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graphic: na iwi kupuna
~ The Bones of Our Ancestors ~
Across the expanse of time, societies and cultures around the world have honored their dead in their own way. It is in this treatment of our departed ones that we find common threads throughout humanity; reverence and respect and well as expressions of sorrow and a deep sense of loss. These common feelings hold true for the Hawaiian people as well.

For the ancient Hawaiians, death was a part of everyday life. It played a role in the living culture, which continues to this day, for the iwi of na kupuna are with us everywhere.


The iwi is the bones of our deceased loved ones, and they are meaningful to each one of us. They're not here to defend themselves, we are. We are here to malama (care for) them, respect, honor, take care of them; not because they're deceased and not here we're just going to let it go. We are responsible to malama them.

~Auntie Malia Craver~

image; Auntie Malia Craver

image; cy bridges

You know in the old days when they say, "Who will look after the bones," they didn't necessarily mean just any old bones, who's gonna look after grandma, or grandpa, our grandparents, not only while they're living but after they're gone.

~Cy Bridges~


graphic: stone line


Native Hawaiians believe that the mana or spiritual essence and power of a person resided in their bones, their iwi. For native Hawaiians, it was important for the bones of a deceased person to complete their journey and return to the ground to impart their mana. From island to island, community to community and family to family, there were many different ways to prepare bodies for burial. Each method was appropriate for the individual and his or her status.

drawing: Ahuena Heiau

Sometimes bodies were bundled whole with knees brought up and bound to the chest and lowered into the ground. Other practices included removing all the pela, or flesh and organs from the body. The pela was usually deposited at sea while the bones remained in the care of the family. Sometimes just the po'o, the skull, and the long bones were deposited in a cave or crevice.

Family members or trusted companions of the deceased would often wait until the dark of night to transport and conceal the body in the designated final resting place. This was to prevent enemies from locating the individual in an attempt to acquire their iwi and the mana contained therein.


graphic: stone line


For many, it was a common practice to bury family members under and around ones house to maintain a physical closeness to the deceased as well as a watchful eye.


Our family lived n Pa'ala'au for many generations. I was born and raised there besides my 3 brothers and 2 sisters... and my dad was born and raised there… and his mother was born and raised here. So we had family living all in the area, all our neighbors were family. And, when it came to burials, we were not afraid of knowing that we had burials under our homes or nearby in the yard. Because it was always told to us that these are family and that they would be there to protect us and help us.

~Lurlene Naone Salvador~


image: Lurlene Naone Salvador
You appreciate and you acknowledge them and they help you in other ways that are not materialistic, but they help you. And you feel good about yourself and all those type of things and I'm happy for my kupuna, and as you can feel the wind, the moa`e is blowing, it's so relaxing and you can feel their mana, their strength. You know that they're around and this is something pono (good, proper).

~Thomas Shirai, Jr.~

image: Thomas Shirai, jr.

Whenever we have high surf, we have bones that are exposed, particularly in our picnic area. And when people find out they are native Hawaiian remains, I think they feel special that they were able to help us malama the iwi. They know what the place (Pu`uhonua O Honaunau, City of Refuge, Island of Hawai`i ) was and the fact that we do have a lot of burials here and just the ambiance and the sacredness of the place, they're just so happy to be part of reinterments or taking care of the iwi.

~Geraldine Bell~

image: Geraldine Bell


graphic: stone line

When Hawaiians would encounter iwi exposed by the natural elements, cultural beliefs would guide decisions made.


Because we actively access beaches, hike, gather, you do come across remnants of our people, and then you're taught, it's not to lay in the sun... for the sun to crack its bones anymore. It is to be put away, basically as close to where you feel it may have come from, and it's usually right at the same site.

