Oahu Island Burial Council calls for a stop to Kaena Point fence, questions State procedures

Samson Kaala Reiny

WAIANAE—Native Hawaiian practitioners have called for a stop to a State of Hawaii construction project in on Oahu’s leeward coast that began last month without the proper precautions to protect against disturbing burial sites. The Oahu Island Burial Council (OIBC) is requesting that the State halt its current construction of the predatory fence around Kaena Point until an Archaeological Inventory Survey (AIS) is completed. The survey would account for human burials and cultural sites in an area that is sacred to Native Hawaiians.

The motion, passed unanimously by OIBC at last Wednesday’s monthly meeting, puts council in agreement with Holly McEldowney, a State archaeologist who, in her own preliminary assessment of the site in 2007, recommended an AIS be completed before any construction began. In her report, McEldowney notes that there are “significant historic properties within or near the proposed predator control fence.”

OIBC’s Leimaile Quitevis researched the history of the fence project and testified that Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Nancy McMahon chose not to follow through with McEldowney’s recommendation, stating that McMahon only suggested archaeological monitors be present during construction. Former Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Chairwoman Laura Thielen signed off on the project on November 10 without an AIS having been completed, and construction began almost immediately afterward.

In summing up the OIBC discussion, councilmember Carolyn Abad said: “We think that this step may have been missed, and we feel that her [McEldowney] recommendation is solid and should be followed.” 

The 2,000-foot long and 6½ foot tall fence, funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will enclose 59 acres of land at the tip of Kaena Point peninsula. It’s intended to protect two bird species—the Laysan Albatross and the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters—along with several native plants from dog and rat predation.

“All the way through there was no room for accountability, and there was no room for due process.”

In addition to supporting the AIS, Quitevis questioned the project’s lack of checks and balances. Quitevis said Thielen had green-lit the construction work in November by signing the project’s Memorandum of Agreement—a list of working conditions agreed to by DLNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA)—as the State Historic Preservation Officer. Thielen signed without reviewing the State Historic Preservation Division’s final recommendation, which, according to Quitevis, was in violation of federal laws because she did not have the necessary credentials to assess the archaeological impacts.

Quitevis also stated that Thielen’s dual roles, as both the chair of the DLNR who pushed for the fence and as the State Historic Preservation officer who signed off on the archaeological review, raises serious accountability issues. 

“All the way through there was no room for liability, and there was no room for due process,” Quitevis said.

Quitevis also said that the Environmental Assessment (EA) for the fence doesn’t take into account a culvert that was recently placed just upland of the Leina Kauhane, the hallowed “leaping off” place for Hawaiian spirits, in order to divert flood waters to the ocean.

“That part of the project is also the Kaena complex ... It’s a complex because there’s iwi kupuna [human remains] there,” Quitevis said.

In response to Quitevis’ testimony, Emma Yuen of the State’s Natural Area Reserve System, which oversees Kaena Point, stated that the fence was placed along an area not likely to contain burials because of the amount of solid rock in the vicinity.

Yuen also said that extensive outreach was done to numerous organizations and communities beginning around 2004 or 2005, one of which entailed ongoing meetings with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). 

Quitevis said that U.S. Fish and Wildlife notified OHA that if it didn’t sign the Memorandum of Agreement, the agency would be removed as a signatory. Yuen said OHA was brought on as a courtesy.

Yuen also noted the OIBC was also consulted in 2007 through a written letter, but the council never responded.

OIBC chairman Mark McKeague said he found no mention of a consultation with the OIBC, and, furthermore, a written letter made out to the chairman as opposed to the moku (district) representative was too inadequate a notice. As a result, the council unanimously agreed that it was, in effect, not consulted on the project.

Others at the OIBC meeting also said that they were not consulted, including Alika Silva, who represented Koa Mana, a cultural practice group, and Summer Nemeth, who is a member of the Kaena Defenders, a faction that opposes the fence’s construction.

Thomas Shirai, a lineal descendant of families that have lived in the area for generations, testified that he supported the fence but wanted archaeological monitors on site and for the equipment to be carried out by helicopter.

“Because there was no due process,” Quitevis said about the State’s handling of the fence, “we don’t know what kind of harm our iwi kupuna are in.” 

Editor’s note: In the quote, “All the way through there was no room for liability, and there was no room for due process,” the original word “liability” was replaced with “accountability” to clarify the speaker’s intent.