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Filmmaker Keoni Kealoha Alvarez makes Hawaiian burials his mission in life

September 11, 2022

In the early 2000s, Keoni Kealoha Alvarez, then a fledgling filmmaker, was intrigued by ancient human remains that were discovered on the Big Island in Puna, at a site that had been targeted for a housing project.

Twenty years later, he’s become deeply invested in the issue of Native Hawaiian burial sites, writing three books on the subject and producing a documentary, “Kapu: Sacred Hawaiian Burials.”

 

“One of the kupuna actually put me on this journey, and at first it was to get to film about the subject, but then it became a passion project,” said Alvarez, who in the course of his research met with kupuna and government officials, studied archives at libraries and museums and visited burial sites on several islands. His film was screened at the recent Maui Film Festival. The Hawai‘i International Film Festival is also planning to screen the film in November, streaming it online as well as hosting it live in Hilo.

 

For Alvarez, 41, the project has been an adventure of self-discovery as well as advocacy. “I didn’t know anything about my Hawaiian culture,” he said. “I knew a little bit, but not in depth like what I know now.”

Originally, his connection to the Puna burial site was only peripheral: His family lived nearby and had first learned about the remains in 1991, when his brothers discovered them in a cave.

Alvarez said his family believed the state had declared the site as protected, “but we realized that after so many years, when the development was going to happen, there was no records of it. So we had to play ‘catch-up,’” he said.

The proposed development would have put two homes on the site. It got him wondering: Is it legal? Should people be building on these places? Is it really sacred?

Seeking a connection to the cave, Alvarez began researching his own genealogy and found that his family had roots in Puna. That came as a surprise. Alvarez was born on Oahu and knew little about his roots.

More importantly, the connection gave him the legal right to represent the remains in discussions with the Hawaiian Burial Council for Hawaii island, a department within the State Historic Preservation Division that determines, among many things, whether a burial site should be preserved or protected.

“It was a shocker that I had connection with it, but then the burial site actually had a say, a voice,” he said, referring to his representation at the council meetings.

It was not easy finding cooperative sources for his film, but again his personal connection to the site helped open doors. “Even though I am Hawaiian, it was a very difficult process because it’s ‘kapu’ (forbidden),” he said. “Nobody talks about it because these are family practices. They would ask me why I wanted to do this, and I had to let them know it was because it was personal to me, and we were trying to protect our burial cave, but I needed their knowledge.”

Alvarez said the Puna area is riddled with caves and lava tubes, many of which contain human remains. “Some of the caves run for miles and sometimes there’s burials throughout them,” he said. “Caves were used as a natural way to bury the bones, but they also helped preserve the ‘iwi (bones) in there. You don’t want to put it too far in there, depending on climate, where the bones would mold.”

Hawaiian burials also took place along the coast, so the ocean could claim the remains, or sometimes bodies would be cremated and the ashes spread at sea, he said.

He’s concerned now that developers aren’t following proper protocols when remains are found at a project site. “People are just bulldozing,” he said. “Even though these operators know that they’re not supposed to bulldoze, and they know there’s a lot of burial sites, they just bulldoze anyway.”

Some people with good intentions have conducted ceremonies when they found burial sites, or adorned them with crystals, as if to give them a formal ­reinterment, he said, but neither is appropriate. (The proper thing to do, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, is leave the remains in place and contact the ­DLNR’s Historic Preservation Division and police.)

His status as a caretaker and protector of remains has now expanded, thanks to an almost mystical series of events. After the Puna project was shut down, several investors tried to buy the site, but “they all passed away, in weird kind of ways,” he said. The owners then offered to sell him the property, at a “fraction of the price.”

“Now I have like six of them. Two of them were gifted to me just this year,” he said. “It’s not just about a burial site. This is a spiritual connection that I have to my ancestors. It all came full circle.”