~Lafrance Kapaka-Arboleda~

image: Lafrance Kapaka-Arboleda

image: Josephine "Pine" Kelly
One time I went to the beach with some of my family. However, when I went, I saw this skull of my ancestor of long ago. This skull was sticking up on top of the sand. I was a young child then, and I thought of going and getting the skull to take elsewhere, but I didn't because the thoughts that my mother taught me stuck in my mind, "don't go and disturb the iwi." So I went and got the skull and buried it. I redug a hole and buried it until it was out of sight.

~Josephine "Pine" Kelly~


When I returned home, I explained what had happened to my mother. I related this to her by saying "Hey Ma, I just came across a skull at the beach." She replied, "What did you do? Did you bury it?" I got it and redug a hole and reburied it out of sight. I didn't bury it very deep, but never the less, the skull disappeared. My mother said, "that's the right way because that person is your family. Whenever you see some bones of your family exposed, go and rebury them until they are properly hidden. Return them below the earth or sand. Don't ever leave them exposed." And until this day, these are my thoughts. This is what we do, because there are many ancestors buried in our land from here to there.

~Josephine "Pine" Kelly~


drawing: Honolulu showing native settlement
Hundreds of thousands of native Hawaiians were buried over centuries of island habitation. Over the years, with the influx of foreigners and increasing development, more and more of these unmarked burials sites were being encountered. Many of the burial sites known only to family, or the `ohana, became vulnerable to increased disturbance as knowledgeable family members died or left their lands due to economic and social conditions.


image: burial mound


In some instances, burial sites were marked with stones, or pohaku. But the location of these burials were lost as surface areas were graded and cleared for agricultural activities. And still other sites fell into unrecognizable disrepair without family members to care for them, much like some of the older cemeteries still in existence.

The result is that unmarked native Hawaiian burial sites can be encountered almost anywhere, from the highest mountains to the shoreline... and from the most remote regions to the most developed areas in the State.

Some sites may contain a single individual or a small family. Other sites may contain hundreds or even thousands of individuals from large ancient communities who buried generation after generation in the same sacred area. Such was the case at Honokahua on the island of Maui.


graphic: stone line


For Hawaiians, burial locations were one of the most secretive traditions in a culture over a thousand years old. This resulted in great difficulty revealing burial areas to outsiders, even ones threatened by development.

In order to accommodate the proposed ocean-side construction of the Ritz Carlton at Kapalua, over 1,100 ancestral native Hawaiian burials consisting of men, women, children and infants were systematically excavated and removed from their resting places.

image: Dana Naone Hall
When we first got involved in Honokahua.... what was told to us through the administrative proceedings was that we should be satisfied as Hawaiian people that the iwi were going to be removed by archaeologists. That was the only solution offered. And, even though we challenged it, there weren't any laws, either Federal laws, State laws or County laws that protected the bones of our kupuna.

~Dana Naone Hall~


We came here so many times... and then Leslie and some other people slept here, and spiritual things happened to them to verify that our kupuna was here, then we would decide, well, we cannot do nothing, let's let 'em go and then… bang… by the time we go home, you know we cry, I cried because it was wrong what we were going do but we had no choice.

~Uncle Charlie Maxwell~

image: Uncle Charlie Maxwell

We realized that if the kupuna were going to come out against their will and against our will, that we had a duty to stay with them, to comfort them as they were exposed. And that was a very difficult decision to make... and once we made that decision, then we had to engage in a process of working out exactly how the disinterrment would occur and you can imagine how painful and distasteful an experience that was, that we would have to concede that there were powers that were forcing us to engage in this process, perhaps you can begin to understand some of the difficulty.

~Dana Naone Hall~

Native Hawaiians and their supporters rallied together initially at Honokahua, and then in late 1988 at the State Capitol on the island of O`ahu to bring attention to the desecration of the burial sites at Honokahua. After much protest, and emotionally draining efforts, Hawaiians were successful in halting the excavations.

