Iolani Palace Rockpile – Religious Shrine Or Political Symbol?

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During the weekend of Feb. 19, 2006, a carefully
constructed cubical pile of rocks on the grounds of
‘Iolani Palace was torn apart. The demolition happened
at night, when the grounds are closed and gates locked
(except for Hawaiian “traditional practitioners” who
have special permission to be there). According to
news reports about 50 rocks, some weighing as much as
30 pounds, were scattered as far as 75 feet away.
Within two days afterward, Hawaiian activists had
taken numerous photos documenting the event, and
reporters were summoned. The rockpile was
reconstructed in about an hour by unskilled teenagers
under the direction of the head of a sovereignty
group. The rockpile is about four feet in length,
width, and height, located on the Palace grounds in
the corner closest to King and Punchbowl streets. A
week later the identities and motives of the
perpetrators are still unknown.

Was the destruction of the rockpile a simple act of
vandalism by people who did not know its significance?
Was the demolition of the rockpile a desecration of a
religious shrine? Was it an act of racism against
ethnic Hawaiians? Was the destruction intended as a
political statement in opposition to Hawaiian
sovereignty (and therefore perhaps legally protected
free speech on the same basis as the free speech of
assembling it in the first place)? Was the destruction
perhaps done by Hawaiian sovereignty activists
themselves, wanting public sympathy for their cause
and trying to gain media attention currently focused
on a large number of recent burnings of black churches
in the Southern U.S.? (Activist Ikaika Hussey was
quoted making exactly that allusion). There’s no way
to know unless the perpetrators are caught and


Hawaiian activists, and newspaper articles, portrayed
the event using strong religious language. The
”’Honolulu Star-Bulletin”’ report was entitled: “Vandals
desecrate Iolani Palace shrine” while the Honolulu
Advertiser title was: “Hawaiians rebuild an altar.”
The news reports mentioned there were prayers to bless
the rebuilding. One activist was quoted as saying that
in the past some families had placed the ashes of
loved ones in the “shrine.”

But if this rockpile is indeed a shrine, what god(s)
does it honor? Is it an ancient shrine built primarily
for worship? Or was it built recently, and for
primarily political purposes?

The Iolani Palace rockpile was built in January 1993
as part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary
of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Its rocks
were brought from homes and special places throughout
the Hawaiian islands, and also from the mainland.
Chants and prayers accompanied its construction. The
concept was clear — rocks from many places are
assembled to build a shrine on the hallowed grounds of
the Kingdom’s Palace, just as Hawaiians from many
places will assemble to rebuild a nation. Rocks were
historically used for building small fishing shrines
and large ceremonial heiau. The best known Hawaiian
political song protesting the overthrow is “Kaulana Na
Pua” (Famous are the flowers). But the song is also
known as “Mele Ai Pohaku” (rock-eating song) because
of the famous lines “Ua lawa makou i ka pohaku, ka ai
kamaha’o o ka aina” (sufficient for us are the
stones, the woundrous food of the land).

A monument built to commemorate a historic event
deserves respect. A monument built by hand, using
materials with special symbolic and emotional
sgnificance to people from many places, certainly
deserves respect. Vandalism to such a monument
understandably causes pain and anger to those who
built it, to those whose mementos are incorporated in
it, and to others who sympathize with the monument’s

But when a monument is built primarily for a political
purpose, or as an expression of a political goal, it
is certainly a legitimate target for attack (verbal or
physical) by political opponents. Those who use
religious ceremony or symbolism in erecting a
political monument deserve no sympathy when the
religion suffers collateral damage in a political
attack against the monument.

Hawaiian sovereignty activists are becoming
increasingly bold about using the ancient religion as
embellishment for political purposes. They use
prayers, chants, and religious symbols as propaganda
tools to exalt or “bless” their political message and
to immunize it from criticism. They even use Hawaiian
language to offer religious chants and prayers in the
state Legislature during formal hearings, hoping that
the combination of Hawaiian language and religion will
make their political arguments seem sacred. They use
religion as a hostage to protect them when they launch
political attacks, much as a bank robber grabs a baby
so the cops won’t shoot at him.

How much respect is owed to a structure built for a
political or military purpose and then overlaid with a
veneer of religious ceremony? When a mosque is used as
a munitions storehouse, and the minaret is a sniper’s
nest, should opposing forces refrain from attacking
because it is a religious shrine? Should a war plane
turn away from bombing an enemy tank factory because
enemy generals ordered a red cross to be painted on
its roof? When the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled
down in Baghdad, could it have been saved by painting
a red crescent on it or placing a Koran in the
statue’s outstretched hand?

The Iolani rockpile was built for political purposes
on the grounds of a public park surrounding a museum
owned by the state of Hawaii. The activists demanded
that Gov. Waihee order the Department of Land and
Natural Resources Parks Department to allow the
rockpile to remain permanently. Waihee happily
complied, and also ordered U.S. flags removed from
State government buildings so the Hawaiian flag could
fly alone for three days as a sign of respect (or was
it disrespect?) during the overthrow centennial.

