Beach debate – a culture clash

Conflict over nudity exposes raw feelings at public meeting

The Maui News
Thursday, November 8, 2001

Staff Writer

WAILUKU – The issue was nude sunbathing at Puu Olai (Little) Beach, but the overall tone of a state parks meeting to obtain public input on the subject seemed to open a gulf between many Mainland transplants and local residents.

When testimony was finally closed Wednesday night at Maui Waena Intermediate School, more than a few of the nearly 200 people in the room seemed stunned at what they had heard: anger, pent-up frustrations and racist overtones with little hope of a compromise.

As tempers rose over comments by speakers, moderator Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. threatened to stop the proceedings and send the simmering crowd home.

Whether to crack down on nudity at Puu Olai Beach was supposed to be only part of the discussions held by the state Parks Division on a proposed update of the master plan for the state park at Makena. But since nearly everyone who attended the meeting did so because of their passion for or against permitting the clothing-optional life-style at Puu Olai Beach, hardly anything else got much attention.

"I'm a little disappointed that the other topics we wanted to talk about weren't really mentioned," said Maui District parks administrator Phil Ohta, reflecting Thursday morning on the public comments. "What's really frustrating is that other users of the park didn't show up. We focused too much on Little Beach."

Nudity is illegal in state parks. But the state law has not been enforced at the Makena-area beach since a Maui District Court ruling that found the Puu Olai Beach – protected by a lava ridge – is sufficiently isolated that the law for a public place didn't apply.

Hawaii laws for indecent exposure or open lewdness require that an act of nudity "is likely" to cause an observer to be affronted.

For more than a decade, officials have simply looked the other way when it came to baring it all on Puu Olai Beach, which has become famous the world over.

When news got out last week that a community task force assembled by Ohta might recommend that nudity should no longer be accepted or possibly reduced to certain days, the nude beach faithful united in force. They passed out fliers, phoned other beach lovers and contacted tourists who visit Maui simply because they can bare it all.

"One of the reasons we keep coming back to Maui is Little Beach," said Steve Uglimica of Wisconsin, sitting with his wife. "Little Beach is the friendliest beach we've ever found."

Tom Collins, a self-proclaimed "mayor of Little Beach," was the gregarious leader of the group. As the throng was gathering and it appeared that emotions could spill over, Maxwell pulled Collins aside to ask for calm.

"Don't interrupt," pleaded Collins, asking the crowd for quiet when others were speaking.

That turned out to be wishful thinking.

While the overwhelming majority demanded that nudity be allowed all the time at Puu Olai Beach, there were a few voices who dissented.

"You want your nakedness, take it to your backyard," said U'ilani Endo, a seventh-generation Native Hawaiian who grew up in the area. "I never liked it (the nudity). To this day, I never liked it. I hope the state thinks smart and not only thinks of you guys, but thinks about us guys. Keep it a public beach."

While Endo's comments prompted some hoots, it was the fiery stance of Keala Han that provoked the greatest commotion.

"Historically our people don't come out to these meetings," said Han defiantly. "Your people come out to these meetings. You're only a small percentage of our residents. . . You shouldn't be running around naked."

The shouting began and when Han referred to the Puu Olai Beach crowd as "a bunch of haoles," the place erupted with insults and racial epithets being hurled about until Maxwell ordered a stop to the outburst.

Soon after, a somber Astrid Watanabe took the microphone.

"I'm not proud of our behavior," she said to her fellow Caucasians, noting that she didn't care if nudity was allowed or not. "That's why we're not popular here."

Kai Camacho, also a seventh-generation Native Hawaiian, made sure the task force knew that not all local folks opposed a clothing-optional beach. Camacho said he learned to swim and surf in the gentle waters and praised the "adopted people of Hawaii" who have kept the area clean.

Ohta said he will continue to solicit input and compile a draft that will be made available to the public a month before the next meeting. To send in comments, write to him at DLNR, Division of State Parks, 54 S. High St., Room 101, Wailuku 96793 or fax to 984-8111.

Ohta wasn't sure when the next public gathering would be, but he hopes those who attend arrive with a different mindset.

"There should be more respect shown," he said.

The task force's final recommendations will be sent on to the state Board of Land & Natural Resources to determine what the master plan update should provide.

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