Once the site of the hotel was moved away from the shoreline and burial area, the native Hawaiians who fought so hard to protect their kupuna now began the arduous and emotionally taxing work of preparing their kupuna for reburial back in the dunes of Honokahua.


image: Honokahua on the grounds of the Ritz Carlton, Maui



So we wrapped, we started to wrap the remains... so we would come like eight, nine o'clock at night and go home like three, four o'clock in the morning. For three and a half months we did that. And the last night when we buried the last remains here, was about 12 o'clock, we just was going to chant, all the torches were lit up here, and we just was going chant and we heard one slapping from the ocean... and Leslie say "Eh! ho'ailona," (an auspicious event) and so we came on the edge of the cliff. When we looked down, we barely saw the outline of one kohola, the whale, turning on a side and slapping the waters, ceremoniously-like… poom... poom, just like you beat the pahu drum, you know.

For fifteen minutes that whale did that you know. We stood on the edge, cry and when we turn around they went down in the puka (hole, opening), had these owls, pueo that flew over, whooooo.. and flew right… they scream and went right to the mountain... and only me and papa was on top the hill, because I couldn't go down. Everybody was dressed in their black malo, and so immediately, it was like I was so privileged, in 1990, looking into the past, a thousand years.

~Uncle Charlie Maxwell~


image: Honokahua showing small stone wall and mound


Everyone must realize that Honokahua, as dramatic as it was, wasn't the first time that a concentrated burial site belonging to native Hawaiians had been disturbed, it had happened hundreds if not thousands of times before, everywhere in our island chain practically. But this was the first time anybody latched on to what was happening and stayed with it and slowed the process down enough so that we could really see and understand what was going on and other people could understand it, and the uproar could occur. Honokahua allowed for the final necessary element to be put in place which is that the people who's culture it is were able to begin to make the decisions about what happened to these important sacred places.

~Dana Naone Hall~

Honokahua changed the history of Hawai`i. They have set precedent that we will never ever go back to this complacency and complete disregard for the iwi of our kupuna. Honokahua has created the laws, Honokahua IS the law, this stands as the kahili (feather standard, a sign of royalty) for all burial sites from here on to perpetuity. This is the battleground, this is the piko (navel, umbilical cord) of these new laws.

~Cliff Naeole~

image: Cliff Naeole


graphic: stone line


After the tragic incident at Honokahua, the Hawai`i State Legislature and Governor John Waihe`e, responded to the many voices of the Hawaiian people by enacting Act 306 which amended Chapter 6E, of the Hawai`i Revised Statutes. This provided greater protection for unmarked burial sites in Hawai`i, giving them the same protection as modern cemeteries.

  • The law created the Burial Sites Program to oversee the implementation of the new laws and the care, management, protection and inventory of unmarked burial sites throughout the State of Hawai`i. It also created five island burial councils to determine proper treatment of previously identified burial areas and created procedures to deal with the inadvertent discovery of human skeletal remains.
  • The law provides penalties of up to $10,000 per burial for unauthorized alteration, excavation or destruction of unmarked burial sites. Equipment used in any violation may be confiscated by the State of Hawai`i.
  • The amendments to Chapter 6E established procedures to be followed whenever human skeletal remains are encountered inadvertently, usually through development activities or through natural erosion.
  • When remains are encountered, all work in the immediate area is stopped and the police are notified as well as the Department of Land and Natural Resources. A qualified archaeologist then examines the burial context to assist in determining jurisdiction.
  • If the remains appear to be under fifty years in age, a possible homicide victim or missing person, the local police secure the scene and investigate.
  • If the remains appear to be over fifty years in age since death and interment, a likely unmarked burial site, the DLNR, in consultation with the affected landowner, the island burial council and any identified descendants, determines whether the burial can safely remain in place where discovered or whether relocation may be needed.

In the event of relocation, reburial sites are often sought on the same parcel or in the same general location to avoid separating families in death.


graphic: stone line


In 1996, 14 burials were encountered near the University of Hawai`i at Manoa during street and waterline improvements. Due to the high risk of disturbance from future waterline breaks and other emergency utility work, the burials were relocated to the adjacent Center for Hawaiian Studies building which was being constructed at the time.


