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Group calls for stopping work on sand dunes

Malama Kakanilua wants to see better protections afforded to Maui iwi kupuna

WAILUKU — A group of Native Hawaiians working to protect ancient burials is calling on Maui County to halt disturbance of sand dunes and work to acquire lands “that are at risk of further desecration.”

A dozen Malama Kakanilua members and supporters gathered outside the county building in Wailuku on Monday morning to make the requests in the wake of a letter from a United Nations committee expressing concerns about “the lack of protection” of burial sites.

“All these projects in these Wailuku and Waikapu sand dunes keep going on with no thought of how to stop and protect our burials,” said Clare Apana, president of Malama Kakanilua. “Only the thought of ‘we’ll put a monitor there.’ . . . That is what we are offered, and that is not acceptable.”

Malama Kakanilua has been involved in litigation in recent years seeking to stop sand mining and create better protections for burials in the Pu’uone sand dune complex in Central Maui.

The group has filed lawsuits advocating for compliance of archaeological monitoring plans, challenging grading permit extensions and alleging that government and developers failed to protect the burials.

“However, there are too many loopholes in the laws to create real and meaningful protection,” said Jennifer Noelani Ahia, a member and recognized cultural descendant of iwi kupuna at Maui Lani.

So, with the help of Joshua Cooper, director of the Hawaii Institute of Human Rights, the group in April sent a formal complaint to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which responded expressing concern “about the lack of protection of the burial sites of Kanaka Maoli, the indigenous peoples, and the lack of recognition of and measures to address related psychological harm.”

“Furthermore, the legal framework over burials in Hawaii appears to be discriminatory towards the Kanaka Maoli, by establishing more complicated requirements for Native Hawaiians than the rest of the population in order to claim cultural descendency to a burial,” said Mark J. Cassayre, charge d’affaires ad interim and permanent representative of the U.S. to the U.N. Office in Geneva.

“Moreover, the legal framework seems to be focusing on mitigating desecration rather than ensuring full protection of all burial sites,” he added.

Cooper said the committee deliberates on its own timeline and posts its findings online. The letter was written in May, but Ahia said they only learned about it a couple of weeks ago. In light of the letter, Malama Kakanilua called Monday for the county to:

• Place a moratorium on any disturbance of sand dunes or burials until laws are in place to adequately protect both;

• Establish a Maui County Council subcommittee to investigate all matters related to burials in Pu’uone;

• Work with the state or authorize directly to obtain control, by eminent domain or purchase, any lands that are at risk of further desecration and cannot be adequately protected by legislation alone, and to hold those lands in a trust for descendants and place the lands in preservation in perpetuity, including but not limited to Maui Lani Phase 9.

Ahia explained that the legislation the group would like to see is creating “zones of site avoidance.”

“Areas with known high concentrations of burials should never allow development,” Ahia said. “The community plan has provisions for this, but there’s a legal loophole that allows the director to override it. No one would ever allow development at Punchbowl or Arlington cemetery. Why do our burial sites not have the same protections?”

When asked about the difference between the subcommittee and the burial councils, Ahia said that “burial councils are limited in their scope of jurisdiction.”

“It is also made up of volunteers with limited time and resources,” she said. “A County Council committee would have more resource to investigate and then create legislation based on its findings.”

Council Member Shane Sinenci, who chairs the Environmental, Agricultural and Cultural Preservation Committee, said after the news conference Monday that nothing has been proposed yet but that “we’re always open” to the idea.

“We’re already looking at more protections,” he said. “Whether that’s the route we take or we take another route, we’re always open. We just want to see what’s legal, what we can do.”

He pointed out that the committee has set aside funds for a county archaeologist to assist the State Historic Preservation Division throughout the monitoring process. He said the committee would continue working with the burial council and that one of the recommendations was possibly creating a division or department for Hawaiian issues in the county.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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