Let’s understand that the Iolani rockpile is a living
political commemoration of a historic event. The
rockpile has been added to as time goes by, and also
subtracted from (perhaps people occasionally place
rocks or personal mementos in the pile to be incubated
or suffused with mana until they are removed and taken
back home). Families from other islands and from the
mainland have had their own rocks placed in this pile
(somewhat like Jews asking for a tree to be planted in
Israel in their name). At times there have also been
cowrie or conch shells, or coral, visible among the
lava rocks.

Following the tradition of twelve years, it would be
quite appropriate for anyone to add a personal memento
to the rockpile, including those whose hearts rejoice
that the monarchy was overthrown. In keeping with the
theme of the rockpile, personal mementos added to it
should be focused on the Hawaiian revolution of 1893.
Those who appreciate the landing of U.S. peacekeepers
to prevent rioting and arson during the revolution
should feel welcome to place small U.S. flags deep in
the holes among the rocks, or perhaps to add new rocks
with “Hawaii USA” chiseled into them. Small stones
with appropriate messages would make a merry sound as
they clink-clank down through the rockpile like
marbles in a pachinko or pinball game. Alternatively,
a new monument could be built nearby as a shrine to
honor the spiritual values of Aloha For All and of the
U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the free
expression of religious and political views in public
places and prohibits the establishment of any
government-sponsored religion.



Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin
articles of February 20 regarding the destruction of
the Iolani Palace rockpile are available at and

Important information from Davianna McGregor and
others from 1993 documents that the Iolani Palace
rockpile is primarily a political monument and was
established as an assertion of race-based political
sovereignty (referring to “kanaka maoli” exclusively
rather than to the multiracial citizenry of the
Kingdom). The 1993 Apology Resolution was offered on
this “altar” as a “sacrifice.” See footnotes at as taken from Scott
Crawford’s Hawaiian Kingdom independence blog at

Letter to editor of Feb. 23 by Keawe Vredenburg
says vandalism at the rockpile must be investigated by
the federal government as an act of religious
desecration comparable to the buring of the black
churches in the South:

Sometimes gang members mark their turf with graffiti,
just as dogs or cats urinate to scent-mark their
territory. The ‘Iolani Palace rockpile might be
regarded as a three-dimensional graffito. For 70 years
the U.S. flag flew proudly atop Iolani Palace, when
it was the capitol of the Territory of Hawaii and
then the State of Hawaii, until the new capitol
building was completed next door. Today the Kingdom
flag flies over Iolani Palace, where the U.S. flag is
never allowed to fly because the state of Hawaii
allows the sovereignty independence activists to
imagine that the Palace is their Capitol of the
still-living Kingdom of Hawaii. For details of the
on-going battle of the flags in Hawaii, see:

Another example of a mixed religious/political
monument is a lele built at the summit of Mauna Kea. A
lele is a high raised platform supported by four
poles, where offerings can be placed. Certainly Mauna
Kea is a sacred place, and a lele is a traditional
religious structure. However, this lele was raised in
recent times for political purposes, and has also been
the site where Hawaiian activists have hoisted
Hawaiian flags (on the highest point of all the
Hawaiian islands) to assert continuing political
sovereignty. The Mauna Kea lele was vandalized in
February 2006, as reported in the ”’Honolulu
Star-Bulletin”’: “Mauna Kea climbers fight cold to fix
altar — The group labored in the oxygen-thin air to
replace the rock base and the wooden pole frame over
the ahu lele built in 1997″ See:

On Sovereignty Restoration Day, July 31 2003, a small
group of independence zealots displayed several
Hawaiian Kingdom flags at the summit of Mauna Kea, and
also made offerings at the lele originally built there
in 1997. Four photos from July 31, 2003, show the
ceremony. The top two photos show the tiny lele
dwarfed by any one of five Hawaiian flags, clearly
documenting the relative importance of politics and

Religious shrines are sometimes destroyed for
political purposes. The most notable such desecration
in recent times occurred in March of 2001, when a
radical islamist regime in control of Afghanistan,
known as the Taliban, carried out its announced
intention to blow up a 2000-year-old statue of Buddha
carved into the side of a mountain, despite strong
pleas from political and religious leaders throughout
the world. Similarly, in February 2006 Sunni Islamist
terrorists blew up a thousand-year-old Shiite Islamic
shrine during sectarian violence in Iraq, even though
both groups worship Allah and honor his prophet


Transcript of Hawaii Legislature Informational
Briefing Regarding the Akaka Bill by U.S. Senators
Inouye and Akaka, and U.S. Representatives Abercrombie
and Case, on March 31, 2005. The hearing was opened
with the singing of the Christian Doxology, and a
Christian prayer, both done in Hawaiian language by
the chairman of the state House committee on Hawaiian

Additional documentation of the political use of the
media following the vandalism of the Iolani Palace
rockpile is available at

”’Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D., is an independent scholar in Kaneohe, Hawaii. His Web site on Hawaiian Sovereignty is at: He can be contacted at:”’

”’ reports the real news, and prints all editorials submitted, even if they do not represent the viewpoint of the editors, as long as they are written clearly. Send editorials to”’