Question of sovereignty to be raised in Kaho'olawe trespassing case

When the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation planted a flag on Kaho’olawe last July 31, it raised the hackles of the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana, which saw the move as muscling in on its turf.

But Hawaiian Nation leaders weren’t looking to take over as stewards of the former military bombing target. They landed to stake their claim for something bigger: all the lands owned by the Kingdom of Hawai’i when it was illegally overthrown in 1893.

The first test of that claim will come June 15 in Maui District Court, when three Nation citizens–Prime Minister Henry Noa, Nelson Armitage Sr. and Russell Kahookele–face charges of trespassing and entering a restricted area for landing on Kaho’olawe and claiming the island for the Nation.

‘I didn’t want it to go to court,’ says Noa, who with Armitage and Kahookele was released on $100 bond ‘after we assured them that we are not fleeing our country.’

‘I wanted them to respect who we are, that we’re the rightful owners of Kaho’olawe. But they disagree, which is why we’re in their courtroom.’

The flag planting action wasn’t a publicity stunt, but it was done deliberately–and with authorization from the Nation’s Legislature–specifically to push a point, Noa says.

And the point is, if the Kingdom never gave up Kaho’olawe–or any of the lands under its control at the time of the overthrow–how can Kingdom nationals possibly trespass there?

The Nation is based on a premise laid out in U.S. Public Law 103-150, in which America officially apologized to native Hawaiians for illegally overthrowing the monarchy. The resolution states ‘the indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people or over their national lands to the United States.’

If they never gave it up, Nation supporters reason, sovereignty needn’t be returned to the kanaka maoli, but simply reclaimed–reinstated.

‘Under international law, when a nation returns, it has the right to reclaim what the government rightfully possessed,’ Noa says. ‘If you read our website ([www.hawaii-gov.net]), you’ll see a continual progression toward establishing a governmental process. We understood that if we were going to come forward and make claims, such as we have the right to reclaim political authority in Hawai’i, we would need to substantiate that claim.

‘It took years,’ Noa continues. ‘This is why we feel when we did the action of reclaiming Kaho’olawe, it was based on the fact that we have fulfilled our obligation as a government to establish we can come forward and exercise that right. All these years I waited so patiently to fulfill our obligation to qualify to reclaim.’

Kaho’olawe was a likely place to start the reclamation process, Noa says, because it has no permanent occupants or ‘third party’ landowners to complicate legal issues. It is also the one piece of land in the Islands specifically earmarked for return to a Hawaiian sovereign entity, and it is being held in trust by the state until that occurs.

‘Our [legal] strategy is just to state who we are, that we represent that sovereign Hawaiian entity and Kaho’olawe belongs to our sovereign nation. It’s pretty straightforward. There’s no trick up our sleeve.’

If the judge decides for them, ‘that would be exciting. It would send a clear message that we have this right and we have in fact fulfilled the obligation under international law to reclaim our right.’

If they’re found guilty, ‘we’ll appeal,’ Noa says. ‘We believe we’re right in our course of action.’

Appeals, however, can drag on, and the burning question facing the Nation is whether it should start reclaiming more land now or wait until the Kaho’olawe case is pau.

‘We’ve been 114 years trying to correct the injustice that was done and a lot of kanaka maoli are anxious to get more activities going, get more done,’ Noa says. ‘The legislative assembly will decide. We’re not running a dictatorship here.’