The rains on Kaho'olawe

By EDWIN TANJI, City Editor

The Maui News
Saturday, May 22, 2004

The heavy rains that have drenched the islands over the past wet season have been a disaster for some and an inconvenience for most. But for the island that was fully restored to control of the state this year, the rains of 2004 have been a blessing that supports the rejuvenation of a once battered and off-limits bombing target range.

Over the first four months of this year, a rain gauge at Honokanaia on the southwest section of Kahoolawe has recorded 12 inches of rain. Just how much has fallen over the island as a whole is impossible to determine except by the amount of green that has flourished in the wet season. But across the channel on the southwest flank of Haleakala at Ulupalakua, where the rain clouds form to stretch out over to Kahoolawe, the gauge has recorded 33 inches of rain so far this year, more than 200 percent of normal.

It's probably just coincidental. But maybe the gods have a role in promoting the rejuvenation of the island with a distinct role in the traditions of Native Hawaiians, whose cultural renaissance has been closely tied to the 45-square-mile island in the shadow of Haleakala.

A recent geological survey reported by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory of the U.S. Geological Survey (Volcano Watch, April 15, 2004) notes that Kahoolawe, along with Lanai and Molokai, was separated from the larger Maui Nui somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago.

The land mass that is now Kahoolawe is dated to more than 1.1 million years ago, as volcanic activity formed rising mounds of lava that are now the islands of Maui County. Kahoolawe was larger and rose even higher than it now stands, with the geological report surmising that there was a massive caldera, equal in size to Kilauea on Mauna Loa, on the east side of the lava dome. That dropped away in a landslide, leaving behind only the high pali that now forms Kanapou Bay.

It was the subsidence of the land and rising sea levels that turned Kahoolawe into a separate island that also made it a key geological feature in Hawaiian tradition. The formation of separate islands from Maui Nui allowed powerful North Pacific currents to flow between the new islands. Kahoolawe was uniquely situated along a north-south axis that gave it a feature role for Hawaiian navigators, with the point on the west coast of the island named Lae O Kealaikahiki - translated generally as meaning "point of the way to Tahiti."

The ocean current flowing through the Kealaikahiki Channel pushes a voyager toward islands of Polynesia far to the south while Hoku le'a rising to the north was a celestial beacon for voyagers coming from the south.

The role Kahoolawe had in guiding the ancient navigators of Hawaii continued in the 20th century, when it played a key role in guiding today's Native Hawaiians in a method for reasserting their rights to their own land.

It began with individuals undergoing personal reawakenings as a result of stepping on the land in violation of federal rules, and then in defiance of the laws.

Walter Ritte Jr., who was a founder of what is now the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, has admitted that as a youth he had accepted the military descriptions of Kahoolawe as a barren, desolate place suitable for use as a practice bombing range.

But in his efforts to promote Native Hawaiian rights of access, he joined a 1976 invasion of the island and, "That first time, that was it. . . . There was no way they were going to stop me from going to Kahoolawe. That was when I really experienced the island."

Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell was a retired police officer who became involved in the ALOHA Association seeking restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty before most people understood the claim. He said he saw the military use of Kahoolawe that prohibited Hawaiian access as a symptom of the larger problem.

"This land still belongs to the Hawaiian people," he said when he was among organizers of a January 1976 invasion that was a first step to the recovery of the island.

Thousands of others have followed, seeing beyond the eroded red clay left by decades of cattle grazing, goat predation and bombing to the rich cultural history of an island that had been taken away by a military order.

The Hawaiian protest in 1976 turned to the courts, winning an order that the Navy prepare an environmental impact statement on its use of the island, and a full archaeological survey that documented more than 2,000 cultural features and evidence of human use of Kahoolawe that dates back 1,000 years.

It has taken 28 years and the island is still not fully healed. But it is destined to be a piece of the aina restored to a future Native Hawaiian governing body.

The recovery of Kahoolawe did not occur without conflicts and divisions among the many individuals who shared a goal but disagreed on the process for achieving that goal. Neither Ritte nor Maxwell are given decision-making roles or even much recognition by those who are making decisions for the island today.

But the island itself is recognized for its importance to preservation of Hawaiian culture and traditions, and the process by which the island was recovered for cultural purposes shows what can be done even against what was seemingly impossible odds just 30 years ago.

Edwin Tanji can be reached at editor&64; "Haku Mo'olelo," referring to a story writer, appears every Friday.

Copyright © 2003 The Maui News

Ho`iho`i Mai