The Kaho'olawe Nine 30 Years Later

The Maui News
Tuesday, April 04, 2006


On the morning of Jan. 4, 1976, 10 small boats were lined up at Maalaea Harbor, set to cross the Alalakeiki Channel with people determined to occupy Kahoolawe. People scrambled on board, the outboards roared to life and the smell of diesel filled the air.

The flotilla headed off and, halfway across the channel, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead, with an official warning that any people who landed at Kahoolawe would have their vessels confiscated.

"So myself, (recording artist) Richard Ho'opi'i, (Molokai activist) Walter Ritte – we were wala'au (talking)," recalled Pukalani cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., who was 38 years old at the time.

Participants were "debating what are we going to do," he said.

In a diversionary tactic, Maxwell said, the boats headed in different directions – some toward the Big Island, some toward Maalaea, and one toward Kahoolawe. Anybody brave enough swam toward the renegade vessel and climbed aboard.

The nine occupiers landed, and a Coast Guard cutter waited offshore. Eventually, most were arrested, while Ritte and Emmett Aluli headed for cover and spent nearly two days hiking around the island before they were tracked down, put in shackles on a chopper and flown off the island.

Thirty years later, the so-called "Kaho'olawe Nine" will be honored at a Kahoolawe photo exhibit starting Friday at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua in celebration of the anniversary of the first Native Hawaiian reoccupation of the former Target Isle.

That initial reaccess to an island that the U.S. Navy had appropriated for bombing practice for half a century symbolized for Native Hawaiians the repatriation of not only an island but also of an indigenous identity, culture, lands and rights.

The seven men and two women who made the initial landfall also included Kimo Aluli, George Helm, Ian Lind, Ellen Miles, Stephen Morse, Gail Kawaipuna Prejean and Karla Villalba. Maxwell was not among those who made the initial landing.

Since then, Helm and activist Kimo Mitchell disappeared in March 1977, apparently at sea between Maui and Kahoolawe, and Miles and Prejean have died.

The Kaho'olawe Nine popularly refers to those who made first landfall. However, Emmett Aluli interprets them as the first nine arrested, thus including Maui resident Warren Haines instead of Helm.

Emmett Aluli, 62, spoke by phone Friday from the Friendly Isle, where he practices family medicine at Molokai Family Health Center and is medical executive director of Molokai General Hospital. He said he just had celebrated Helm's 56th birthday March 23, feeling "the same kind of winds and crazy rains as at the time around his disappearance."

Chairman of the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission, Aluli demurred at a suggestion that he had been chosen to continue Helm's vision of aloha aina – nurturing the land.

"I think I'm just one person as far as carrying on for George Helm; part of the internal struggle," he said. "He espoused issues way ahead of his time. He was a philosopher who kind of like galvanized support across the board – a true Hawaiian, Lono-i-ka-Makahiki (the deity of farming) coming back in our time.

"I just did a little part, (but) if we had that kind of charismatic person today, we'd be so far ahead. We'd kind of like be a nation already," he said.

The Maui News also found entrepreneur Kimo Aluli in Kailua, Oahu; investigative reporter Lind and social worker Morse in Honolulu; community leader Ritte on Molokai; and Villalba in Washington state working in food service for the Puyallup American Indian nation.

Kimo Aluli, 51, owner of Kimo's Surf Hut surfboard company in Windward Oahu, recalled being an unaware 21-year-old "kid" dragged along by an older cousin to a pivotal juncture in Hawaiian history.

But "I was there for a reason," he said, attributing his participation to the connectedness of the islands and the people.

He said he's the youngest of eight children of the late, legendary composer/recording artist Irmgard Farden Aluli and grandson of the late, famed kumu hula Emma Sharp, both of Puamana on the west side.

"My mom grew up on the shores of Puamana, that's the home of my mother and her family," he said. "They stared at Lanai and Kahoolawe for their whole lifetime (so) you're put there because you belong there. The years your ancestors looked upon that place, and they loved it, and that's the nature of Hawaiians because of our connection one to the other. We're connected sometimes without any explanation, because we're tied to each other."

Lind, 58, of Kaaawa, Oahu, who is legislative aide and senior adviser to state Rep. Lyla Berg, also has a Maui tie. He is cousin to taro farmer John Lind of Kipahulu.

