Maui desecration grandmothers standup

On the morning of October 13, 2020, Aunty Uʻilani Kapu, a grandmother to 13, walked up intently to West Maui Construction foreman to serve him a motion from the Maui Lanaʻi Island Burial Council, urging them to cease and desist construction of their unpermitted miles long water line. Since it didn’t require a permit, it didn’t trigger historic review, certifying no historic properties/burials would be disturbed. Aunty and her ʻohana live in the valley above, where she has witnessed desecration in the name of irresponsible development far too many times. So when construction crews replied they wouldn’t stop the project, despite being in a highly sensitive area known to contain cemeteries and unmarked burials, she knew she couldn’t stand by to see more desecration of ʻaina or iwi. As she left the site she felt a brush by what she describes as a kupuna giving her a message, telling her it was time to stand.

She informed other kiaʻi, or protectors, of her plan to intervene on behalf of iwi kūpuna (bones of the ancestors). She and four other mothers and grandmothers, some of which are heirs to kuleana land titles on the parcel in question, put their bodies on the line by jumping into the waterline trench being dug by a giant excavator with a four-foot wide mouth and jagged teeth that rip through ʻāina. In that moment, these five warrior women prevented the project from moving forward. The police were called and they were arrested and charged with second-degree trespassing. Law enforcement informed them they were doing a “citizen’s arrest” on behalf of the construction company and landowner, Peter Martin. 

Magalianes, a mother and grandmother, says she still refers to her grown children as her cubs and she’s the mama bear; this same instinct compelled her to get into the trench to protect the iwi, ‘aina, her sisters, aunties and nieces who were in the trench, as well as future generations and their right to connect to their ancestors. Apolo-Gonsalves says she still finds herself emotionally crying just at the thought of disturbance of her ancestors, who are supposed to be resting; enough is enough! Kahiki Niles said she can’t articulate with words what compelled her. A feeling deep in her naʻau moved her to stand for what is pono. Kaluna-Palafox has been protecting burials for years and is often called to perform the pule/prayers for ceremonies involving iwi kūpuna. All of these wāhine koa express pride and say they would do it again in a heartbeat, as protecting life, even the life of our ancestors who have passed, is a part of who they are; it’s encoded in them as mothers and grandmothers to protect the sacred: ʻaina, iwi, and each other.

For Kanaka Maoli, iwi kūpuna contain collective mana (life force) that a person inherits from ancestors and also acquires over their lifetime. One burial tradition is to kanu/plant the iwi back into ʻāina, thus becoming nourishment for future generations, physically and spiritually. As people that exist in continuity with deep consciousness that respects and is informed by the cyclical nature of life, protecting burials is an intuitive cultural practice. There is a saying, “I ka wa ma mua, i ka wa ma hope” – To see the future, look to the past. There’s a keen understanding of the richness, brilliance and sacrifice of our ancestors who are buried/planted and become ʻaina: interdependence. ʻĀina is kanaka and kanaka is ʻāina.

The hoa ʻāina went from a population of one million to 40,000 in a little over 100 years as a result of settler colonialism and unfettered capitalism, destroying Kanaka ways of life. The protective instinct is strong in folks who are awake to our history; when desecration threatens our ancestors, a deep vigilant call to action can be stirred, as it was in these five mothers and grandmothers who stepped out of their comfort zones and stopped construction. Law enforcement later corrected their mistake after it was made clear that ʻohana had property interests that could only be adjudicated in court and after returning the next day to find even more wahine standing in the trench they retreated. 

As wāhine koa, women warriors, these five fulfilled their kuleana to protect both past and future in a move that will have them uplifted as sheroes for generations to come, sharing this moʻolelo and weaving it into tapestries of struggles and victories in the quest to protect the sacred. E mālama i na iwi kūpuna!

Image Credit: Noelani Ahia

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Noelani Ahia is healer, iwi protector, mauna medic and community organizer committed to uplifting the voices of the people and sharing the truth about the history and current reality of life for Kanaka Maoli.


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