WAILUA — Coco Palms was a popular destination for movie stars, including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Before history-making memories were made, a story of another sort — with an even deeper history — took place.
“I exhumed 81 skeletons all buried sitting down and facing east with their arms crossed over their chests,” said Valentine Ako, who was contracted to excavate for the construction of buildings Two and Three of the iconic Coco Palms resort in the early 1950s.
The owner of the legendary resort at the time, Grace Guslander, gave him clear directive.
“Mrs. Guslander told me, ‘Take care of it,’” Ako said, recounting the incident. “I told Mrs. Guslander that if they ever touched that grave, Coco Palms was not going to last.”
The retired 30-year construction worker said he relocated the skeletons close to where the Coco Palms Lounge was built. Then he participated in a service for the bodies he had unearthed.
Rev. Richard Chun presided over several similar services held on the property, which sits on a coconut grove. At the time, he was one of the ministers who performed up to as many as 80 weddings a year in the chapel at Coco Palms over a 14-year time frame.
Chun recounted the mid-morning burial service, which he said focused around a small box of bones that was being reburied from the land were Coco Palms was built. It was on the Lihue side of the lobby.
“We did it quietly with a small group of staff, not more than a half a dozen people, remembering the gifts that those we buried had shared with this island,” Chun recalled.
Nancy McMahon, the Hawaii state archaeologist from 1988 to 2010, said a plaque was placed on a rock near the hotel entryway commemorating the lives of those who were re-interred.
David Penhallow Scott, author of “The Story of the Coco Palms Hotel,” said that taking care of the bones became a top priority once they were unearthed.
“Grace always did the interment right away after the bones were discovered and, because of her sensitivity, there was no opposition during her tenure,” he said. “From all those who were involved, when bones were discovered, all worked stopped until the bones were blessed and re-interred.”
More than 40 years after Ako told Guslander about the grave, Coco Palms Hotel was destroyed when Hurricane Iniki struck Sept. 11, 1992. It has been shuttered ever since.
Archaeologist and Project Director for Aina-Pacific Consulting Chris Landreau said he doesn’t have hands-on experience with the Coco Palms site but native populations were high in Hawaii before Europeans arrived.
“Any time there is development, there is a chance you will encounter human interment,” Landreau said. “Ancient Hawaiians lived on every coastline in Hawaii. They had large-scale irrigation works, tremendous earthworks, camp fires, complex agriculture. We find evidence of their lives and where they lived and died.”
McMahon said some burials date back to the 1200s.
“I still believe there are even populations back to 300 A.D., but we’ve lost a lot of shorelines due to hurricanes and tsunamis,” she said. “At some point in time, they disintegrate or are lost to Mother Nature and the ocean. Kapaa is full of burials under the homes. You need to be sensitive to what you do with them.”
McMahon is a reservist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and recently returned from research of historical sites and cultural deposits following the destruction from Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast.
“We think everything is in a cemetery, but it’s not,” she said. “I can go anywhere in the country and we’re going to find a site with burials. I think it has become a sensitive issue over the last couple of decades, especially with Alaskans, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans.”
Before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted in 1990 and the Hawaiian Burial Council was formed, the disposition of unclaimed human remains were continually being unearthed and randomly re-interred as island development unfolded.
“That sort of thing was happening all the time. It doesn’t happen anymore,” Landreau said. “The law protects the remains of Native American and Hawaiian graves. Any time human remains are found, we turn them over to the Hawaiian Burial Council and they determine what is to be done with them.”
David Shideler was on the Archaeological Inventory Survey commissioned to research and uncover any evidence of remains at the Coco Palms site in 2005 and 2006. He came on board years after an earlier find on the property in 1973, when 34 burials were relocated during a renovation.
“We did 93 excavations, it was good coverage,” said the archeologist of 35 years.
Each one was 20 feet by 2 feet.
“In 2005, we found two small bone fragments that were most likely human and I handed them over to the Burial Council,” Shideler said. “I was surprised we didn’t find more.”
Shideler said the coastal sands of Kauai were a very good place for people to live and die, and for that reason there is a chance coastal properties, including the 36-acre Coco Palms site, have an elevated possibility of still having human remains buried under it.
Hinano Rodrigues, the acting history and culture branch chief of the State Historic Preservation Division, said they are called upon when remains are inadvertently found, as are police, who determine if it involves a homicide.
Prior to construction in a sensitive area, if evidence is found, the SHPD requires a preservation plan for the remains.
“We want archeological monitoring during ground-altering activity,” Rodrigues said. “And if the archeological survey is more than 10 years old, we might require a new one to be done.”
Meanwhile, plans are moving forward on rebuilding Coco Palms, elaborate history and all. The targeted finish date is sometime in 2017. But it wouldn’t be out of the blue — given its background — if construction workers discover something more than dirt and old building.
”We have all the documentation from the 1950s and we are all on full notice that there is a great possibility that there could be more remains found there,” Rodrigues said.