Wednesday, May 19, 2010


The problem of “archeological” investigation of burial sites

by Larry Geller

Even when I was in college, plenty long ago, the ethics of doing “archeology” on living populations was a bone of contention. It became no longer ok to study people in Africa as though they were some kind of dead dinosaurs.

The stirrings had begun, along with a call to have archeological plunder returned to the countries where the objects were taken.

For the first time there were voices objecting to those library books, very prized by adolescent high school boys, which contained pictures of black African women shown bare-chested in their native “environment.” While Playboy was contraband, it was somehow ok to check out those books and bring them home.

The ethical and moral issues are still very much alive today, and right here in Hawaii.

“Archaeological investigation” has become a euphemism for a construction practice carried out with a backhoe or other heavy machinery. The desecration of Hawaiian burials is very much along the lines of those African expeditions that degraded the humanity of those being “studied.”

We know that a backhoe could never be used to excavate graves in the National Cemetary of the Pacific. It would be unthinkable. Desecration, however, is commonly part of construction plans approved by various levels of government here. As reports of the Naue incident on Kauai demonstrate, it may not even be necessary to have a permit to disturb graves.

On Oahu, we’ve been exposed to the controversy most recently over the proposed heavy rail construction. An article today in the Honolulu Advertiser, EIS, cost concerns could derail construction plans (5/19/2010) mentions the high probability of encountering graves in the sandy soil along the proposed train route in Kakaako.

Some may remember the battle over burials discovered under the present Honolulu Walmart location. Everyone driving into their parking lot is passing over graves relocated under the driveway, just to refresh your recollection.

A current incident involves construction at Schofield Barracks (see: Star-Bulletin,  Schofield excavation unearths skeleton, 5/19/2010).

On Saturday, James Pokines, a forensic anthropologist with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base, confirmed that the remains are human. Investigators are still trying to determine the gender.

Still trying to determine the gender?? This is like a flashback to those college ethics discussions. This is not an opportunity for anthropologists to conduct a study, it is time to protect a Hawaiian burial. The gender of the bones is nobody’s business. Hawaiian bones are not there for military scientists to dissect.

On Kauai, there are long-running conflicts over desecration and against developers who desecrate. Also today, see Joan Conrow’s article Musings: Color Blind (5/19/2010). Probably few on Oahu are aware that there is a major issue around a project called “The Path,” and that burial desecration is one of the key issues. It’s unfair to snip out of context, please read the entire article, but here’s part that relates to our Oahu issues:

Meanwhile, Waldeen Palmeira and Kaiulani Edens Huff were down at Wailua Beach yesterday morning to halt archaeological work that could disturb burials as part of the process for building the Path along the beach there.

Plans were to use an excavator to do a subsurface archaeological inventory survey, and as you may recall from a report by the Oahu Island Burial Council referenced in yesterday’s post:

Hence, archaeological inventory surveys that encounter iwi kupuna through careful hand excavation are highly troubling for Native Hawaiians. More distressful is the thought of archaeological investigation via backhoe excavation. And worse still is the notion of inadvertent intrusion into burials and destruction of iwi kupuna by high-powered, modern construction tools. Such acts cause extreme pain for us.

For more on burial issues, see the many posts and links that have appeared on Joan’s website. Google will find those and others for you.


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