Federal agencies are relying on West Maui locals to identify cultural and archeological artifacts in the ruins of August’s deadly wildfires.

The workday began at 7 a.m. Saturday with a safety briefing and pule, or prayer, in Lahaina’s Safeway parking lot.

Safety vests and steel-toed shoes adorned the workers. Some wore blue shirts emblazoned with Environmental Protection Agency logos. Others were clad in red, the color of Lahaina. The workers formed a circle and clapped as Ikaika Kapu led a pule in olelo Hawaii, the Indigenous language of Hawaii.

EPA workers and contractors gather for a safety briefing before the start of their workday in Lahaina. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

Afterwards, Kapu explained the significance of the morning ritual.

“The pule is to keep us safe. It’s to protect everyone who is working their butts off,” Kapu said.

Kapu is one of more than 20 cultural monitors from Na Aikane o Maui Inc., a cultural nonprofit whose Front Street location was destroyed in the Aug. 8 wildfire, one of over 2,200 structures that succumbed to flames.

At day’s end, Kapu offered a closing pule so that workers could leave behind any bad feelings or negative energy they may have absorbed during their work.

“Here in Hawaii, we are very spiritual,” he said.

The souls of the 99 people who died in the fire linger over the ruins, and chanting pule is a way to respectfully separate before workers return to their ohanas, he explained.

A soil stabilizer was sprayed on burned ash and debris of this house Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Lahaina. While it is difficult to visually discern the area was sprayed, once dried, it will feel different. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Cultural monitors are employed by federal agencies to identify culturally and archeologically significant items left behind in the rubble and ash from the Lahaina wildfire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Presevering Culture

Na Aikane o Maui is a subcontractor to Environmental Quality Management, an environmental consulting firm owned by Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Alaska Native corporation. With annual revenue of nearly $4 billion in 2022, Arctic Slope is considered a disadvantaged business because of its Native ownership, giving it preferential treatment in government contracting.

The EPA has awarded EQM a $25 million contract to handle various aspects of Lahaina’s recovery. The work includes ensuring that the town’s rich cultural history is preserved as much as possible during cleanup.

As of Saturday, the EPA was 80% done with removing hazardous household material from Lahaina’s burned parcels. This includes items like batteries, paints, solvents, electronics, pesticides and plastics.

When the EPA’s work ends, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will take over, starting phase two of the cleanup. Heavy equipment crews will haul away an estimated 700,000 tons of rubble and ash. Some will go to the mainland and some will stay in Maui landfills, according to the Corps.

Having cultural monitors in place is key to ensure that crews “perform their work for the people of Maui with confidence that items of cultural importance are going to be protected,” said Col. Jess Curry, Recovery Field Office commander, in a news release.

Col. Jess Curry, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Recovery Field Office commander, talks with an Upcountry resident during a public meeting at the Kula Elementary School in Kula. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

Last week, the corps awarded a $19 million contract to AEPAC, a woman-owned, Honolulu-based firm, for cultural monitoring of the cleanup.

The subcontractors include Na Aikane o Maui, Aina Archeology, Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement and Brandis Sarich Art + Architecture. Their work will focus on wildfire damage evaluation, assessment of historic and cultural properties and carrying out an archeological treatment plan under guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The archeological plan requires having traditional practitioners with specialized knowledge on the ground to monitor debris removal. Their duties include performing cultural protocols and providing oversight to prevent damage to cultural resources, Edward Rivera, a Corps spokesman, said by email.

Having local people who are cultural practitioners on site during debris removal should lend some comfort to families who lost their homes and belongings in the fire, said disaster restoration expert Aaron Poentis.

“It’s such an emotionally charged situation,” said Poentis, who works for First Onsite Property Restoration, which has offices on Oahu and Maui.

If it was your property and government contractors were sorting through your belongings, it might make you feel uncomfortable too, he said.

The cultural monitors ensure that sensitivity is brought to a heartbreaking and emotionally fraught situation, Poentis said.

Namea Hoshino agreed.

“This place was desecrated by the fire. We have to protect our sacred land,” said Hoshino, a Lahaina native who is working as a cultural monitor.

Namea Hoshino is working as a cultural monitor in response to the Lahaina wildfire. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

The cultural monitors receive hazardous material health and safety training. They work six days a week, often 12-hour days, identifying items of cultural or archeological significance and making sure the cleanup is done respectfully. It’s not uncommon for them to also find human remains, EPA officials said.

Although cultural monitors may lack archeological or other formal training, they have important generational knowledge, Hoshino said.

“It’s doing the right thing. If we’re not there, who else? Who else is going to make those kind of corrections, those kind of protections?” he said.

The EPA’s incident commander for the cleanup said Saturday it was clear from the beginning that the federal response to the West Maui disaster needed to be handled much differently than other wildfire incidents.

“We knew we needed to do this in a very culturally sensitive way,” Chris Myers said. “All the protocols needed to be respected.”

Extra-Special Care Required

Once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom and home to high-ranking alii, Lahaina holds special significance for Kanaka Maoli, Hawaii’s Indigenous people.

Chris Myers is the EPA’s incident commander on Maui responding to the Aug. 8 wildfire in Lahaina. (Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2023)

Although known more recently as a party spot for mai tai-sipping tourists, Lahaina once served as the spiritual and political home of Maui’s chiefs. The Kamehameha dynasty based itself in Lahaina for over 50 years until 1845, when the seat of government shifted to Honolulu.  

Over the decades, the scenic town morphed into a cultural melting pot with the arrival of commercial whaling, sugar plantations and later, industrial-scale tourism. The town became home to multigenerational families of Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Pacific Islander, Latino and other ethnic origins.

Given its complex history and the vast human scale of the tragedy – the worst U.S. wildfire in more than a century — Lahaina’s cleanup has required extra-special care from culturally trained eyes.

Lahaina has a high density of ohana burials on kuleana parcels as well as known cemeteries and lesser-known old burial complexes, said Fay McFarlane, a kako’o technical worker with Na Aikane o Maui.

Because of that, the EPA is making every effort to approach the hazardous material removal “with the utmost respect and reverence,” the federal agency said in a news release and in interviews.

The work of scouring burned parcels often brings surprises.

The agency has trained the cultural monitors to look out for potentially explosive items and to call for expert help when needed. On Friday, for example, EPA crews entered a burned parcel and discovered more than 40,000 rounds of ammunition.

It came up during Saturday’s safety briefing.

“If the casings are empty, you can treat it as scrap metal,” said Rick Mehl, operations lead for Weston Solutions Inc., an EPA contractor.

Otherwise, EPA has unexploded ordnance technicians on hand who will check things out and determine if it’s live or spent ammunition, he said.

Lithium ion batteries and Tesla powerwalls that store energy are another big hazard that cultural monitors are trained to look out for. A large number of electric vehicles, lithium batteries and powerwalls are showing up in the Lahaina cleanup, Myers said.

EPA crews always enter a property first to scout out the hazards before cultural monitors are allowed in, he said.

“We go in first to make sure there’s nothing flammable.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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