Thursday, July 24, 2008


How come desecrating someone else’s graves is ok in Hawaii?

by Larry Geller

Would you agree to a new shopping center going up in Punchbowl Crater (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific)?

I know that I would be very upset if someone were about to build a house over the graves of my parents, in Queens New York. Let them build someplace else.

Most people understand this, I think. If you want to build something, it's not ok to choose a graveyard as your site. That's called "desecration" and is even prohibited under state law.

But this seems to be what's happening on Kauai.

Check over at KauaeEclectic for the current situation. A site with at least 30 sets of remains is about to be covered over with a house, unless the community is successful in stopping it. 30 sets means that the location was more than just a backyard family plot. Some people have expressed outrage, disappointment, grief, and more over this, so it’s not like nobody cares.

Andy Parx described in detail  an Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA)  request that the attorney general’s office send a cease and desist order to halt all construction there. (Andy’s blog, Got Windmills? is an excellent source of Kauai news, but he’s not exactly trapped on his island, his news takes us anywhere he thinks we should go.)

In an earlier article, Parx described what a builder has to do to get a desecration permit:

Phone Call Hello, Office of Desecration Authorization and Permitting.

Yes I’d like to perform some desecration. Have I reached the right person?

You sure have. What can I help you defile today?

Well it seems like I have these old bones on my property and those jerks put them right where I want to put my obscenely obtrusive illegal vacation rental....

Are they Hawaiian bones?

Yes – they aren’t even white people!

Well nonetheless you have to have a permit to commit sacrilege in this state even against those godless Hawaiians.

As you will read, the desecration goes on. Even the local chief of police doesn’t agree this is ok. It looks like it will take legal action, which thankfully is just beginning.

Update: Check out Joan Conrow's article:

Details of Naue Burials Lawsuit, 7/29/2008


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Unfortunately, one of the responses to the argument of equivalency (ie: building over Gettysburg, for example) goes something like this:

Well, if it were just some old forgotten graveyard that nobody had even cared enough about to remember, then I wouldn't care!

This, of course, completely ignores the historical and very present reasons why a burial site might be left untended in Hawai'i, and why the direct link to the descendents of those resting there might be difficult to determine.

Another reaction is the old "It's just a bunch of bones! Who cares! It's the living we should be concerned about, and the living need houses, and there's bones everywhere anyhow!" argument. This argument seems to based on the idea that social norms and values that vary from modern, Western judeo-christian ones are less relevant, irrational and not worth taking seriously in any way.

Honestly, given my cultural upbringing, I have to say that no, I can't relate to a reverence for the remains of ancestors - but that really doesn't matter because I DO revere the fact that others look at it differently and especially in a place like Hawai'i, the views and cultural norms of the indigenous people should be respected.

I believe we need to understand this contestation of burial sites as a very basic conflict between Western notions of "property rights," and the social norms and cultural survival of Kanaka Maoli. The laws of the US favor property rights at the expense of the survival of indigenous people.

Many of us say this is wrong, and we're fighting it.

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