Kaho'olawe: Return of the Warriors

Honolulu Weekly
November 16, 2004

Lesa Griffith

Two young girls walk up wide, white-sand Honokanai'a beach, each carrying a freshly speared fish. They take the catch to the open-air kitchen, which is equipped with two refrigerators and a gas stove. Under a beach canopy, women wrapped in pareo and men wearing malo lounge on inflatable mattresses, others sit in a circle practicing an oli.

The scene makes Stanton Enomoto's words sound surreal. "The area that we're in was one of the most heavily impacted areas from the naval gunnery offshore. I remember months and months of cleanup where the navy was scouring the coast trying to recover tons and tons of ordnance," he said. Enomoto is the former executive director of the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), and he is on the island for a reunion of "early warriors"—the men and women who occupied Kaho'olawe in the 1970s and '80s—and canoe voyagers.

From Oct. 22 to 24, the island was a who's who of Hawaiian activism and culture. On Friday, as the almost 200 people awaited the arrival of the canoes Hokule'a, Hokualaka'i and Makali'i, veterans reminisced, while younger generations swam and played on the beach. Buzzing from person to person like hungry bees was a handful of hungry journalists.

Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli, still damp from a swim, greeted them. "It's our birthday. They said it couldn't be done!" he exclaimed. He, Colette Machado and Enomoto talked about the island's recent history.

The Navy stopped using Kaho'olawe as a dart board in 1994, and agreed to clean up 100 percent of the island's surface, and 30 percent of the subsurface (about four feet below ground) within the next decade, using $400 million approved by Congress. The Navy pulled out last April with unmet promises.

"They did a surface sweep of about 70 percent of the island and about 9 percent of the subsurface has been cleaned," said Enomoto. According to the agreement, at the end of 10 years, "the whistle blows and the Navy leaves, finished or not, and that's what happened," said Enomoto.

Still, he added, 70 percent of the island is 20,000 acres. "That's more land than any of us can imagine." The KIRC has written a management plan maximizing use of the areas that are safe.

"This will be a piko of the culture," said Aluli, who was part of the first group of protest occupiers to set foot on the island on Jan. 7, 1976. The Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana sent people to the island as human shields to protect the land and raise public awareness of the situation. Aluli is now medical executive director at Moloka'i General Hospital and a KIRC commissioner. "This will be the place where culture will be seeded and go out. Young kids can come to this island and learn how to feel more Hawaiian and fish and share and bring their experiences to their communities. The important thing is there will never be a golf course here."

The germination has already started. Kaimiloa DeLeon is the daughter of Earl DeLeon, who occupied the island in 1977 and 1978. "It's my first time here. I'm here to get knowledge," she said.

OHA trustee and KIRC commissioner Machado talks about the early warriors who dodged maneuvers for 31 days on Kaho'olawe. "That's taking it to a higher level. But the younger generation has no inkling of what was sacrificed, the suffering."

Asked if she had thought she would ever again be on the island, Machado said, "Never thought," her voice breaking. "We can't even get the fricken Akaka Bill passed. Never in my life. Never."

And she underscores that the victory has earned Hawaiians, "a big kuleana. It's wonderful, but at the same time it's a difficult responsibility."

"There's a lot of work ahead," agrees Enomoto. With fishing grounds and more than 2,500 archeological features, Kaho'olawe is richer than its eroded, red-scarred skin lets on. But people are all too aware that the fight isn't over. Bart Dame brought up the inevitable: "There is a victory here. But the military has given, what, 70 percent cleaned up. That's 20,000 acres. At the same time they're seizing 23,000 more acres on the Big Island."

"I will sit in front of a Stryker," vowed Maxine Kahaulelio of Hawai'i island, a 1977 occupier.

Traditions and eras mix—people snacked on minibags of Doritos while men prepared an imu. A bunch of manini banana, thick as zucchini, hung on a tree as Charlie Maxwell talked on a cell phone. Joyce Kainoa, who spent five days on Kaho'olawe in 1978, said, "I'm still overwhelmed—get electricity, get TV, get hot water."

