Lani Ma’a Lapilio

Relationship to the National Trust for Historic Preservation

It is truly a privilege to serve as an advisor from Hawai'i to the National Trust for Historic Preservation since 2003.  Although there have been many historic preservation professionals from Hawai'i that have served, I would not be surprised if I was the first native Hawaiian to serve as an advisor to the Trust.  Hopefully this trend towards attracting more native peoples to participate in Trust activities will continue as there are definitely more native Hawaiians that are choosing to pursue careers in the field of historic preservation.  It has been an exciting few years and I am very grateful for the many opportunities the Trust has provided me to learn about national historic preservation issues and especially to be able to work with other advisors and colleagues that are either native or have experience in native issues. I am also the principal of a small consulting firm called Aukahi that specializes in resolving cultural resource management issues for our clients.

How and why did you first become involved in historic/cultural resource preservation?

I consider my first involvement with historic/cultural preservation to be my cultural training as a hula olapa (student) beginning at age three.  From a native perspective, hula is a way of life that requires a commitment to learn the history, culture, language, traditions, legends and values of the kanaka maoli (Hawaiian people).  This cultural tradition also requires one to become familiar with the many natural resources that were used to perpetuate the art of the hula dance such as the ferns and foliage in the forests that were harvested to make the lei (i.e. for the head, hand and feet), the natural dye(s) and materials for the costumes as well as the handmade musical implements.  As I get older I understand better the value and importance of perpetuating these cultural activities and revitalizing our traditions and life ways. One of the benefits is that it has a profound effect on the Hawaiian psyche, health, educational achievement and overall sense of well being. The fact that in generations from now, my children's children will continue to see the value in our culture and teachings – and will continue to pass them on is what motivates me more than anything else.

How did you become familiar and connected with the National Trust for Historic Preservation?

I learned about the Trust from Dr. William Murtagh, the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.  As one of the first graduates of the University of Hawai'i Historic Preservation Certificate Program, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to study under the tutelage of Dr. Murtagh who was the head of our program at the time. He spoke highly and frequently of the good work of the Trust, although it would be many years later that I would be invited to serve as an advisor.

What led you into the field of law?

There were many reasons that I pursued a career in law although you can imagine my delight when I found out there was a body of law that existed to help preserve and protect historic and cultural resources.  Hawai'i's constitution gives the State the power to protect historic properties and Hawaiian traditional and customary rights. My interests have only deepened over the years with the complexities of balancing cultural resource management issues and concerns with development.  It has been a privilege for me to advocate the views of native Hawaiian individuals and diverse ethnic groups within the context of the legal system as well as to give intelligent counsel on the law's requirements.

How do you apply your law experience to preserving historic/cultural resources?

With my legal training and background in historic preservation, I counsel businesses, community leaders and families to help them plan, communicate, manage and resolve their cultural resource and other sensitive issues in a proactive and culturally appropriate manner.

Native Hawaiians are intensely committed to protecting our ancestral burial sites and of particular concern is the prospect of finding human burial remains in the course of development. Following an incident in which thousands of burials were disturbed during the development of a resort in Maui, the Legislature enacted the burial sites law in 1988.  Over the years there have been many projects that have been stopped or substantially delayed due to the inability to resolve these issues in a timely manner, not to mention the negative publicity and the increased costs of these incidents.  However with early consultation and advance planning while navigating the historic preservation review process and burial laws, projects need not be delayed, can be more cost efficient and relations with the native Hawaiian community can be positive and enhance project goals.  Taking proper care of our ancestors (that have or may be impacted by development) is an issue of deep concern and involves developing collaborative approaches and true partnerships with all stakeholders, especially native Hawaiian families and other constituencies to see that everyone's interests are addressed respectfully and satisfactorily. These situations are very challenging but there is no more rewarding work than being able to take care of the iwi kupuna (ancestral Hawaiian burials) in a proper and respectful way.

I am a great believer that education has a huge role in all that we do. It is up to us to educate our community about what's important and to preserve and learn from our cultural resources and places. In the past I have authored two handbooks (one of them on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the other on historic preservation laws in Hawai'i) in order to share important information on these topics.

