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I remember my time in Paris with great fondness. The architecture and grandeur of that extraordinary city is humbling. My sense of time and history changed upon visiting Europe, for the built environment of the United States feels young, even infantile, against European cities with their depth and magnificence.
Notre-Dame de Paris is a grand monument to the city, its people, and its culture. I, like so many around the world, watched with sadness and horror as flames tore through the Catholic cathedral Monday.
Quick were the assurances that the country would rebuild this Lady of Paris. French billionaire François-Henri Pinault committed to donate 100 million euros to reconstruct the iconic building. It is heartwarming and reassuring to see people care so deeply about heritage sites, especially those, like Notre Dame, that are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Cultural heritage exists all around us, and it should not take the burning of a globally significant site like Notre Dame to remind us that heritage resources need to be cared for and preserved.
Cultural heritage is defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as “the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.”
UNESCO recognizes three types of cultural heritage:
Hawaii is extraordinary, in part, because of its abundance of all three forms of heritage all around us. Our cultural landscapes are storied places, or wahi pana, where thousands of years of epic sagas about our traditional gods and chiefs unfolded.
We are regularly surrounded by magnificent works of tangible cultural heritage, both pre-contact and post-contact, that reflect innovation in engineering and architecture. From fishponds to Ossipoff homes, historic sites can be found all over Hawaii, reflecting an astonishing intersection of culture and talent not commonly found elsewhere.
Finally, despite the United States not being a signatory to The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, Hawaii remains a community so rich in this form of heritage. From hula and mele to cultural festivals and lantern ceremonies, these islands have long been a refuge for cultural traditions.
Yet, despite all the community work, we still do not do enough to protect historic and sacred sites in Hawaii.
First and foremost, we don’t provide enough resources to the State Historic Preservation Division. The division needs more money, and it also needs to pay its overworked staff members more so they are willing to stay when the private sector comes calling.
Second, we don’t educate ourselves enough about the importance of historic sites. People will not care for what they do not understand or appreciate. It is important to have open dialogues about cultural resources.
Hawaiians must assume some of the responsibility for the continued ignorance about historic and sacred sites. Where Hawaiians are having discussions about these important issues, they are often segregated from a larger sector of the community that does the hard work of protecting and regulating these sites. This is a mistake.
We need to be educating residents, both Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian, about the value of Hawaii’s heritage. We need to be dialoguing. We need to be learning from one another. We need to care about each other’s cultures. We need to care about each other’s sites and heritage.
The world cares about Notre Dame for two critical reasons: It is well-cared for and it has been accessible to the world.
I am not advocating making sacred sites more physically accessible, but I am strongly advocating for stronger messaging from our state and local governments that heritage sites are important, sacred, cared for and valued. We are well overdue to communicate how much heritage matters to us as a community.
I am also advocating for making the significance of these places more accessible, even if remotely through technology, as a means of educating both our residents and visitors. Sites are sacred all the time. We should make every effort to have that be part of our collective understanding about Hawaii.
Traditional management involved the people, all the people. Ma‘ilikūkahi, a high chief of Oahu from the pre-contact era, was successful in implementing the ahupua‘a system because he understood that effective management required all the people under his rule to vest and benefit from the management of resources.
This form of management was place-based and dynamic. And it was wildly effective.
Heritage sites are truly about more than just architecture or culture. They are about history and identity. The value of preserving sites is that we can protect and preserve the power and integrity that our kupuna infused into these sites when they built with such deliberation and care.
If we can recognize that our songs, poems and stories contain layers of kaona — hidden meaning, then is it so hard to realize that built environments also contain layers of knowledge and meaning that we have yet to unlock and restore? When we alter, modify or destroy historic sites, it is as if we set a cache of knowledge on fire.
And for our beloved native sites, which have not had the benefit of centuries of study, documentation and data collection, there is no way to rebuild what we lose.
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