Cover Story


Rebuilding Kaho’olawe

PKO saved the island, but has the group lost its way?

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Cover image for Feb 8, 2006

While activists succeeded in wresting Kaho’olawe away from the Navy and halting its use as a military bombing target, some are concerned that Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana (PKO), the grassroots group that launched the struggle, has drifted away from the original vision of the island as the cultural and physical core of a sovereign Hawaiian nation.

These critics blame the growing influence of the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), a quasi-state agency formed to manage the island in trust until it can be returned to a sovereign Hawaiian entity. The KIRC is tied to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources but operates autonomously under the guidance of a seven-member appointed panel. ‘There’s a new U.S. military provisional government in town, and it is digging in and occupying the island,’ says Attwood ‘Maka’ Makanani, an original member of the PKO who was arrested on Kaho’olawe in 1977 along with Joyce Kainoa, Sam Kealoha and others while protesting its use for military bombing practice. ‘And liability is the driving issue.’

From the perspective of state and federal officials, liability has always been an issue on the former target island, which was subjected to land, sea and air bombardments–including a simulated atomic blast–by the U.S., France, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Activists, too, knew they were risking their lives each time they went to the island. Still, that didn’t deter the 50 to 60 islanders who directly challenged the federal government over Kaho’olawe on Jan. 4, 1976. Intent on occupying the island to halt the bombing, they launched 10 boats from Maui and attempted to cross the ‘Alalakeiki Channel as a Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead, issuing warnings of pending boat seizures and arrests.

Just nine men and women made it to the shores of an island that had been off-limits to civilians since Dec. 8, 1941–the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor–when the Navy seized it under authority of martial law. Only two managed to escape immediate apprehension, roaming an uninhabited landscape littered with live and spent ordnance for nearly two days before giving themselves up, returning home with stories of a wondrous place being hideously defiled.

Other occupations followed, sparking a grassroots movement whose mission of reclaiming the island embodied the emerging Hawaiian struggle for religious, political and cultural self-determination. Throughout the state, the PKO came to be sympathetically viewed by Hawaiians and non-natives alike as the David that ultimately brought down the military Goliath, forcing the Navy first to stop bombing and then to give up the island completely.

Since 1980, when PKO’s legal challenges resulted in the Navy signing a consent decree that allowed the group to access the island for cultural and religious purposes, the ‘Ohana has maintained a strong presence on the island. Besides introducing hundreds of Hawaiians to their culture and its deep connection to the land, ‘Ohana members and people who participated in access trips over the years helped build a hale, or traditional structure, at the group’s Hakioawa base camp, worked on water catchment and irrigation systems, planted native vegetation, assisted in archaeological surveys and the restoration of ancient sites and observed the annual Makahiki season with opening and closing ceremonies on-island.

But the 30th anniversary of the ‘Ohana’s defiant beginning came and went without any PKO members on Kaho’olawe. The January access was cancelled not only because of rough seas but problems related to liability, funding and transportation, prompting some members to question if the group has gotten soft and too cozy with the state. They wonder if this relationship has caused the group to lose its nerve–and its way.

Kau’i Quinones, who was trained by the PKO as a kua, a guide of sorts, to accompany and oversee access trips, has been to Kaho’olawe more times than she can count since her first visit a decade ago. She was dismayed that the access was cancelled, a sentiment she made clear in a late January email fired off to other ‘Ohana members. ‘We no longer have a hale [at Hakioawa] representing our presence,’ she wrote. ‘It is about being there. Not about logistics, money, liability. It is about remembering the calling to Kanaloa [a reference to the Polynesian god of ocean navigation and the sea and one of several names conferred on the small island]. Canceling access and postponing groups [are] not the answer. We need to continue bringing the right people there as we have been doing. Why should we fear what might happen when we know we are there for a higher purpose? Have we forgotten why we go there?’

The concerns of Quinones and others were heightened by the late-December release of a proposed kahu’aina (stewardship) agreement between the PKO’s business entity–Kohemalamalama ‘O Kanaloa /Protect Kaho’olawe Fund (KOK)–and the state-affiliated KIRC. The panel apparently was prepared to vote on the agreement at its Jan. 17 meeting, but delayed action until March 21 following objections by two ‘Ohana members.

Davianna McGregor, a longtime ‘Ohana member who helped draft the proposal, says the agreement is crucial to ensuring the group’s continued right to access the island, a right that she contends was thrown into legal jeopardy when the Navy, which had approved the accesses, turned the island over to the state in the form of the KIRC.

