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Human remains placed at TMT site

A Hilo man says an ahu built at the Thirty Meter Telescope site atop Mauna Kea should be protected after he deposited human remains there.

Palikapu Dedman, who is facing potential criminal charges, told the Tribune-Herald he placed iwi, or bones, belonging to an ancestor on the stone altar last September and then again earlier this month after realizing the first set of bones went missing.

He declined to provide details for how he got the remains but claimed they belong to relatives and that they are from Ka‘u, his ancestral home. Dedman said he has more.

State law prohibits the excavation or alteration of a burial site.

“It’s a traditional process,” said Dedman, an activist involved in geothermal and Native Hawaiian issues. “I had a right to do it.”

He said he wanted to show the area is a Hawaiian burial site, a claim made by some opponents of the proposed telescope.

His handling of the remains prompted a state Department of Land and Natural Resources investigation, which was recently forwarded to the Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for review.

But Dedman said he doesn’t think he’s the one who should be investigated. He said he filed his own complaint with DLNR regarding the missing bones, but doesn’t suspect the state is responsible.

Dedman said he also plans to seek protective status for the ahu, which he helped build last year, as a burial site.

A DLNR spokesman said he couldn’t comment on the matter since the placement of the iwi is still considered under investigation. But he noted the department consults with the state Historic Preservation Division before touching human remains.

Dedman acknowledged his actions upset some in the Hawaiian community, including fellow opponents of the large observatory. He said he thought it was OK for him to relocate the remains if they belong to relatives.

“I don’t feel I desecrated nothing,” he said.

“I feel proud of putting them at the top of the mountain.”

Naea Stevens, a cultural guide at the Mauna Kea visitor center, disagrees.

He said relocating remains is disrespectful to the ancestors. Hearing about it made him feel “incredibly uncomfortable.”

“It really goes against protocol for how the bones are supposed to be cared for,” Stevens said. “Because in traditional practice, the bones of the dead are really some of the most sacred things that people can interact with.”

Alan Downer, Historic Preservation Division administrator, said relocation of Hawaiian remains requires a burial plan approved by the island’s burial council.

That includes remains of relatives.

Dedman isn’t the only TMT opponent trying to raise the issue of burials.

Harry Fergerstrom, a participant in the contested case for TMT’s land use permit, recently submitted a “notice of burial claim under the proposed TMT site” as part of the quasi-judicial hearing. He said a relative told him that there are remains of his ancestors near the access road for the project.

“Burials are another area that needs to be explored,” Fergerstrom said.

The Office of Mauna Kea Management says the mountain has been extensively surveyed for burials and other archaeological features. There are no known burials at the TMT site, located at 13,100 feet above sea level, or other telescope sites, according to the office.

Archaeological studies have identified five burials and 24 possible burials in the 11,288-acre Mauna Kea Science Reserve, all at least one mile from the TMT site, according to the project’s environmental impact statement from 2010.

“As a result, the Project is not anticipated to have substantial adverse effects on any burial blessing practices occurring on Maunakea,” the document says.

But it adds: “there are perceptions among some Native Hawaiians, some of which are backed by various types of documentary evidence, that the summit area holds, or once held, many more burials than archaeologists have been able to document.”

Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth said his office is reviewing the report from DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement regarding the iwi, but couldn’t estimate when a decision on criminal charges will be made.

Dedman is not new to burial issues.

He said he helped return remains held by the Bishop Museum to South Point in the 1980s and was involved in the fight to protect ancient burials unearthed in 1989 at Honokahua, Maui.

Dedman said he doesn’t see any comparisons between what he did and attempts to relocate remains at Honokahua.

“I’m just being responsible for my ancestors,” he said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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