Arakawa under fire for ‘sacred rocks’ comment
Mayor Alan Arakawa is coming under fire from social media and elsewhere for saying in a televised “Hawaii News Now Sunrise” interview Friday that “there’s no such thing as sacred rocks.”
In discussing Maui County’s removal of thousands of tons of rocks that were washed downstream as part of the massive Sept. 13 flooding in Iao Valley, Arakawa told a statewide audience: “It’s very simple. There’s no such thing as sacred rocks. First of all, the monarchy, starting with Kamehameha, his lineage, declared Christianity the religion of Hawaii.
“In Christianity, if I remember the Ten Commandments correctly, ‘Thou shall have no false God before me,'” he continued. “There are no sacred rocks in that religion. We have a group of people that are political wannabes that ran for political office the last time, and they’re trying to make an issue out of nothing.
“During an emergency situation where people’s lives are endangered, we have to do what we have to do,” the mayor said.
Arakawa’s denial that the rocks are sacred contradicts his Oct. 21 column in The Maui News. In that, he struck a more conciliatory tone. He wrote: “Recently, there’s been some unrest in the Native Hawaiian community regarding pohaku, or stones, being removed from Iao Valley. I realize stones are very important — sacred even — in Hawaiian culture, but the county cannot help the people of Iao without moving the stones to another location.”
In his column, he explained that there was no room in Iao to store 3,000 tons or more of stones.
“It’s a narrow valley with no open areas that are easily accessible,” he wrote. “In order to repair our public infrastructure, namely our flood control, bridge and Kepaniwai Park, we need room to operate and that means moving things around.”
Arakawa acknowledged that stones that had been mixed with trees, mud and silt had been crushed at the Central Maui Landfill. Other stones were stored on county land in Waikapu.
The mayor was taken to task on social media after his TV appearance Friday. People responding to a “Hawaii News Now” Facebook post said “rocks are sacred no matter what the belief system,” that Arakawa’s comments were “completely disrespectful” and that the mayor needs to be educated on Hawaiian culture and beliefs.
Asked for comment Saturday, county spokesman Rod Antone said that the mayor’s comments “are due to his frustration regarding the lack of support from certain council members in regards to the emergency work the county did after the Iao flood.”
In his “Our County” column Friday, Arakawa blamed Council Members Elle Cochran and Kelly King for being unprepared at last week’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting to approve his administration’s request for more than $910,000 in additional emergency funding for Iao flood repair work. Cochran and King voted against moving the appropriation request out of committee.
Cochran said she had unanswered questions about the funding request, and King raised questions about outside vendors used to make the emergency repairs.
On Saturday, Cochran said administration officials weren’t prepared last week to answer questions, and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials should have been on hand to provide information. “Who wasn’t prepared here?” she asked, adding that she expects the funding request will come back before the committee.
Regarding the mayor’s comments on the Iao rocks, Cochran said she was “very flabbergasted.”
“It’s such a ridiculous thing,” she said. “It’s insulting to Hawaiians and the culture. It’s people’s beliefs. It may not be his.”
South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing released a statement that he found the mayor’s comments offensive. He said he “could not stand by while Maui County’s highest-ranking official, Mayor Arakawa, denigrated our host culture and defied our constitutionally protected, individual right — a tenet of our democracy — religious freedom.”
Ing said not all of Maui’s leaders agree with Arakawa.
“To see Mayor Arakawa take this colonized, theocratic approach in saying that one religion is the only acceptable framework, then to make decisions in government based on one religion is harmful not just to Hawaiians, but to anyone who believes in democracy,” the Democratic lawmaker said.
The stones at Kepaniwai in Iao Valley are sacred religiously to some Hawaiians and sacred historically to all Hawaiians, Ing said. “The battle at Kepaniwai was one of the most gruesome, most significant, profound battles in Hawaiian history, where so many of my ancestors’ blood was spilled in the river . . . on those very rocks years ago. The bodies actually dammed the river.
“You would never see a government desecrating Gettysburg or Arlington,” he said. “So why is it OK in a marginalized, indigenous area of historical significance? The answer is it’s not.”
Ing said it’s not for Arakawa to “school” Native Hawaiians in their history.
“Let us speak for ourselves and tell you why places are sacred, what’s important to us and not let any one particular group or religion oppress another,” he said.
In addressing Arakawa, Ing said: “An apology might be nice.”
Meanwhile, the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs issued a statement: “Pohaku (rocks) are a cornerstone of Native Hawaiian material and living culture, providing not only a vast array of utilitarian uses such as tools, vessels, weights and building materials, but also immense spiritual and political importance to the Native Hawaiian people.”
OHA encouraged engaging in a discussion with Arakawa and other officials to explain the significance of pohaku and the “most appropriate and respectful ways to malama this cultural resource.”
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.