

Respect for the dead without greater respect for the living is actually disrespectful to both. The mere fact that someone died does not make his bones more filled with spiritual power or more deserving of respect than the person himself was at the time he was living. The present and future must not be held hostage by the past. A dead hand must not be allowed to reach out to strangle living people and their community.

Living people have the right to decide what to do with ancient burials and artifacts. The entire population has the right to participate in decision-making. The fact that someone has Irish as a portion of his ancestry does not give him the right to speak on behalf of all Irishmen nor the right to exercise disproportionate decision-making authority over an old Irish burial in a multiracial community.

In both ancient and modern Hawaii different social classes had very different burial customs — there is simply no way to say that any particular procedure was or is standard or universal for any particular racial or cultural group at any particular point in history.

Sometimes dead chiefs were baked in an imu to make the flesh fall off, and the long bones were wrapped in a small coconut-fiber casket and buried secretly in a remote cave to prevent enemies from desecrating the bones or using them to cast spells. Some dead warriors were buried in mass graves in sand dunes. Some commoners were buried under their house or in their back yard. A fisherman’s bones might be carved by his son into fishhooks so he could continue feeding his family. The family or village of a defeated enemy might be humiliated by using the enemy’s bones to decorate a bowl used for the victor’s excrement.

In 1866 Mark Twain wrote about a horseback ride through Diamond Head crater where he came across thousands of bones that were bleached by the sun from lying in the open for many decades, scattered so thickly he could not avoid crunching them under the horses’ hooves. The sovereign Kings and the local people clearly did not consider it worth the effort to bury them.

Between 1820 and 1918 the 500-year-old bones of high chiefs Liloa and Lonoikamakahiki were moved — by Native Hawaiians — from Waipio Valley, to a burial mound at Iolani Palace, to Mauna Ala (Royal Mausoleum), to Bishop Museum. The 1918 move to Bishop Museum was done personally by Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, heir to the throne and Territorial Delegate to Congress. Then in 1994 some thieves of presumably low genealogy and no political standing unilaterally and arrogantly undid Kuhio’s work by stealing those bones out of Bishop Museum and supposedly returning them to Waipio.

As shown by the story of Mark Twain, Hawaiians in 1866 did not necessarily regard bones as sacred or in need of being buried. As shown by the example of Liloa and Lonoikamakahiki, Hawaiians have not hesitated to move Hawaiian bones when there were good reasons.

Let’s remember that the old Hawaiian religion was abolished by order of Liholiho Kamehameha II, his stepmother Ka‘ahumanu, and High Priest Hewahewa. That happened in 1819, the year before American missionaries arrived. So it seems improper and disrespectful for today’s makaainana [commoners] to try to reinstate what their sovereign ancestral alii [chiefs] voluntarily abolished in pursuance of self-determination.

Government’s right of eminent domain to seize private property for public use should apply to ancient Hawaiian bones in the same way it applies to ancient Roman or modern Euro-American and Asian cemeteries, which have sometimes been moved or paved over to build highways or government offices, or for economic redevelopment.

The members of the several island burial councils are primarily Hawaiian sovereignty activists and anti-development zealots. They are using ancient burials as pawns in larger political struggles. It is a matter for the entire population to decide how to use the land, and when to exercise eminent domain.

Readers who think the Alii Parkway project is a fiasco “ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.” Just wait until the Akaka bill passes and Hawaii gets chopped up into thousands of interspersed parcels of competing jurisdictions with different laws: Akaka tribe vs. Hawaii County vs. State of Hawaii vs. U.S. government. What’s going on with the burial council is a small-scale version of how a far more powerful Akaka tribal council can be expected to behave. Please read a 302-page book “Hawaiian Apartheid: Racial Separatism and Ethnic Nationalism in the Aloha State.” Chapter 1 and the detailed table of contents are free on the internet at
http://tinyurl.com/2a9fqa .

Burial councils should be zealous about compiling lists of burials, and making sure that government and private developers have access to those lists so that known and remembered burials will not be disturbed accidentally. A burial council should not be empowered to stop a project simply because there are burials in the way. Rather, the council should be sure decision makers who have all the information to make a wise decision. If the decision is to leave a burial in place, then the burial council must understand that a burial might be paved over or mangled, and should give advice on how to avoid or mitigate that. If the decision is to move the burial, then the council’s job is to ensure that is done in a way that respects modern sensitivities and also respects the burial process originally used.

Managers who fail to exercise due diligence in designing and carrying out construction projects should understand that they bear the burden if multimillion dollar redesign or cancellation result from their negligence. Burial councils who fail to maintain comprehensive lists of burials or who fail to consult fully with project managers should understand that they bear the burden for disturbing, relocating, paving over or mangling burials which they should have warned about.

There will always be conflicts between those who wish to preserve ancient burials in place and those who wish to use the land for essential public purposes or private redevelopment. Mutual respect and cooperation are needed.

Ken Conklin is a retired professor of Philosophy. He has lived in Kaneohe for 15 years, speaks Hawaiian with moderate fluency, and was a candidate for OHA trustee in 2000.

Copyright © 2007 West Hawaii Today


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