She also maintains the stewardship agreement is the only means for securing liability insurance that will indemnify the group and its members. ‘Since we’re an ‘ohana, each one of us is individually liable,’ MacGregor says. ‘Young people with no assets don’t care. But those of us who have homes and families have a lot more to lose. It’s just irresponsible for us to continue operating without insurance, and we can’t get insurance for a military bombing target. The only way we can get liability insurance is through the state.’

But some members feel the agreement is a step backward for a group that struggled long and hard to pry Kaho’olawe from the federal grip, but now seems willing to hand it over to the state instead. They are also concerned about the agreement’s language, which specifically recognizes the KOK, but not the PKO, which was the entity named in every previous legal document involving the group. By emphasizing the business-oriented KOK over the religiously and culturally oriented PKO, they see the agreement as failing to recognize the PKO as the steward of Kaho’olawe.

Makanani and others say that pattern is already evident, with KIRC-mandated environmental restoration projects increasingly taking precedence over cultural and religious activities. The proposed agreement, which re-designates kua as ‘access guides’ and places them under the jurisdiction of the KIRC, also raises sticky issues about maintaining the separation between church and state, putting guides who wish to pursue religious activities on-island in a difficult position; after all, there is a strong spiritual component to the work of the PKO.

Quinones said that giving a state agency authority over the ‘Ohana’s kua will erode the cultural and religious emphasis that makes visiting the island a deeply meaningful experience. ‘It’s about the only place where people can re-experience their Hawaiian-ness,’ she says. ‘It’s about aloha ‘aina, uniting and nurturing others.’

Some ‘Ohana members are not necessarily opposed to the idea of a stewardship agreement, or securing liability insurance, but they object to the process that’s been followed to draft one, contending the proposal was drawn up without adequate input from the ‘Ohana at large.

McGregor maintains that she and PKO member Mike Naho’opi’i ‘have been authorized to represent the ‘Ohana’ on the stewardship agreement negotiating committee. She said she had planned to discuss the proposal at the January access, but when it was cancelled, she circulated the agreement by email instead. She said an agenda for a statewide ‘Ohana meeting will be set during the Feb. 8 access to Kaho’olawe, giving members plenty of time to express their views and suggest changes to the agreement.

Still, she said, the final decision will be made by ‘the core group of the ‘Ohana who have taken an active role in running our access to Kaho’olawe,’ a stance that some say reflects a longstanding exclusionary and centralized approach to decision-making that doesn’t serve the full interests of the group.

‘I think the PKO might need a little more structure, some sort of mechanism put in place to ensure full participation,’ says Andre Perez, a PKO member and former KIRC-employed access guide. One option might be having ‘Ohana members on each island choose a delegate who would represent their interests when group decisions are needed.

Other members said the ‘Ohana leadership should be embracing the young people who are becoming involved in the group, rather than keeping control in the hands of the old-timers. McGregor, who complained that some of the younger ones don’t understand the full extent of the ‘Ohana’s efforts over the past 30 years, conceded it is time to ‘talk about a succession plan. We do need to educate the younger ones.

‘We also need to discuss what is the purpose of the accesses,’ she says. ‘This is an entirely new period. We’ve got people coming to the island not as a political statement, but to connect to an island culturally and spiritually, to recognize the island. We have a lot of school groups. It’s a whole different purpose.’

Before the military seized control, Kaho’olawe was used for centuries by the islands’ indigenous peoples, with artifacts discovered there that date back 1,000 years. It was valued for its fishing grounds, as evidenced by numerous ko’a (altars) erected along the coastline, and its quarry, Puu Moiwi, was the second-largest in the Hawaiian Islands, producing the sharp-edged stone adzes prized for carving canoes and other wood-working tasks. Kaho’olawe also served as a critical navigational landmark for early sea voyagers; its westernmost point, Laeokealaikahiki, marked the pathway to Tahiti.

While that rich cultural legacy captured the imagination of early ‘Ohana members, the terrible destruction wrought by the bombing propelled them into action. The regular target practice could be seen, heard and felt on Maui, Moloka’i and Lana’i, and for Hawaiians engaged in the cultural renaissance of the 1970s, the deliberate destruction was a vivid example of the degradation occurring throughout the islands as the state moved to harness its economy to the galloping steeds of tourism and development.

