Molokai Ranch terminates its Hawaiian cultural program.
By Brandon Roberts
At Kaupoa Beach, in West Molokai, there is a sacred garden named Na Piko, where culture was cultivated alongside indigenous plants. It is there that the mo`olelo of Molokai had been shared with many by Anakala Pilipo Solatario, a man who dedicates his life to perpetuating Hawaiian culture.
Solatario, the man who created Na Piko, doesn’t enter the garden anymore. The grounds are leo`ole – stories are no longer told. Solatario will not set foot in the sanctuary until it is closed with proper Hawaiian ceremony.
On Feb. 23, Solatario gave his final protocol as Molokai Ranch’s Cultural Director; his position, along with the Ranch’s cultural program, was terminated.
“The Ranch has always spoken of how important Hawaiian culture is,” Solatario said, expressing his disappointment. “Now, all of the sudden, there is no need for culture.”
The Ranch did not give Solatario a written notification; neither did ILWU local 142, the union representing the employees. After almost 30 years working for the Ranch, Solatario received a phone call from human resources telling him the news.
However, Solatario was not fired; the union offered him a different position at a lower wage. If Solatario decides to quit, he would lose severance pay and unemployment benefits.
“What does this show the community about respect for the culture?” Solatario asks.
Solatario is a kumu (teacher) of Hawaiian culture. His position as Cultural Director at the Ranch developed in 1996 due to his knowledge, commitment, and respect of indigenous practices.
In 2005, Solatario, nominated by Molokai Ranch, was awarded the annual Kahili Award. Presented by fellow cultural kumu and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the statewide award honors individuals who have devoted their lives to teaching and sharing Hawaiian culture.
A former Ranch employee and colleague of Solatario, Julie Ann-Bicoy calls him the kupuna of culture. “He played a major role in educating visitors and locals on our culture,” she said.
“It is significant that locals understand where they come from and be able to share the culture,” Ann-Bicoy said. “He was able to create a cohesive understanding.”
“If they (Molokai Ranch) understood the culture, they would not have gotten rid of it,” Ann-Bicoy said. “For an island of Hawaiian culture, where does this leave the Ranch?”
Since 2001, the Ranch has lost more than $30 million in operating costs, and another $30 million in capital expenditures and upkeep. The losses have been subsidized by the Ranch’s parent company, Guoco Group Limited.
For several years, Guoco has been trying to develop a 200-lot millionaire’s subdivision in a culturally significant area known as La`au Point in West Molokai. John Sabas, the Ranch’s general manager, said in the past that the company would be forced to cut back on operations if the La`au project is unsuccessful.
“This is not a cutback, it’s a termination,” Solatario said. “If Molokai Ranch cannot find a financial benefit to the culture, they get rid of it.”
Molokai Ranch has held several employee meetings to gather support for the La’au development. “The Ranch is throwing palu (chum), but not all fish will bite,” Solatario said. In a recent secret ballot, 10 out of 18 employees voted against support for the development.
Solatario suspects his position against the development may be the reason for his termination. However, he says he does not regret his actions.
“What I am saying is true, it is pono,” Solatario said.
Several phone calls and emails to Sabas regarding Solatario’s termination were not returned.
The piko of Molokai Ranch was Solatario’s cultural program. For visitors, it brought about awareness and respect for Molokai ways. In the wake of the Ranch’s choice, there remains emptiness in the absence of Hawaiian culture.