Battle Over Bones in Hawai’i

The ancestral people of the Sandwich Islands, known today as Hawai’i, had a practice of “hiding” the bones of family members when they died. The indigenous people, native Hawaiians or Kanaka Maoli, believed bones contained “mana” or spiritual energy of power and strength.

Unfortunately, as these graves were unmarked, families today preparing to build a home, developers working to construct a new building, park, highway or other structure encounter the “iwi kupuna” — bones of elders — all the time.

What to do with the bones and how to respectfully manage these historical artifacts remains a constant challenge in the state. Author Christine Hitt wrote about the long-running controversy.

I responded to Christine after reading her article and share comments with followers of ClearHealthLife.


My PhD work at the University of New Mexico was in political science. NM and HI are similar in many ways due to the extensive cultural influence from indigenous populations. One key topic of study was race; another was the clash between European and indigenous practices.

My wife is Native American, but what does that mean? One of her grandfathers can trace his heritage to the Aztec empire — but the family mixed with Spanish culture along the way. You state you are part Native Hawaiian. What is “native Hawaiian”?

Original inhabitants paddled to the Sandwich islands from the Marquesas, Tahitian, Samoan, Marshall, Solomon et al Society Island chains. Hawaiian isn’t a unique group. Much like America itself, the people are a mix of many different cultures. You represent that diversity, as does my wife.

In contrast, most of my ancestors originated in Northern Europe, although one grandmother is from Puerto Rico. She’s a mix of African and European cultures. What are we? Who are we?

Your article includes a photo from Bishop Museum — The Invention of Race (below). From my professional point of view, there is NO race. We all originate from Africa; we’re all brothers, sisters and cousins. Race is a human construct and serves primarily to divide us today.

The Bishop Museum faced its role in promoting racism at a “(Re)generations” exhibit last year. It displayed the different tools used in the pseudosciences of phrenology and anthropometry, as well as some photos and busts from Sullivan’s collection.
The Bishop Museum faced its role in promoting racism at a “(Re)generations” exhibit last year. It displayed the different tools used in the pseudosciences of phrenology and anthropometry, as well as some photos and busts from Sullivan’s collection. Bishop Museum

Your article is titled, “Decades after racist scientists looted their graves …” Calling the scientists “racist” is quite immature and unprofessional. These scientists didn’t collect bones in an act of “racism.” They were studying origins of human beings.

There is a classic work of racism in science, “The Mismeasure of Man,” by Stephen Jay Gould. You may find it interesting.

However, there are differences between ethnicity in groups of people. People in NM, for example, are surrounded by desert; in HI by water. These groups developed different behaviors, traditions and practices due to geography and terrain.

A couple Asian American friends are visiting me on O’ahu. Took them to the ‘Iolani Palace Thursday. As English is a second-language for the mother, she didn’t understand much of the presentation. Her son is first-generation American and comprehended the dialogue as would you and I.

The story told at the palace is a cute myth, but not factually accurate. Native Hawaiians, like most groups, distort history to paint a more glorious past. The House of Kamehameha, for example, was not positive for the Hawaiian people. You are not taught this history at Kamehameha School.

Kamehameha was a warlord. Native Hawaiians are NOT warriors. They are gifted artisans. King Kalākaua didn’t fight, for example, when William W. Hall and Honolulu Rifles threatened the kingdom in 1887. They led a revolution.

Roster of the Honolulu Rifles. Officers of Honolulu Rifles led a coup in 1887. Nobody fought for the king.
Officers of Honolulu Rifles led a coup in 1887. Nobody fought for the king.

Hall’s group of some 500 influential people of Honolulu gave the king 24-hours to respond to the proposed constitution. Kalākaua signed this document, which neutered the monarchy and put the legislature in charge.

“Your Majesty,” our spokesman said, “we have a communication for you.” The King took the message and began to read it. The spokesman said, “Your Majesty will be given twenty-four hours within which to make an answer; and if there is none by that time it will be considered a negative one.”

We then filed out. We felt no uneasiness, because all the reputable people of Honolulu were with us. We formed a secret league there in January and took in members until we had, at the time of the revolution, about 500 citizens sworn. They had all joined the Honolulu Rifles, the only local militia, and I had furnished them all with Springfield rifles. The King had simply his police, composed of 100 natives and about sixty palace attendants.

William W. Hall, Honolulu Rifles Quarter-Master

The king didn’t champion a rebellion in the four years up to his death in 1891. He accepted the constitution and new political arrangement. Like we observe in England today, the king now held a ceremonial position. The Merrie Monarch was known for his convivial personality and enjoyed entertaining guests with his singing and ukulele playing — not fighting. 

The legislature called the shots. No American leader would have allowed such a coup; neither would have Kamehameha. All would have stood and fought.

