Faith Matters: Developers Debate Sacred Ground

Whole Foods, a natural-foods grocer, wants to build a store on top of a sacred burial site in Honolulu, Hawaii. It says the remains will be reburied in a new location. But native rights activists are fighting the plan. Eddie Ayua, who works to protect Hawaiian burial grounds, and anthropologist Mark Mack discuss the issue.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now it's time for Faith Matters.

Today we're going to talk about what we owe the dead from two different cultural perspectives. Recently, about 50 sets of bones were discovered in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Whole Foods, a natural-foods grocer, is planning to build its first store in the state.

But in Hawaii, burial grounds are protected by law. Whole Foods, which had an archeologist work on the project, wants to rebury the remains elsewhere on the site. But a native Hawaiian advocacy group has filed suit to force the company to bury the remains in their original location. A similar dispute arose in New York back in 1991 when a slave burial ground was discovered in Lower Manhattan on the planned site for a new federal building. Since then that site has been named a historic landmark.

We're speaking with two guests who have been involved with each of these situations. Eddie Ayua is part of the effort to protect Hawaiian burial grounds and Mark Mack is an anthropologist at Howard University. And he is the project laboratory director for the remains of the Africans buried in Manhattan.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. MARK MACK (Howard University): Thank you very much.

Mr. EDDIE AYUA (Spokesman, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei): Aloha.

MARTIN: Mr. Ayua, if I could start with you. The name of your group in English translates to Group Caring for the Ancestors of Hawaii, but I'd like to ask you to give the Hawaiian name.

Mr. AYUA: The name is Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei.

MARTIN: And tell me why is it important to native Hawaiians that remains be protected?

Mr. AYUA: For the same reason that it is important to any other race of people in the world. We are duty bound to care for our ancestors because they gave us life. They gave us our culture and they gave us our meaning. And so in Hawaiian thinking that there is a duty created by the next generation to care for those that came before you.

MARTIN: I would suggest, though, that people have different views about these issues. Some people don't object to remains being moved. Sometimes people move remains with them. Sometimes people believe that remains should be placed with other family members. So there are lots of different beliefs around this point. Is there something that we should particularly understand about the original resting place needs to be the final resting place or are there some other issues like that that are important to understand?

Mr. AYUA: I think the key issue is the notion of consent, that dealing with burial is a family responsibility, not that of an landowner, a developer, an archeologist or an anthropologist. And if they decide that it's appropriate to relocate, then in Hawaiian thinking that's acceptable. But you don't take into consideration financial gain by a store or a swimming pool or a highway or all these others reasons why our ancestors have been moved on all of the various islands.

MARTIN: First of all, I should say that we've reached out to the developer, General Growth Properties. They didn't respond to our request for comment by the time of our broadcast. But from what we understand it appears that the project is going forward, but that the particular site where most of the remains were found, there's a halt on the construction there. Is that accurate, Mr. Ayua?

Mr. AYUA: Yes. And that's pursuant to state law. The problem with this project is the approvals that were given for the project to proceed by the county was done without prior review by the state's Historic Preservation Division. And so by the time the project started, the need to do historic preservation planning, to do an archeological inventory survey, to identify what was already in the ground - that came second.

And so by the time they identified the initial 11 burials, the project was already under construction. And now the 11 has blossomed to 52 individuals and you have a full-scale cemetery on your hands in the midst of a construction project.

MARTIN: Mark Mack, have you encountered a situation like this often?

Mr. MACK: This happens today, that you have development and you have construction in the United States and its territories. The African Burial Ground in New York City was an example of the federal government and its power in putting up a building that was clearly marked out in the 1754 survey of being the quote-unquote "negro's burial ground".

As a scientist, it is a treasure trove of discovery of data, yet at the same, time as an African-American this was supposed to be the last resting place for these people that I come from. But in my heart of hearts, they never should have been disturbed.

MARTIN: Mr. Ayua, is reburial ever considered acceptable or appropriate in the Hawaiian tradition?

Mr. AYUA: Well, there has to be an option. Thousands of ancestral remains were removed from their original burial sites either through archeological excavation or through theft and looting. And they have ended up in museums all around the world. And so reburial is, you know, was the fourth option.

MARTIN: Is it your vision that development in Hawaii should just stop?

Mr. AYUA: Our vision and why we amended the law in 1990 was to promote responsible development. Responsible development means that you conduct a comprehensive archeological inventory survey prior to any construction. That's held up projects in the past. And so the ones that know that they are in sensitive areas do what this company did and they proceeded with their permits even though the state hadn't review their project.

MARTIN: But they say that part of the way that this burial ground was discovered is that they had hired an archeologist to survey the site and that's how the remains were discovered. So that in fact they're saying that they were making an extra effort to be sensitive and culturally aware. You just don't buy it?

Mr. AYUA: It's not an extra effort, it's a required effort, it's the minimal effort, it's what's required of all developers, of all persons who are going to develop their property.

MARTIN: How do you think issues like this ought to be sorted out when there are competing interests and competing value systems at work?

Mr. AYUA: The same way you would determine issues in your own home. Whoever owns the home decides how guests are to act. Hawaii is where Hawaiians are from. Yes, we're inviting people from all over the world to come and live here. But be respectful. You're in our home.

And our home is made up of the burial grounds of our ancestors. And if you have to redesign your project to leave off, you know, a certain portion of it or to redesign it any way you have to in order to facilitate the original burial grounds that were there, we expect you to do that, in return for the aloha you receive for coming here.

MARTIN: And Mr. Ayua, to those who say that Hawaii is part of America and Hawaii is home to a lot of other people now too, it is also their home; what do you say?

Mr. AYUA: It's been ours for thousands of years. We wouldn't go to another country and say the same thing. And all we're asking for is not special protection; just equal protection under the law, which this new country America guaranteed us.

MARTIN: Professor Mack, do you want to have the last word?

Prof. MACK: Well, I just - haven't we evolved as a people, haven't we evolved or changed as a society that this should not be such a controversial issue? Do we treat these remains the way African-Americans were treated in the late 1800s or early 1900s? You know, do we treat them as scientific objects of curiosity or do we understand that they're part of someone's family?

MARTIN: I think we have to leave it there. Thank you both so much for joining us. Professor Mark Mack is an anthropologist at Howard University. He is the project laboratory director for the remains of the Africans buried in Manhattan. We're also joined by Eddie Ayua, and I'm going to ask you once again to give the Hawaiian name of your group, which is the Group Caring for the Ancestors of Hawaii. And the Hawaiian name again, sir, please?

Mr. AYUA: Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei

MARTIN: And you joined us from Honolulu. Thank you so much for joining us, sir.

Mr. AYUA: Take care, peace.

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