Lind's Web site offers a chicken-skin collection of photos and commentary from the initial access. He noted the galvanizing force reflected in that venture three decades ago.

"This is an extraordinary example of what looked like a lost cause," he said. "How can you possibly challenge this government policy? Officials said if they stopped bombing Kahoolawe they would have to close down Pearl Harbor; the nation's defense will collapse. They gave one reason after another why it couldn't happen."

The bombing was halted in 1990 by then President George H.W. Bush after protesting and lobbying, especially by former Hawaii U.S. Rep. Pat Saiki.

The Navy transferred Kahoo-lawe on May 9, 1994, to the State of Hawaii for use as a cultural preserve – overseen by the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission – for eventual transfer to a sovereign Hawaiian nation.

"People made it happen," Lind said. "So it's an example of people acting together and not giving up and showing that in the long run you can make it work. You can make a difference."

The Maui ancestry of Stephen Morse, 59, of Waimanalo, Oahu, traces to the Nowlien ohana of East Molokai and Lahaina. As a social worker and lead advocate for human services at the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Morse said he still feels the suffering of warriors who died or were jailed.

Ritte and other Native Hawaiian activists Sam Kealoha, Richard Sawyer and the late Karl Mowatt were imprisoned at least six months for federal trespass, experiencing "separation from their families – it's very disruptive," he said.

"Never give up the fight, the struggles to retain our rights, because I think this is what our kupuna would want us to do," said Morse, who's writing a book on the "First Landing" at Kahoolawe, for year-end release.

"But be careful in planning your strategy," he said. "I never want to see that happen again where my friends are lost and going to jail. Some say they are martyrs. I say that's the cause in which I lost my good friends, whom I'll never see again. I miss his (George Helm's) music. Never give up the fight – but pick your strategies well."

Ritte, 60, of Hoolehua was one of those charged with trespass and landed in high security at Halawa Prison "with murderers and rapists – seven of you all in one cell for six months," he said.

He recalled an epiphany while shackled in the Coast Guard chopper after the first access. As the copter lifted into the air, he caught his first close-up view from the air of the long, sleek isle.

He said he was "looking from the helicopter window, and the rock turned into the whole island. The impact was that the whole island was saying, 'I'm dying.'

"That's when I made a total commitment to save the island," he said.

Today, he is coordinator of the private, nonprofit Hawaiian Learning Center at Kaamola, Molokai, and he continues to embrace the aloha aina message. He likens a half-century of being bombed to what is happening on all the other islands of the archipelago, except that theirs is a slow death by overdevelopment and overpopulation, he said.

"It's a big loss, a really big loss," Ritte said.

Villalba was a 17-year-old from the Muckleshoot American Indian tribe of the Pacific Northwest in 1976. Morse's girlfriend, she said she'd been fighting for land rights in her homeland and became witness to the battles of another indigenous people.

"I would do it all over again," she said Friday from her Tacoma home. "I can close my eyes and see the beautiful schools of porpoises. It's hard to explain, but like I said, it was a pretty amazing thing to happen.

"I just hope they leave it (Kahoolawe) the way it is, and people can see it the way I did, because it's beautiful, it's beautiful," she said.

Today, the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana organizes cultural and restoration-work accesses each full moon.

Although not among the Kaho'olawe Nine, Maxwell facilitated them in a big way. He had proposed the occupation, spent a year planning, assembled equipment and supplies and rented a Waikapu facility to house Neighbor Island participants.

Thirty years later, the 68-year-old warrior said: "We're fighting an uphill battle, yet we always maintain that we are sovereign within. . . .We own the land, not in a Western sense, but spiritually, culturally. The gods did – the gods gave us the right to be here."

On the Net:

Ian Lind photo archive:

Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission

Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana full-moon accesses:

Kekoa Catherine Enomoto can be reached at


When. Traditional Hawaiian opening protocol, noon Friday; viewing noon to 6 p.m. Friday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until April 16

Where. Ritz-Carlton Kapalua Ballroom No. 4

Why. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first Native Hawaiian reoccupation of Kahoolawe; also in conjunction with the resort's 14th annual Festival of the Arts

Admission. Free

Also. Dr. Emmett Aluli of the "Kaho'olawe Nine" speaks at a public forum, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. April 13 at the exhibit

Copyright © 2005 The Maui News.

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