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Army finds human remains at Oahu base

By Audrey McAvoy
Honolulu, Hawaii (AP) May 2010

Army contractors discovered human remains believed to be ancient Hawaiian while workers were excavating at a Schofield Barracks construction site, officials said.

The Army hasn’t determined the remains are Hawaiian, but it’s assuming they are just to be safe as it investigates the site. William Aila of the group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei says the fragility and deteriorated state of the bones indicate they’re ancient, and thus Hawaiian.

Cultural and archaeological monitors hired by the Army to look out for bones and cultural artifacts found the remains during May as workers were using a front-end loader to level and clear land for the construction of a training site.

A forensic anthropologist from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command confirmed the bones were human Saturday.

It’s important in Hawaiian culture to leave bones undisturbed because of the belief that people infuse their life force into the ground once they are buried. Since this process isn’t finished until the bones have dissolved, digging them up interrupts a person’s journey in the afterlife.

Aila said the disturbed remains should be put back where they were found so the individual can continue on his or her journey.

“It’s like being ripped from the dark and put back into the bright sunlight where they don’t belong,” he said.

The equivalent for Christians, Aila said, would be “somebody reaching their hand up into heaven and pulling your spirit down from heaven.”

Aila says the Army should rebury the bones, or iwi, screen the disturbed dirt for additional remains and stop digging in the area. After the remains are reinterred, the Army should hold a ceremony to apologize to the individual whose bones were dug up, he said.

The Army has fenced off about 500 square feet around the spot where the bones were found and has halted all further construction at the site.

“It’s all about the investigation – not about the work – and doing the right thing, handling the remains with respect and dignity,” said Loran Doane, a spokesman for U.S. Army Garrison-Hawaii. “That’s what our focus is on.”

David Henkin, an Earthjustice lawyer who has repeatedly sued the Army over protection of Hawaiian cultural sites, said the case was an example of threats faced by such resources.

“It certainly illustrates the risk of harm to cultural remains when the Army goes forward with activities in the very sensitive areas that it controls,” Henkin said.

Aila said he was concerned to hear from the cultural monitors that Army officials wanted to treat the bones as animal remains and contacted an expert to evaluate the nature of the bones only when monitors insisted.

But Doane said officials immediately assumed the remains were human and called the expert for verification.

This is the process called for in the Army’s “inadvertent discovery plan” for Hawaiian remains, Doane said, adding officials followed it “to a T.”

The Army says it’s working with state and federal agencies to ensure it complies with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.