The council, the Burial Council and some of its representatives asked me, because I was the Director then, would we agree to have the iwi reinterred in the building. And of course, I was very pleased that I was in a position to say yes, the Hawaiian studies council agreed, the architects were more that happy to do that and they designed the burial vault... actually mound... that you see behind me.

~Haunani Kay Trask"

image: Haunani Kay Trask

A burial vault was constructed in the central courtyard of the facility and the remains were reinterred in a night-time ceremony. A traditional drystack platform was constructed around the vault to blend into the surroundings.


From a personal point of view, that was, for us, in the faculty sense, the seal of approval on the building… that if we could have the iwi here, this in itself as a place for Hawaiians to come, became a special sanctuary, because the iwi give it not only a sense of peace but a sense of protection. 

If our purpose is to transmit the culture and knowledge that we as native people have and to analyze the world that we live in and to understand it better, how could we not do our best when the iwi were here, when the kupuna were here. That's a very traditional native point of view, you take your sustenance and your guidance from your ancestors. In our case we are very fortunate because they are right here.

~Haunani Kay Trask~


graphic: stone line


Burial Council members, all appointed by the Governor of the State of Hawai`i, consist of a mixture of representatives from regional native Hawaiian communities and representatives of large landowner interests. The Councils determine whether to relocate or preserve in place previously identified native Hawaiian burials sites located on lands targeted for development.


I think maybe there's some misconceptions that the burial councils prevent development. No. What we prevent is insensitive development and in virtually every case that I've worked on from large developments to small developments, we found a way to make the necessary adjustments so that the burial sites can be properly accommodated.

~Dana Naone Hall~

image: Uncle Les Kuloloio
When somebody asks me, "could you go and remove the kupuna, or a burial found?" We find a child, another child, a kane (male), another kane, and then probably the mother or the family, you see them all closely, real close put together, it rings a bell inside me, I says who am I to remove that `ohana and separate them.

~Uncle Les Kuloloio~

For the members who serve on the island burial councils, it is a great honor to protect the ancestors of Hawai`i. As a council member, it is also a tremendous responsibility to make decisions on behalf of families whose descendants can't be found.


Who among us has the authority to give that permission, and if we don't have the authority, what is it that we are honoring? And for my part and I think for a lot of us on the burial council, what we're honoring is the intent of the family members who placed that individual in their resting place those many years ago, that they have a right to stay there, that that is their home, and we as living descendants, must honor that right and that in doing so, we affirm who we are as a people, and that we too have a place here, and it comes from the bones of our ancestors.

~Dana Naone Hall~


Part of the island burial council's duties include educating landowners as to the cultural beliefs and views regarding burials encountered on their lands.


Many of the owners today of those types of lands are no longer native people and they come from all walks of life. I never assume that they want them out of their yard, I will always try to talk with them to, actually say to them, and I can remember me saying this, "you are so blessed and so special that you would have this as part of your land, that you're going to grow things, you're going to raise your family. And to have one of my kupunas who have laid here for so long, to be a part of that process of life, you are chosen."

~Lafrance Kapaka-Arboleda~


graphic: stone line


In the late 1980s, Papa Henry Auwae was instrumental in the reburial of iwi which had been removed from Lapakahi on the Big Island decades before. Through his efforts and others, families reconnected with their kupuna… and the iwi returned home with aloha.

When the bones came back... and we got people interested. I call the families, find out who the bones belonged to… called the families. I was real thankful of the people coming to participate in wrapping all the bones back as it should be… And, we wrapped the bones in tapa cloth and placed it a koa coffin, all different koa coffins, different sizes, because some bones were big and some bones were small, But all these bones were put back the way it should be, and the best thing is. I had each family be the pallbearer of their own family, to carry the coffin to the areas excavated, to be buried and each one buried their own family remains, including Governor John Waihe`e during that time.

