Cover Story continued

Ritte at GMO labeling rally at State Capitol, Feb. 21
Image: debbie millikan

Soon after he announced his candidacy, Ritte spoke to the Weekly by phone.

Walter Ritte

Do you have a campaign organization?


A veteran trustee told me that an OHA election campaign can cost more than $60,000.

I haven’t had time to sit down and come up with any kind of strategy for fundraising or nothing. Basically, I’m just going to go out there and put out what I believe and see if it resonates with anybody.

You’ve said Trustee Haunani Apoliona is a peacemaker and you’re a warrior. Explain?

She’s a compromiser. She’s gonna go with the status quo and try to smooth over everything. I think this is no time for compromise. We have to stand our ground and build our base as Hawaiians.

You’re a famously grassroots guy, but how does that translate into the world of politics and governing?

What I’ve learned from my grassroots stuff is never compromise from weakness, and that’s what OHA has been doing. So they’re not really compromising, they’re begging.

Until we get all our people together, we cannot compromise. We’ve lost almost everything: our streams, our watersheds, our farmlands, it’s all going to hell. Right now, I want to get into OHA and do the same thing I’ve been doing outside of OHA, which is learning to use the word a’ole (no), period.

You last ran for OHA in 1996 and lost. Why run this year?

On Molokai, we’ve been organizing a new governance called the ‘Aha Kiole, where the local people make the decisions over their resources and then advise the government about what is proper and not proper.

So, that’s where all of my energy was going, to resource protection. And then I got involved with the Haloa [god-form of taro] and genetically modified organisms and the dangers that kind of stuff poses for our natural resources, from chemicals to creating dustbowls and poisoning our reefs. That battle evolved to the level of, “Okay, how do we protect all these things?” And the answer was getting food producers to label GMO foods. Labeling involves everybody, and that’s when we started spreading out, organizing the whole state on the issue.

So that’s how the thing spread, and so I thought, well, in order for us to really survive, we’re gonna have to get the Hawaiians to work together. So far, we haven’t been able to do it. People said we have to start from the grassroots, and other people said we have to go to Washington DC, and get the Akaka Bill passed, but that bill kept dividing us, so, right now I’m saying to myself, okay, I’m gonna put my effort into bringing Hawaiians together statewide.

The ‘Aha Kiole process [the Weekly, 1/25/12] has the support of some key state players, including William Aila, chair of DLNR, and Colette Machado, chair of the OHA board.

Yeah. What that showed us was that Molokai has the capacity, because we’re small, to figure out how to do things as a whole island, as a big unit. And we thought, this might become something that the Hawaiian nation, instead of going to Washington DC to be recognized, we create it from the bottom, and that’s what Molokai represents, a whole different way of getting to the same place.

What would you say to non-Hawaiians who can now vote for OHA trustees?

I’m not gonna say anything special to the non-Hawaiians. It’s too damn complicated. And anyway, for me, I don’t think the non-Hawaiians are going to play a big role in whether or not I get elected. I don’t think they’re even interested. So, my whole goal is to focus in on what OHA was supposed to be from Day One, which is for Hawaiians to get our act together.

Along with John Waihee and Frenchy DeSoto, you are credited as an OHA founder. Why did you run for trustee?

After we were successful at the ConCon (the 1978 State Constitutional Convention), I needed time to learn more about being Hawaiian. So I took my whole family and we went to live in Pelekunu for two years. Everybody got very angry with me because they felt I had deserted them, but I had found a place where I really wanted to be with my family. And I was finding answers about what the kupuna had experienced when they were living in these valleys. After two years, I could look up at the clouds and know exactly what was gonna happen next week with the weather.

Then I began hearing on the radio people already talking stink about OHA, saying that OHA was created by the state as a tool to control Hawaiians and put Hawaiians down.

So, I had to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life, which was to leave the valley and run for the first OHA board, to go out there and campaign on the fact that OHA was something that the Hawaiians could use to better their conditions. So, I went out, and I ran full-on and got the most votes [of any candidate].

Near the end of your first term, you were convicted of a felony for a hunting incident, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. In the meantime, you were voted off the OHA board at the insistence of the state’s attorney general. Do you believe you were framed?

