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Oahu locals discuss the lost tomb of King Kamehameha I

Graphic by Milani Ip

“At midnight, therefore, when black darkness had fallen and no one was likely to be on the road, Hoa-pili sent his man, Ho’olulu, to bring the container of wickerwork in which the bones of Kamehameha were kept. The next morning Hoa-pili and Ke-opu-o-lani took a canoe to Kaloko where Hoa-pili met the man who had charge of the secret cave and together they placed the bones there.”

-S.M. Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii

2019 marks 200 years since the death of King Kamehameha I and while his final resting place has never been found, cultural and historical experts frame any attempt to find it as grave robbing out of respect for the chief and an effort to preserve his mana (power).

Dr. Fermandez, an Oahu local and professor of Hawaiian studies with a focus in Hawaiian history and representative on the burial council of Oahu, said, “The issue is kuleana, or responsibility. We must determine how to best preserve and protect [ancient Hawaiian remains] without desecrating them. 

 “As the only remains of the kapuna (elders), the iwi (bones) carry the mana (force, essence, spirit, power). Objects, people, with a lot of mana are kapu (sacred and forbidden).” Therefore, since Kamehameha’s mana was so great, his iwi carries that same mana and kapu. 

Cy Bridges, Oahu native and 2nd counselor in the temple presidency of the Laie Temple, said, “With the chiefs of the past, relatives were usually given the task of hiding the bones of the deceased after a ritual partial cremation or consumption of the body. They wanted the bones to be hidden because opposing chiefs would try to desecrate the graves and use the bones for fishhooks. 

“Those entrusted to hide the bones would sail out as far as the eye can see, then they turn and come back in and hide the bones so that no one can find them. Sometimes, these guardians took their own lives so no one could find them. Kamehameha is one of the last great chiefs hidden in this way. People can find say, ‘We found this, we found that’ but they found stuff, not Kamehameha.’”

Indeed, according to the Archeological Institute of America, the last king of Hawaii, David Kalakaua, launched the last expedition to find Kamehameha's tomb. Under Kalakaua’s direction, “two sets of bones [were] removed from a burial cave on the island of Hawaii and interred in the Royal Mausoleum in Oahu, believing one of them to have been Kamehameha’s.” Since then, however, experts have been unable to confirm these bones as Kamehameha’s, and believe his final resting place is still waiting to be found.

Fermandez added, “How should they be cared for once they’re dug up and disturbed? The preference is to preserve in place, keep them there. Sometimes it might be better for them to be removed. We help to weigh in. Its context driven, certain areas will already have burial preserves, maybe it’s fragmented, better to gather and preserve. It’s between us and the state, our burial council also represent large landowners, to balance the interests of modern society and culture and tradition.”

The debate over the search for Kamehameha’s tomb also highlights the oncoming struggle local Hawaiian communities have with preserving their archeological past and maintaining current traditions today. As recent as 2015, according to Reuter’s news, Hawaiians were legally allowed to practice traditional burial techniques. 

Writer: J. Eston Dunn