Despite Warnings and Pleas, Rail Headed for ‘Burials Central’

Kēhaunani Abad, PhD
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Kēhaunani Abad, PhD

By Kēhaunani Abad, PhD – As early as 2005, the Oʻahu Island Burial Council (OIBC) raised red flags. The rail project would undoubtedly impact Hawaiian burials.

Three years later, when the OIBC had not received promised communications from the City and County of Honolulu, the council asked for an update.


At that time, and at many meetings thereafter, the OIBC called into question the planned rail alignment, which would directly collide with concentrations of burials.

Joining the council’s strong objections were the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hui Mālama i Nā Kūpuna O Hawaiʻi Nei, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and Hawaiian families.

But City planners did not listen or did not care.

A growing chorus implored transit officials to shift the project route, thereby avoiding known burial areas. Still the City ignored efforts to avoid conflict and prevent costly litigation, delays and project modifications that would ensue once burials were encountered.

Despite these warnings and pleas, the railway is headed straight for an area that could be called “Burials Central.”

Since the State implemented burial laws in 1990, more than 400 burials have been encountered in the core of the Honolulu urban corridor – an area bordered by River, King and Keʻeaumoku streets and Ala Moana Boulevard. Adding documented historic cemeteries and epidemic burials to the 400 would more than double that figure.

Before Western contact and well into the 19th century, rolling sand dunes in this area were burial grounds for generations of Honolulu ʻohana. They would kanu, or plant, the remains of loved ones in the dunes.

Mana concentrated in iwi kūpuna (ancestral remains) would imbue the ʻāina and spiritually nourish the living community. Under the protection of their ʻohana, iwi kūpuna and ʻāina would become one, perpetually connecting kūpuna, ʻāina and ‘ohana.

But following two centuries of foreign impacts, these traditional burial areas were no longer controlled by families of the deceased. Disease and depopulation, the improper seizure of lands and illegal overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian government created a spiral of negative outcomes – including removal of many ʻohana from ancestral lands.

Burial areas came to be “owned” by landlords and governed by new laws that afforded no protection to unmarked burials. Many burials were dug up and destroyed. Hundreds of others were built upon, leaving iwi kūpuna to continue their repose in Honolulu burial sands.

But lack of Hawaiian ownership of burial sites has not bred lack of concern. Hard-fought laws were enacted to safeguard burials as significant historic sites.

Prior to the rail project gaining approval, state and federal laws require completion of an Archaeological Inventory Survey (AIS) to identify significant historic properties, such as burials, and facilitate plans to avoid them.

To shortcut this vital planning process – and despite vehement objections of the OIBC – federal officials, the State Department of Transportation (DOT), Honolulu transit officials and others signed a rail Programmatic Agreement in 2011.

Unfortunately, this agreement enables the project to start construction along a committed route without first completing an AIS.

This misguided approach places Native Hawaiian burials in peril and gambles with taxpayer dollars. As attorneys for the National Trust for Historic Preservation warned, “the City’s decision renders the project legally vulnerable under Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act.”

This Act dictates that the federal DOT “cannot approve the use of land [involving]…historic sites [including burials] unless…there is no feasible and prudent alternative” and only if “the action includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the property resulting from use.”

But planning for burials has been minimal. The City has not completed its AIS for the project area involving “Burials Central” and has not seriously considered an alternate course, such as a King Street route, which would avoid burials.

If burials are found via the AIS or later during construction (since an AIS investigates only a sample of the project area), two laws are triggered.

First, Section 4(f) of the DOT Act would force transit officials to seek a “feasible and prudent alternative” that avoids burials.

And second, state law authorizes the OIBC or the Department of Land and Natural Resources to preserve the burials in place, as was done at Ward Villages where fundamental project changes were required.

If burials remain in place, rail alterations would be required.

Turning a blind eye to this reality, rail proponents contend they need only move a rail pillar forward or backward along the route to avoid burials. But that myth assumes burial areas would be limited and overlooks the greater impacts of train station construction and infrastructure relocation.

Four immense rail passenger stations are planned for the Honolulu urban corridor. And massive ground disturbance would occur as electric, phone, cable, water and sewer lines are relocated and roadways reconstructed.

So the question is not whether these disturbances of sandy deposits would encounter burials. The question is how destructive such encounters would be as work proceeds.

Would kūpuna be brutally unearthed by backhoes or pounded into oblivion by pile drivers?

If kūpuna are laid bare by intrusive archaeological hands, would transit officials coerce the OIBC to remove the remains?

If kūpuna are undisturbed, would the rail project require major alteration? At how many junctures might this occur? How would this affect the project timing and budget?

These are questions that should have been investigated long ago to minimize harm to kūpuna, anguish for the Hawaiian community and expense for Honolulu taxpayers.

Overriding each of these concerns, however, is the City’s desperate and shortsighted determination to force the rail project forward – no matter what the cost.


Kēhaunani Abad received her Ph.D. in archaeology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She served on the Oʻahu Island Burial Council for 12 years and has regularly been an expert witness in court cases involving historic preservation matters. She wrote this piece in April 2012 and it is reprinted with permission.





  1. Mahalo for the best explanation of the Federal and state laws regarding the rail and ancestral bones I've read.

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