Shawn Kaui Hill, a.k.a. comedian Bu La'ia, used to work on Kaho'olawe as a geophysicist's assistant looking for subterranean bombs. "One island back—can't wait until we get the other seven," he says. "We need to continue to fight for our independence. But to do that we need to get control of our resources."

But in the meantime, the show must go on. "This is my new partner right here," he said, introducing Shannon Helm Carvalho, who played Wai'anae Man in the locally made film Amasian: The Amazing Asian. He also happens to be the son of Moloka'i community leader Stacy Helm Carvalho and the nephew of George Helm, the Hawaiian activist who, with Kimo Mitchell, died attempting to reach Kaho'olawe by surfboard.

"After my uncle was lost, it was something that wasn't really talked about in our family, 'cause painful," said Carvalho, who is the dietician at Kalaupapa. "But I was curious, I like know what went on. It's my first time to touch this place. I've had opportunities but I wasn't ready."

Earl DeLeon, a red pareo wrapped around his waist and a stone amulet hanging around his neck, talks about his 1978 trip to the island, which included a Time magazine reporter. The Big Island builder joined the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana (PKO) after he heard about George Helm's disappearance. "Why was this bunch of Hawaiians fighting for a small island?" He was arrested and remembered, "When we were in the helicopter, I really thought they were going to throw us out." The experience changed him. "After that, I knew what my purpose was—to get the word out."

What did it feel like to see all these people on the island 27 years later? "It brings tears to my eyes," he said, and it did. He put his mirrored sunglasses on. "Everything we fought for…everybody says thank you so much for what you did for us. Cannot put this away."

In 1980, they took me here on the Hokule'a," said Mau Piailug, as he sat in a car. Now a frail 72, the Micronesian master navigator who tutored Nainoa Thompson said Kaho'olawe is "for navigation…it has some spirit about sailing. When I come here, I feel something. We talk story to the spirits, they look at us when we talk, but we never see them."

The Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana were created in 1976. Where PVS was strictly cultural and PKO political, the two will now work together on the island. Kaho'olawe was once a navigational center—it was also known as Kanaloa, the Hawaiian deity of navigation and the ocean. Lae o Kealaikahiki, visible from Honokanai'a beach, is an outcropping of rocks. From there, both horizons, as well as the North Star and the Southern Cross can be seen. The next day, an observational platform at the point would be dedicated—the first step in creating a navigational training center.

At about 4pm, the canoes anchored in the bay, everyone lines up on the beach, chanting to a chorus of pu, or conch shells. Piailug takes a seat next to Eddie Ka'ana'ana on the beach.

"They're swimming in!" someone shouted.

Malama Kaho'olawe

The Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana leads work trips to restore the island. You pay for your own transportation to Maui, and need to commit four days and lots of sweat. For a trip schedule, visit www.kahoolawe.org


One of the things I've learned from the struggle is it takes more than kanaka maoli. It takes all of us who love Hawai'i, who believe that militarization is not good for all living things. Kaho'olawe will set an example for the next generation that it can be done." —Soli Niheu, early warrior

When I got involved, Richard Sawyer and Walter Ritte had just been sentenced to six months in jail. That was a heavy sanction for the equivalent of going to a base uninvited. About that time they were also clearly stating that anybody who helped anybody get to the island was going to lose their boats, helicopters, airplanes. Kaho'olawe was the last piece of property [the Navy] would ever give up because they didn't have another place to do this kind of training. It took people risking their lives and taking them head on to get them to relent." —Eric Seitz, lawyer

"It was the people behind us that counted. I had to gather my family. Talk story and tell them I'm going to Kaho'olawe. And they said, 'What for Mom? That's a deserted island. There's nothing there.' But that's not the point. Emmett them, they said you folks are bound to get arrested. And we were. When we went home, the people who supported us were there. That's the motivation of winning. It's the people in back of you. Those are the people who worked hard." —Maxine Kahaulelio, early warrior

All text and original artwork © 2004 Honolulu Weekly

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