Marianas Variety

Last updateFri, 22 Nov 2019 12am







    Thursday, November 21, 2019-5:33:13A.M.






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HPO says it is only following its mandate

THERE’S no truth to Kuentai- USA’s claim that the Historic Preservation Office is giving them the runaround.

In the wake of Kuentai-USA’s press statements that HPO had been making it difficult for them to undertake excavations and fulfill their recovery mission, CNMI Historic Preservation Officer and Department of Community and Cultural Affairs Secretary Laura T. Ogumoro refuted the claim and finally broke their silence.

“There is no truth to it. What we wanted them to do is provide what’s required of them,” said Ogumoro.

She told Variety that HPO, in its exchange of correspondence with Kuentai-USA, did tell the organization to submit the necessary documents for its review.

“There’s a process where the applicant submits the required documents,” said Ogumoro referring to the One Start application with the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality.

“Apparently with this Kuentai group, the setbacks include their coming on island without being prepared,” she said.

Ogumoro clarified that acting HPO director Merti Kani did convey to Yukari Akatsuka, the Kuentai-USA representative, that they had to submit the requirements long before they came to Saipan.

As to the claim that HPO did not tell them what these requirements were, Ogumoro said, “That is actually false. They knew what these requirements were. Merti gave them a letter.”

Before any digging can be done, an individual or a firm needs to submit a research design and plan that HPO can use to ascertain the extent of the project and its impact on the CNMI’s cultural and historical resources.

“The most important thing is to get a certified archaeologist to supervise the site during their project. Unfortunately, they came and said they were not told to do so,” said Ogumoro.

She said when HPO recently rejected their application, it wasn’t that HPO didn’t want them to proceed — they needed to comply with the requirements.

HPO, she said, is only fulfilling its mandates as defined by both federal and local laws.

Public Law 3-39, HPO’s enabling act, states clearly that “public lands shall not be disposed of or used for activities that in the opinion of the Historic Preservation Office and the Review Board, after consultation with the Marianas Public Land Corporation, might damage cultural and historic properties.”

The law provides that HPO will consultant with the Division of Environmental Quality and Coastal Resources Management (now merged as Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality) in the disposal of such public lands.

No permit shall be issued for similar activities on private lands until HPO has completed its survey of the lands and after requirements have been complied with.

The law is also clear on the destruction of artifacts.

Section 11 of P.L. 3-39 outlines the prohibited acts including willful removal or taking of any artifact of historical and cultural significance to the CNMI “or knowingly destroying, removing, disturbing, displacing, or disfiguring any cultural or historic property on public or private land or in the water surrounding the Northern Mariana Islands as designated by or eligible for designation by the Historic Preservation Office as a cultural or historical property, unless such activity is pursuant to a permit issued under Section 5 of this Act.”

Kani said with this law, Kuentai can be stopped.

The latest application

Kani explained the process.

She said with any attempt at recovering human remains, “first, they need to hire an archaeologist. That archaeologist or archaeological firm will then submit to HPO the research design to review. The design will make clear to HPO what they will be doing in the field.”

She said Kuentai-USA did not submit this to HPO on time.

What the organization claims was a lengthy process could have been shortened had they complied with this requirement.

“They came without a forensic scientist or any one trained to do the recovery,” she said.

She also mentioned that in their review, they asked the organization to work with Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and the U.S. Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accountability Command, or JPAC.

Kani asked how HPO could give them clearance when they had not completely filled out the application form, specifically, the part on historic resources.

This part was left blank by the applicant.

“How can HPO give them clearance when they have not filled out the form,” she said.

She said they need to tell HPO what they plan to do.

“The application has checklist of what they need to submit,” she said.

She also said that the failure to fill out the part on historic resources left them with nothing to review. “How could we release the clearance?”

She said this was the reason the application was rejected.

In a Sept. 23 letter to DEQ, Kani said HPO was returning to BECQ Kuentai-USA’s application noting that it was found incomplete.

“Therefore, HPO rejects it until the applicant resubmits a complete application for our further review and processing,” she said.

Kuentai-USA was proposing to dig in Achugao on Saipan to “locate the burial site of fallen American soldiers who died in WWII.”

Earthmoving was to be conducted at the end of this month and is expected to be completed by the middle of December.

In an email to Akatsuka on Sept. 24, Kani said, “According to your project description, you are required to hire a professional archaeologist who meets the qualifications published in the ‘Secretary of the Interior’s Standards 36 CFR 61 to oversee the general excavation work. You also must submit to our office a research design and monitoring and discovery plan prepared by the said professional archaeologist for review and approval that specifies research objectives, archival background information, field methodologies, disposition finds, preservation issues, qualifications of personnel involved, and the ownership of lands. All costs for the mitigation shall be borne by the applicant.”

She pointed out that failure to comply with requirements will result in a violation for which a fine may be assessed.

Achugao is oldest archaeological site

Ogumoro underscored the historical and cultural significance of the site where Kuentai would like to conduct its recovery efforts.

“It’s not only a site where American and Japanese soldiers were buried in WWII. It is the oldest site in the CNMI,” she said.

HPO is not taking its sweet time to provide clearance. It is mandated by law to fulfill its duties to protect cultural and historical properties.

Dr. Mike T. Carson, who has done several archaeological studies in the Northern Marianas on early human settlements here, told Variety that Achugao sites on Saipan could be “ 4,000 years old, but the oldest confirmed range is more like 3400 - 3300 years old.”

In the most recent meeting of the Historic Preservation and Review Board, Dr. Hiro Kurashina said they did talk about the significance of Achugao area “as one of the oldest archaeological sites in the CNMI.”

Dr. Kurashina said the number of archaeological sites that have yielded evidence of early human habitation in the Marianas is extremely limited.

“Achugao is one of only eight sites in the Marianas that date back to around 1500 B.C.,” he said.

As to HPO’s mandates, Dr. Kurashina said HPO is a regulatory agency and they review qualifications of personnel, research design, research methodology, and other procedural matters to determine if applicant(s) satisfy what is required by the applicable laws and regulations.

For his part, Vice Chairman Don Farrell said beneath the World War II artifacts are ancient Chamorro artifacts.

“It is the property owner’s or leaser’s responsibility to ensure the security of these artifacts. HPO is only doing its job, protecting the site for other researchers who will follow Kuentai,” he said.

He told Variety that there could be ancient Chamorro burial sites beneath the World War II sites.

“Aren’t their graves just as important as the Japanese and American combatants who fell in the same area?”

Achugao is on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is believed that Achugao was first occupied in the Early Latte Period or circa 1,500 B.C. and may have been continuously occupied for the entire duration of Saipan’s prehistory.