Healing of an Island
For 50 years beginning during World War II, the island of Kaho`olawe was rocked by bombs, dropped by the U.S. military for naval training. Hawaii residents recall hearing the explosions and feeling the ground shake as missiles left gouges in the earth. Now, after decades of protest efforts, cultural reconnection and environmental restoration, a process of healing is continuing as a strategic plan is being developed to guide Kaho`olawe’s future.
Once a spiritual and cultural center for Native Hawaiians, trespassing on Kaho`olawe was prohibited for half a century. In the early 1970s, people began questioning those laws, and in 1976, the Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana (PKO) formed and filed a suit in federal court to stop the bombing. While bombing continued, the Navy was ordered to complete an environmental impact statement for the island.
Years of protesting followed, led by activists including Molokai’s George Helm, Walter Ritte and Dr. Emmet Aluli, during which time many Native Hawaiians were arrested for landing and trespassing on Kaho`olawe. In 1977, Helm and Kimo Mitchell disappeared after going to look for fellow activists occupying the island.
Two years later, the first legal access resulted from negotiations with the Navy under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and in 1982, the first Makahiki ceremony was observed there since 1819. It wasn’t until 1990 that bombing stopped.
“It was the most powerful movement Hawaii has seen in 100 years,” said Aluli, who is now involved in the strategic planning process.
Called I Ola Kanaloa, or “life to Kanaloa,” — the ancient name for Kaho`olawe — the plan will span from 2014 to 2026, the year that marks 50 years since the first occupation in 1976 of the struggle to regain the island, according to Davianna McGregor, one of the plan’s organizers.
“Kaho`olawe gave us back a spiritual connection to our ancestors,” said McGregor. “The 12-year plan should get us closer to achieving [our] vision.”
That vision includes revitalizing the environment and cultural relationships, living sustainably through wise utilization of the island’s resources, sharing education of Hawaiian skills and practices, and affirming the sacredness of Kaho`olawe as the foundation of the Hawaiian nation, according to the strategic plan.
The 2026 Kanaloa Working Group, currently made up of members of the PKO, the Kaho`olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, is in the process of collecting feedback on I Ola Kanaloa in communities around Hawaii. Two weeks ago, they gathered mana`o on Molokai, showing one film in a series called “Standing on Sacred Ground.” The series explores the struggles of indigenous peoples around the world to defend human rights and preserve the environment, and the episode called “Islands of Sanctuary” focuses in part on Native Hawaiians’ fight for Kaho`olawe and what the island means to the Hawaiian culture.
Organizers also stressed the importance of the island as a base for the future of the Hawaiian nation.
“We want Kaho`olawe to play a role in the coming transition to a sovereign nation,” said McGregor of growing grassroots and federal efforts to recognize Native Hawaiian governance. She added that the island remains in a trust until a sovereign Hawaiian governing entity is established.
“We feel a responsibility to see it become part of the sovereign nation… then negotiate terms of transfer,” said Aluli. “That’s the job of the next generation. That’s the exciting part.”
With growing involvement in the restoration of the island, replanting the native species that were wiped out by bombing and regular cultural practices, McGregor said hundreds of volunteers have come to Kaho`olawe in recent years.
For many, spending time on the island is a time of personal growth.
“There’s nothing like seeing the transition for people who go to the island and have to learn to work together and play together,” laughed Aluli.
Keoki Pescaia said his family sets aside time every year to observe Makahiki — a season of peace and harvest in honor of the god Lono — on Kaho`olawe.
“You gotta experience the island to feel it,” he said.
His wife Miki`ala suggested to McGregor that the importance of continuing Makahiki specifically be identified in the strategic plan, because the right to observe the religious practice was main reason bombing stopped initially.
“Kaho`olawe’s [Makahiki] observances are like none other,” Miki`ala Pescaia said. “…Your dramas in life get left behind for those six days… Nothing else matters but praying for goodness and being thankful… and that to me is the fruits of the labors of the last 30 years of this effort.”
While people have put a lot of mana into the healing of Kaho`olawe, a lot of money has been spent, too.
McGregor said $400 million was spent in military clean-up of bombs on the island, but efforts stopped in 2004 before the job was complete because no more funding could be put into it. Twenty-three percent of Kaho`olawe remains uncleared of unexploded ordnances, and none of the surrounding waters were cleared.
Kaho`olawe is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The goal of the Working Group is to complete the strategic plan by the end of this year, and Aluli said they also anticipate sharing it with the state and new congressional representatives to ask for their support. In the meantime, organizers continue to seek mana`o and community members’ vision for Kaho`olawe.
You can learn more about the plan or share your mana`o by visiting iolakanaloa.org.