~Papa Henry Auwae~

image: Papa Henry Auwae

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed. NAGPRA required museums and agencies which received federal funds to conduct inventories of human skeletal remains, burial goods, items incorporating human remains and items of cultural patrimony to allow native peoples an opportunity to repatriate these remains and items back to the lands from which they originated. The weight of all these laws brought about the return of thousands of kupuna removed from various areas throughout the State, including places like Pu`uhonua O Honaunau, on the island of Hawai``i.

It happened in 1998 and it was the very first time that I went into our burial cave and at the very first moment that I stepped into the cave, I knew what I needed to do as kahu (honored attendant, guardian) of this park and that was to take our ancestors, our kupuna, and put them back to where they had come from and we did that as a park effort and from that day, it has made our staff so much closer. Good things have happened to the park and we're a family.

~Geraldine Bell~ 


Families on other islands, like the families from Lapakahi also began efforts to bring their kupuna home to Hawai`i. With time, many ancestral native remains returned to Hawaiian soil after years of sitting in boxes on shelves all over the world.


When we brought home our kupuna, like Honokahua, we took a stand, so when we brought em home, you know what happened, the island is beginning to breathe. They came home. Now the island feel the mana, that's what separated us. They belong home. They're in our sand dunes on Maui, we put em back, they're breathing, they're alive, they're happy, the rainbows are coming back. So I cry with joy. That was the fear. That was the pain. But now I'm crying with joy. That's what the message is. I'm glad the kupuna is home.

~Uncle Les Kuloloio~


 graphic: stone line


In the last 100 years, the Hawaiian community has undergone tremendous changes. Basic cultural responsibilities have sometimes gone neglected while people struggled to adapt and survive. But this one thing has changed very little... for native Hawaiians, caring for the iwi, putting them to rest and safeguarding their privacy ensures the continuity of life and the preservation of the culture.


I always say, and I always heard this… the greatest teacher we have… every ethnic race… is your ancient ancestors.

~Auntie Melia Craver~


Our young people, we try to educate them to let them know that our kupuna, in essence, are still here. We have a saying make noke kalo aole ika palili, the taro dies and yet lives, and we are products of our parents and our grandparents. We are part of them. When you look into the eyes of the children, you're looking into the eyes of their parents and to their grandparents. How often we go among people and say, "gee, boy, she looks just like her grandmother," they have all the characteristics whether it's being outspoken or quite , our characteristics are inherited from others and these iwi that's here on this hill or other places, it's those iwis that connect us together.

~Cy Bridges~


As Hawaiians, we need to continually educate our children that are coming forth, that it is also going to be their responsibility. And we need to do it in a way that the iwi is not used to glorify or enhance problems that we may have as Hawaiians today. They should not be used anymore, their time is done, they have done their share, its our time to see that they get taken care of properly, and not used to expand our quest for sovereignty, or land-use planning, land-use ownership. They need to be taken care of because they deserve it, and for no other reason.

~Lafrance Kapaka-Arboleda~

I would like to say, from the bottom of my heart, to the future, a`ale poena, don't forget, don't turn your back on your past which is your ancestors. Give them that little aspect of dignity by assuring to the best of your ability, that their remains, their earthly remains, will be taken care of.

~Auntie Frenchy Desoto~

image; Auntie Frenchy Desoto



I would recommend and plead with all the people now to respect your kupuna's regardless Hawaiian, Japanese, all the different nationalities. You don't give up your family, don't sell your family short of life. Give them the best even when they die.

~Papa Henry Auwae~



A close captioned video version of Na Iwi Kupuna is available for loan through the State Historic Preservation Division, Burial Sites Program. Please call SHPD at (808) 692-8015 for more information or blue ball graphic, e-mail link to the SHPD webmastere-mail the webmaster.


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