Were cultural sites destroyed when building observatories?

Another of the myths that plague this conversation. While not as commonly stated as some of the other myths discussed here, it has been persistent and seems to pop up regularly.

A photo of the Mauna Kea summit area from the Preston expedition of 1892
A photo of the Mauna Kea summit area from the Preston expedition of 1892

When the 12 existing facilities were built, not only were laws waived, heiau and ahus were bulldozed into trash heaps. 

wailana in a comment on Ian Lind’s blog 14Sep2019

The myth is clearly an attempt to show that the state callously allowed the destruction of cultural properties in the past, thus showing that the state does not care for Hawaiian issues and would break its own laws.

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Political Bones

This weeks news that human remains had been placed within the TMT construction site was a surprise to many. Apparently a well known protester, Palikapu Dedman, had placed an iwi, human remains, into an ahu constructed last year on the site. He did this twice! Apparently the first set of remains had vanished, so he replaced them with a second set.

An ancient ahu (shrine) atop Mauna Kea with the summit in the background
Outrage was quickly expressed at this revelation in various online forums, the conversation on Facebook was particularly scathing. Condemnation being particularly intense from other Hawaiian commentators that can not fathom how traditional values could be violated like this. The use of ancestral bones as political playing pieces is something many found utterly disgraceful, a sentiment I share.

While much of the local community was quick to express disapproval of this action, notable TMT opponents do not appear to have condemned this outrageous action. Indeed I have yet to see any condemnation for the act on any of the opposition sites or Facebook pages. Yes, I have looked. They link the article, but there are no comments. Even more telling, it appears that many in the local Hawaiian community were aware of this for some time now, but have been silent on the issue.

In addition to the recent revelations in the papers concerning the iwi in the TMT site ahu. There is a claim of another burial in a contested case filing. Dated Sept 2nd, we have document 252 “Fergerstrom Notice of Family Burial Claim Under the Proposed TMT Site” filed by Harry Fergerstrom claiming that a family burial is located “on the access road to the TMT”. The filing is accompanied by a DLNR Burial registration form application.

It seems to be a common belief that the summit is a burial ground. it is certainly an idea that those protesting the TMT are trying to push, they have made this claim in the past. The most recent push may be an attempt to capitalize on the Standing Rock DAPL pipeline controversy that has so much media attention.

It’s important to remember that Mauna Kea is a burial ground – Kealoha Pisciotta quoted in Civil Beat

Mauna Kea is site of mass burial of iwi for centuries. – Pohaku Keaau comment on the Hilo Tribune website

The problem with this argument is that the summit does not appear to have ever been a significant burial ground. There are only a handful of confirmed burials on the mountain and a couple dozen suspected burials, mostly at lower elevations (below 10,000 feet) and none within a mile of the TMT site.

Ahu in the Road
An ahu built in the downhill lane of the Mauna Kea summit access road
There are a couple old references that mention burials at the summit, but there is scant on the ground evidence to support this, it is very possible that they are referring to the lower elevation areas that are known. Hawaiian burials are very common along coastlines that were heavily populated in pre-contact times, there is little mystery in how the ancient Hawaiians buried their dead.

The TMT site itself is mostly solid rock outcropping, there is scant place to hide a burial. The TMT site has been repeatedly examined for burials by various parties, none has been found, at least nothing historical, discounting these recent planted burials. And while the proposed access road to the TMT does cross the lower edge of a cinder cone, this particular path has been previously disturbed by an older road and is unlikely to hide anything.

What a lot of people do not realize is how much the cinder moves about, slowly slumping down the sides of the pu’u under the power of frost heaving and solifluction. If there were “mass burials” of iwi secreted on the summit over the centuries they would not be a secret any longer. We would have beautifully preserved bones appearing out of the cinders on a routine basis. In my decade on the summit I have never seen or heard of such an event.

No doubt the burial ground argument will have traction with those inclined to believe despite the lack of any evidence to the contrary. We will be hearing more on this issue, a new and utterly disgraceful maneuver by TMT opponents.

What about offerings?

I walk a short distance from the road looking for a vantage point to set up a camera and note three different offerings within a minute, you can do this at any random spot with a good view along the summit road. They are everywhere, old leis pinned underneath rocks, the remains of little bags filled with shells and coral, ti leave bundles bleached nearly white by the weather.

An old offering
An old offering of shells and coral in a cloth bag left atop Mauna Kea
Out of respect I leave them alone, as does most everyone who spends time on the mountain. They are never in my way, I just note them and move on. But what can you do about these offerings when they begin to be an issue for the environment?

Previously the rate of offerings was fairly sedate, their appearance uncommon but steady. At the summit, at Lake Waiau, at out of the way ahu that few ever notice. Since the TMT controversy started the rate of offerings appearing on the mountain has multiplied tremendously.

In the lowlands, the forest, the seashores, offerings like these would quickly return to the earth from which they were created. The natural process of decay ensuring that the materials are cycled back into nature. The summit of Mauna Kea is different, the very dry environment preserving plant materials for years or decades. Other offerings include materials that do not break down so readily, shell, coral and cloth can persist for a very long time.

Is there a correct way for a cultural practitioner to remove offerings from an area? Is there someone who can be tasked to do this? Many other religions include rules for handling offerings left at shrines or altars, if only to make way for further offerings to be left. Is there no choice but to leave them in place?

What about the ahu?

Ancient ahu dot the summit slopes of Mauna Kea. These stone shrines or altars are primarily found on the southern plateau near the adze quarry. There are dozens of sites scattered across the slopes, usually atop prominent rock outcroppings. The most typical structure is a stone pile or platform with a large upright stone at the center. A few sites have multiple uprights. The uprights are clearly carefully chosen, usually a long narrow pohaku.

An ancient ahu (shrine) atop Mauna Kea with Mauna Loa in the background
These ancient ahu are usually modest constructions, none exhibiting the fine stonework visible in the heiau and other religious sites across the islands. The harsh weather of Mauna Kea has taken its toll, often the stones are scattered, the upright has fallen.

There is one modern ahu that has been around for a while, sometimes. At the very summit of the mountain an ahu can usually be found. Apparently there is some disagreement about the presence of this ahu. I have seen the stones scattered, I have seen the ahu reappear. When I first began working on Mauna Kea the summit this ahu had a lele, a simple wooden platform built over the ahu.

The current attention focused on Mauna Kea has seen a resurgence in the building of ahu as an act of protest. At least five have been built that I am aware of. Two at the TMT site, two in the middle of the gravel portion of the summit road, one alongside the summit road about halfway up the switchbacks.

These are typically much more substantial structures than the ancient sites. Actually quite well built, sometimes with local rock, at least one is built with rounded stream boulders brought from far below the summit. Unlike the ancient sites these new ahu are fairly standardized, a rock platform around 10-20 square feet in size with a single large upright at the center.

Ahu in the Road
An ahu built in the downhill lane of the Mauna Kea summit access road
What is the status of these sites? What about an ahu built in the middle of a road?

I think it is pretty clear that an ahu erected with ill intent is not sacred. The entire question of sacred or not sacred is a question of intent. Setting an ahu in the middle of the road is simply not pono. Whatever motive the builder may have, creation of such a structure it is still a malicious act, a serious risk to any who use the road. The builders knew this as they stacked the stones. An ahu like this should be removed, preferably by those who erected it.

The two ahu have been removed from the summit road. A third still exists, the one built on a level area beside one of the switchbacks above Hale Pohaku, not in the road. As far as I am aware the two built on the TMT site still exist, both in the roadway. Whether they are dismantled or allowed to remain is still an open question.