Under the charismatic and determined leadership of George Helm, the ‘Ohana pressed the military and federal government to recognize it and its claims, filing a civil suit in federal court that charged the military was violating historic site and environmental laws, as well as the Native American Freedom of Religion Act.

Even after Helm and Kimo Mitchell disappeared on March 7, 1977–the two men were reportedly lost at sea while returning to Maui from Kaho’olawe on surfboards in very rough waters–the PKO pressed on, securing protection for the island’s many archeological sites and its designation as a National Historic Landmark District.

Another major victory was achieved in 1980 when the Navy signed a consent decree with the PKO and a memorandum of understanding with the state of Hawai’i. Under these agreements, the military was required to eradicate the goats that were contributing greatly to erosion, launch soil conservation and reforestation efforts and allow the PKO a monthly four-day access to the island for religious and cultural purposes.

Still, the PKO kept up its push to stop the bombing, attracting widespread public support and the aid of Hawai’i’s most powerful lawmaker, Sen. Daniel Inouye, to its cause. Finally, on Oct. 22, 1990, then-President George Bush issued a directive to ’stop all weapons delivery training on Kaho’olawe.’ Seventeen days later, he signed a law that prohibited all U.S. and foreign bombing and created the Kaho’olawe Island Conveyance Commission to study how the island should be returned to the state.

In 1993, Congress passed legislation that authorized Kaho’olawe’s return to the state, to be held in trust and managed by the KIRC until it can be returned to a sovereign Hawaiian entity. The bill also appropriated $400 million for cleanup, which resulted in about 10 percent of the island being cleared of ordnance over a 10-year period. Some 11 percent of the appropriation was specifically earmarked for environmental restoration and land-use planning.

That’s the money that supports the KIRC. ‘It’s a military-created government funded with military money that has allowed the Navy to walk away and put the burden of liability on the public,’ Makanani says.

Some ‘Ohana members say the KIRC, KOK and PKO have become too entangled, raising questions as to just whose interests are being served. The KIRC’s current chairman is Dr. Emmett Aluli, a founding member of the ‘Ohana who also serves as president of the KOK. Other KIRC members wear similar multiple hats. Aluli says that ‘Ohana members hoped that by serving on the KIRC, they could ensure a more seamless transition when the island is returned to the Hawaiian nation.

Makanani believes that one sensible solution to the problems of liability and conflict of interest is for the KIRC to turn over Kaho’olawe to the PKO, which he calls ‘a Native Hawaiian religious sovereign entity that has been recognized as the steward of Kaho’olawe.’

Makanani and Perez see Kaho’olawe as key to establishing a land base for the Hawaiian nation. ‘Almost all Hawaiians recognize Kaho’olawe as a spiritual place,’ Perez says.

McGregor , however, says that while ‘none of us has given up the struggle for sovereignty,’ ‘Kaho’olawe is no longer an issue. It’s a project, and the sooner we recognize it, the better off we are. We need people to come and engage in restoration and work the land.’

But other ‘Ohana members contend the restoration of Kaho’olawe involves more than simply re-establishing the vegetative cover. ‘Healing the land is about us being there, not just planting plants, but being there and a part of it,’ Quinones says. ‘We’re bringing life to the island, and that’s what it needs. It needs the ‘Ohana there, the grassroots members who help create the kind of life experiences that make a visit to the island so meaningful to people. And that requires people who are totally committed to being kua and everything that represents. I don’t see that happening with access guides who are state employees and just look at it as a job.

‘From the very beginning, the first priority was to stop the bombing and the second was reoccupation,’ she says, paraphrasing a quote made by ‘Ohana member Skippy Ioane in a 1992 video produced by the PKO. ”And when it comes to bringing people to the island, and sharing the culture, that’s always been the role of the ‘Ohana. We need to be expanding the ‘Ohana’s influence, not putting us under the jurisdiction of the state just so everybody can be safe. What’s the point of all the struggle if we’re ready to walk away from it now?’

Quinones, who is 28 years old, says she and others of her generation remain deeply inspired by the passion of the activists who launched the PKO before she was born. ‘That’s what’s kept us goingover the years,’ she says.

Makanani, who trained Quinones as akua, said he appreciates her passion. He also hopes that ‘Ohana members have learned from the struggle they began 30 years ago and efforts to establish Kaho’olawe as the core of the Hawaiian nation will not require today’s youth to risk their lives.

‘This is the challenge for the generation that is here now,’ he says. ‘Hopefully they will not have to get arrested again to achieve a legacy that is rightfully theirs.’