Why is historic/cultural resource preservation important in Hawai'i?

Historic preservation is extremely important as our cultural identity is rooted in these historic and cultural places.  Our native Hawaiian people have suffered a lot of losses that have cut deeply into the foundations of our sustenance and our identity.  Preserving these places is how we will sustain our health and well being, now and in the future.

Historic preservation becomes even more important today as it is a time of great transition in our islands. You may find it interesting that only 56% of people that were born in Hawai'i continue to live here.  As Hawaiians, we are really struggling to maintain our identity as the economic and social changes in Hawai'i over the past two centuries have been devastating to a great deal of the population, health and well being of the Native Hawaiian people. Many Native Hawaiians have been displaced in their homeland and they have many unique challenges, including poor housing, poor health care, alcoholism, lack of transportation, and poverty, which are really affecting especially our youth's ability to achieve.  We have had to forfeit our lands with the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian nation in 1893 and have seen the demise of our language and cultural traditions. There are now initiatives in place that are bringing back our culture, traditions and native language. There is also national legislation that is being proposed seeking federal recognition to address self determination and sovereignty for native Hawaiians due to the illegal overthrow of our nation and government in 1893. This calls on the federal government to support the sovereign rights of Native Hawaiians and establish a government-to-government relationship with the Hawaiian Nation in a manner similar to American Indians and Alaska Natives.  These efforts are supported by National Congress of American Indian member tribes. 

Preserving our historic and cultural resources becomes even more critical as our society transforms at an alarming rate. These resources are anchors connecting the past, present and future and offer a way of preserving our unique cultural and community identity.

One of the goals of the Trust is to ensure that our irreplaceable heritage is kept vibrant.  Indeed we need to make sure these resources are protected for the future as powerful links to the past, teaching tools to the present and a living gift for future generations in the perpetuation of our Hawaiian culture.

What are some of the most common threats to historic/cultural resource preservation in Hawai'i?

As Hawai'i gets more and more developed, preservation of Hawai'i's natural and built environment becomes even more important as it provides a unique sense of place to our communities. As more visitors come to these islands, it is especially important to educate them about respecting these unique cultural places, otherwise it will just be another destination with sun and beaches and they will be missing the true essence of Hawai'i.

Are there certain factors that make historic/cultural resource preservation in Hawai'i unique?

We are an island state with a unique and irreplaceable cultural heritage. Because our available land is scarce, the threat of development is a constant factor and so we must be ever vigilant.  As we become more aware of our history and cultural heritage and thoughts turn to nation-building, traditional cultural places such as I'olani Palace and Mauna Ala become important as the source of our pride of place and culture. In the face of rising globalization, it is our unique cultural heritage that sets it apart from other places.

What value do you see in the Native American (including Native American, Native Hawaiian, Alaskan Native, and other indigenous peoples of the US and its territories) Heritage in Preservation (NAHIP) landing page on the National Trust's Preservation Nation website?

As native peoples we have similar challenges as well as opportunities.  We need to share best practices, advice, and success stories as well as proven and innovative tools with which to pursue preservation efforts in our own communities.

Should the NAHIP landing page be a resource primarily for preservationists, for Native peoples, or for both?

It should be an educational tool for all peoples.  We should always be seeking to engage new audiences and partners in the hopes of developing fresh approaches or best practices for preserving our heritage resources in these challenging times.

Can you describe a successful preservation project with which you were involved?

I have been involved in many preservation projects over the years, most recently involving native Hawaiian burial discoveries during construction. As you can imagine this is one of the major stewardship challenges of our time as these iwi kupuna (ancestral Hawaiian burials) are highly revered and these situations are extremely emotional and challenging to resolve. The most successful projects are those where the indigenous groups, ideally family members, are involved as early as possible in the planning process and there is enough information on the project as well as cultural perspectives that allow the various parties involved to work with each other to find mutually agreeable resolution to their concerns.

Mahalo for the opportunity to share my mana'o (thoughts).