Saturday, April 30, 2011

When Laws and State Historic Preservation Divisions Fail to Serve and Protect

As you read, I invite you to listen to Izrael Kamakawiwo'ole's moving song, "Hawai'i 78"

Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) Scholars Against Desecration: The Case of Naue

As the final speaker in the Ontologies of Exhumation lecture series, Native Hawaiian activist and scholar Dr. J. Kehualani Kauani, associate professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University, came to Columbia on April 21, 2011 for a session on Native Hawaiian indigenous politics surrounding the adverse effects of Hawaiian burial ground desecration in the form of architectural construction.

We examined the case of Naue, a beachfront along the northern shore of Kaua'i where real estate developer Joseph Brescia disturbed the grave of at least 30 known iwi kupuna (Hawaiian ancestral remains) - churned the ground with backhoes, crushing and mixing ancestral bones with sand and concrete - to build the foundation of a multimillion dollar home. The controversy lies within the suspicious nature in which Joseph Brescia obtained a permit to move forward with construction from the State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD) without the required consultation with the Kaua'i-Ni'ihau Island Burial Council.

Despite years of protests which began in 2007, Native Hawaiian protesters and activists were denied of their requests for a halt or temporary injunction to stop construction until a Burial Treatment Plan was approved (which wasn't until the 16th draft in March of 2010). Part of the issue was a lack of genealogical experts within the SHPD to trace familial lineages which were required by NAGRPA law in order to halt construction.

Our discussion with Dr. Kauanui brought to light several different kinds of issues which tie together many of the themes we covered throughout the semester - legal narratives, exhumation and ethics, agency of the dead, emotion, humanitarian narratives, counting the dead and representing the dead.

The case of Naue is a prime example of laws and "humanitarian" preservation organizations that fail to serve, protect and preserve the rights of indigenous groups on account of political corruption and legal ambiguity. NAGPRA, as originally drafted, pertained to "legally recognized" (a controversial issue in and of itself) Native Americans in mainland U.S.A., and tangentially, but inadequately, attempts to serve the needs of Native Hawaiians. As Dr. Kauanui discussed, there is an important difference between common descent and island identity. If mortuary practices are culturally bound, why do these laws operate as a function of biology/DNA/genetics? And what is to be done with corrupt archaeologists like Mike Dega, who Brescia hired and wrote the initial Burial Treatment Plan; or with SHPD officials like, Nancy McMahon, who approved Dega's BTP without consulting the Burial Council? Who's interests do they really serve? Who will the Kanaka Maoli and Iwi Kupuna turn to if the very organizations and stewards of cultural heritage do the exact opposite of what they were established to do?

The desecration of the Naue graves also invites us to think about the agency of the dead and how it is constantly undermined by secular hegemony that dictates who counts as human and whether or not the dead have rights. For Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and general Kanaka (no direct lineage), human bones are very much alive and are believed to protect living descendants who in turn have a kuleana (responsibility) to respect and care for their ancestors and ancestral places of rest. Dr. Kauanui expressed the complexity of issues surrounding grave desecration which include arrests, negligence, a lack of interest from younger generations, and even an incident of suicide triggered by legal bouts. Carrying out their kuleana (responsibility to care for the dead) is also particularly difficult when jobs are on the line and when law enforcement use intimidation tactics against emotionally distraught locals.

Dr. Kauanui also recognizes the fact that these issues resonate not only with Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) but to the wider community, to the individual that simultaneously deals with being Hawaiian, a Christian, an archaeologist, and perhaps a construction worker or a law enforcer. As these issues are not black and white, we should all be prompted to think and act accordingly.

To hear more about indigenous politics, tune into Dr. Kauanui's public affairs radio program, "Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond" which airs on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Tuesday of each month from 4-5pm EST on WESU, Middletown, CT. Past episodes are also archived at Of particular interest might be "Desecration at Kawai'hao Church" from March 11, 2011.

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