Cover Story

‘A‘ole La‘au activists (Ritte standing, with lei, center) confronting OHA board of trustees, 2007
Image: JAY MORGAN

The Patriot Returns

Longtime activist Walter Ritte knocks on OHA’s door with perfect timing

Big news in OHA-land: In April, the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs settled its past-due claims against the state by accepting payment in the form of 25 acres of prime waterfront, worth $200 million, in Kakaako. This summer, the Akaka Bill (which sought federal recognition for Hawaiians) apparently died in Congress. Now, a Native Hawaiian Roll Commission (NHRC) is launching an OHA-supported, statewide campaign to sign up a Hawaiian electorate. After spearheading the formation of OHA in order to better conditions for native Hawaiians, Walter Ritte is running for election as an OHA trustee–a position he last held in the early 1980s. There’s more at stake than ever, with OHA now consolidating a land base and mustering voters to establish a sovereign Hawaiian nation.


The Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, authorized last year via Act 195, is chaired by former Gov. John Waihee, who was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Waihee says the push to register constituents is powered by the “unrelinquished sovereignty” of the Hawaiian lahui or nation.

“I think the Hawaiian community as a whole is in a mood to get together and unify,” Waihee said in a phone interview. He emphasizes the post-Akaka, bottom-up approach of the sign-up: “First we have to self-recognize, then we can seek state and federal recognition.”

Into the middle of this flurry stepped Walter Ritte, the legendary Molokai activist, announcing his candidacy for one of four at-large seats on the nine-member OHA Board of Trustees. Defending her seat in the November election is incumbent Haunani Apoliona, a widely respected musician and leader who’s served on the board for 16 years, 10 of them as chair.

No stranger to the nightly news, the eminently quotable Ritte has long battled to defend the Hawaiian way and the resources necessary to sustain it. He calls himself a warrior, and he’s been a successful one: His dramatic trespasses on Kahoolawe in the 1970s on behalf of the Protect Kahoolawe ‘Ohana made the scarred island a cause celebre and finally forced the U.S. government to stop bombing the place in 1990; his fierce constancy in defense of Molokai against developers and cruise-ship operators has kept his home island more-or-less whole, no-need poor and proud. Six years ago, Ritte and a band of anti-GMO Hawaiian activists shamed the University of Hawaii into releasing its patents on taro; now he’s a leading spokesperson for a statewide GMO foods labeling bill.

And, last but certainly not least, as a young man he shrewdly exploited his Kahoolawe heroics (he went to prison) to convince state legislators, and then state voters, to carve into our state constitution protections for Hawaiians and their traditional ways, which they did, leading to the creation of the very Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 1978. Two years later, Ritte was elected by the Hawaiian people to serve as one of OHA’s original trustees.

Now, in 2012, Ritte is a grandpa, a kupuna. His commitment to return to OHA and offer up his skills to the cause of Hawaiian political unity marks what might be called the maturation of an already historical figure.

“Nation-building brings together the people who have been true to the Queen, true to Hawaii, and true to the lahui,” observes Colette Machado, chairwoman of the OHA Board of Trustees. “Trustee [Peter] Apo calls them patriots.”

Asked about her old Molokai comrade, Machado says, “I think Walter has been pleased with some of the things we’ve done at OHA, and he wants to be part of the action. We had our differences, me and Walter,” she admits. “You know, I have to keep all my eyes on him! But bottom line, he get the heart and the spirit, like me, for our people.”