In 1893, his sister Queen Lili’uokalani attempted to overturn the constitution. She was seeking to undo what her brother signed — forced or not. Thus, she engaged in a treasonous act per the law at the time.

Similarly, if you and I tried to undo the U.S. Constitution, we would be engaged in treason. There is a legislative prescription for such change. We can’t simply force change.

Importantly, the queen like her brother chose not to engage in war and shed blood. She was not a military commander. She temporarily abdicated the throne and petitioned the U.S. president for help. She later formally abdicated to save seven or eight people from death. However, she gave up without a fight.

There’s a huge difference in late 19th century Hawai’i from Kamehameha in the late 18th century. Kamehameha, like Americans, would have fought in 1887 and 1891. No American leader would have allowed a group to force our nation into a Bayonet Constitution.

American leaders, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example were flawed. They owned slaves; they created a nation that tolerated slavery. Not perfect! Neither was Kamehameha. However, all three would have fought if their people or nation were threatened.

The later Hawaiian leaders were singers of songs and more appreciative of human beings and life. They were not warriors and this fact is the tragic part of history that was lost. Native Hawaiians were “enlightened” people who preferred ho’oponopono to blood shed.

Kamehameha was like British, American and other imperial world leaders. He conquered; he acquired; he colonized — just as you and others criticize western influences. Ironic, isn’t it?

People don’t know the REAL story of Kamehameha — particularly Native Hawaiians. I wrote a short history: Polynesian Cain vs Abel: Native Hawaiians Teach their Keiki to Hate

This week, as we near the observation of the king’s birth, I’ll write how Kamehameha failed to UNITE the islands. Similarly as the U.S. learned with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, one does not unite a nation at the point of a gun. We unite people by winning Hearts & Minds — not blowing them up.

Kamehameha was not meant to be king; he killed his cousin to take power. He brought violence and evil into the islands. And when Kalākaua was threatened in 1887, nobody rallied to the defense of the monarchy. People from the island of Kaua’i, for example, joined Kamehameha not due to his wondrous vision but from fear of being slaughtered.

Families who lost loved ones that Kamehameha’s warriors threw off cliffs or were murdered by cannon fire do not rally when leadership is threatened. It mattered not to those on Kaua’i if Kalākaua or the legislature governed the islands. Their quality of life did not change. Did not change life for ordinary Hawaiians either.

The monarchy and those in the legislature had privilege. Ordinary people were their subjects. Americans threw off the yoke of a king in 1776. In 1887 and 1893, Hawaiians had no use for monarchy either.

Kamehameha didn’t unite; he in fact divided. A truly wise king would have gathered tribal chiefs across the islands and convinced them that they needed to unite — not due to threat of his violence — but due to the impending threat from outsiders. Mythical stories of Kamehameha divide the Kanaka Maoli and Americans today.

Iao Valley is most famously remembered as the location of the Battle of Kepaniwai in 1790. In an effort to unite the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha landed his war fleet on the shores of North Maui while Maui’s Chief, Kahekili, was away on the island of Oahu.

Kahekili’s son, Kalanikupule, entered Iao Valley with other Maui chiefs and army members, planning to use Iao Needle as a protective hideout from oncoming forces. He wasn’t aware, however, that Kamehameha had brought Western weapons along with him, including a cannon, which killed many army members during the battle.

The streams of Iao Valley were said to have been blocked by bodies after the battle finished, the reason behind the name Kepaniwai, meaning “the damming of the waters.”

Alison Grabel, Iao Valley
The streams of Iao Valley blocked by bodies of dead Hawaiians
The streams of Iao Valley blocked by bodies of dead Hawaiians

Kamehameha spent thirty years between 1780 and 1810 blowing up and killing Native Hawaiians while foreign interests grew stronger in the islands. He was the only individual to kill Polynesians en mass. BIG MISTAKE !!!

This division continues today, as you wrote:

But efforts to rebury the iwi have been hindered by disagreements between the 21 groups, and with the military. Under the law, all legal claimants must come to an absolute consensus on what to do with the remains; no one person or group can make a decision for all. Now, two decades into those negotiations, the remains of thousands of people still sit in boxes around the Marine Corps base.

“The No. 1 reason why there are thousands of kupuna waiting at Mokapu for reburial [is] because the living cannot agree,” Caceres told SFGATE.

Christine Hitt, SFGate, 6.5.22

The Lesson Learned is that Native Hawaiians were cheated by their War Leaders — primarily the House of Kamehameha. Hawaiians are not warriors. They are artisans destined to bring greater joy, kindness and aloha to the world.


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Ko’olau of Kaua’i. I am the Defiant One
“I Believe We Can”

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