Oh, definitely. You know, we were hammering away on the ceded lands issue–it was the first time people ever heard of ceded lands! We went to the state and said, Hey, you guys owe us 20 percent of revenues from the ceded lands, and they all laughed at us, the Department of Transportation especially. [Then-Governor George] Ariyoshi wouldn’t support us, so I started attacking him. I made up some “Ariyoshi Resign” T-shirts and that really hit the fan. That was at the same time that all these charges and everything came up against me, and there was a big push to get me out of there. All because they wouldn’t even talk to us about ceded lands.

After that, how did your life change?

I came back to Molokai and basically raised my family. I mean, I stayed out for a little while … just blended right into whatever was going on on Molokai. We were trying to keep our resources under control and sustainable. Well, we didn’t use words like “sustainable” back then–it was all aloha ‘aina kine stuff. We wanted to make sure that we had the natural resources that belonged to our future generations protected, and those were the battles we fought. Over water resources, ocean resources, access rights … all those kinds of things. We had battle after battle over water. Water’s always gonna be the key. That’s the limiting factor.

You led a grassroots campaign that used water issues to stop Molokai Ranch’s master plan for the parched West End, including an oceanfront subdivision at La’au point. What did that victory do, besides provoke the owners to close, and

lay off about 120 workers?

First of all, it protected a fishing area that was critical for our fishermen and guaranteed another piece of food security for Molokai. In the big picture, it showed that the island has a new generation ready to defend it. Also, to me, ‘A’ole La’au (No to Laau), was consistent with the message that’s been coming out of Molokai for 40 years now–that we are a Hawaiian island and we’re going to protect the resources that allow us to be Hawaiian.

How do you feel about the Kakaako land deal?

I think it’s a bum deal. We were pushed into it, because we were unsuccessful for so many years in settling our claims. All the Kakaako deal did was make OHA into a developer–I mean, you’re not going to smell a penny unless they develop that land big-time. That’s not my bag, so, my testimony before OHA on the matter was a question: How come we’re not taking back our valleys where all the water is, where the food production is?

What about the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission?

[Former Gov. John] Waihee, who’s head of the commission, talks about “un-relinquished sovereignty.” It’s a good term. The way I see it, the Roll Commission is a front to organize Hawaiians to become their own nation. It’s like, okay, we gotta go register people and all of that stuff, and that’s the name of the commission, but you don’t register people for nothing. You want to register them so they can vote and become their own nation. I buy into that more than I bought into having Congress bless us with some kind of recognition. An act of Congress doesn’t make the heart of a people. Sovereignty is something that’s inside people, not something on a piece of paper.

A big part of the problem is that we don’t know who we are. I mean, we don’t know our own history. We’ve been colonized! When I graduated from Kamehameha [Schools], I was a haole, inside and out. That was the goal of the school. That was the goal of the whole educational system, to make us all haoles. If it wasn’t for the kupuna on Molokai, I would never have known the difference. I would never have known who I was.

Are you a kupuna now?

Yeah! [He laughs.] I’ve got to start acting my age here, even though it’s just numerical, but I think that when I first came into OHA, I was a young aloha ‘aina warrior, you know, and then now I want to come back in as a kupuna aloha ‘aina warrior. I’ve learned a lot. I think I can still accomplish a lot, but using different tactics.

First, we need to allow the people who are speaking out about sovereignty into OHA. We have to give them a place in OHA, a voice in OHA, leadership positions. We can’t be treating them like they’re unrealistic people who gotta get with the program. We can’t tell them they’re the minority anymore. There’s a lot of them out there.

You know, OHA put millions and millions into this Akaka Bill stuff, and it looks like it’s failed. So it’s like, okay, stop your crying and let’s go do something else. Let’s go do the bottom-up stuff now. We tried the top-down stuff and it hasn’t worked.

Can you name some young Hawaiian leaders you would like to see join up with OHA?

There’s Keanu Sai, a professor at Windward Community College, who has the facts about the overthrow and the legal status of Hawaii and Hawaiians today; Kapua Sproat, UH Law School, she’s the expert on water issues; Andre Perez, a student in Hawaiian Studies at UH-Manoa, one of the most outspoken, out-on-a-limb experts on Hawaiian sovereignty; Imai Winchester, an expert on Hawaiian protocols who works at the Halau Ku Mana charter school in Makiki; and Kaeo Kaleikoa at Maui Community College, an advocate for Hawaiian advancement.