May 7, 1994, at Palauea, Maui. Throughout the day hundreds, thousands of people arriving by car, bus, boat, on foot. Kānaka on the beach, on the lawn, in the house. Someone set up a stage and a sound system. Musicians toting their instruments. Military personnel in dress whites. Kūpuna seated in the shade. Pū practice at the shoreline. Keiki playing in the water. Canoes offshore. On the horizon, an island. Kaho‘olawe. Kohemālamalama o Kanaloa.
The ceremony had begun. Not regalia, pomp, and circumstance, but the ceremony of numerous humans engaged in discrete tasks, at different paces, with a singular purpose, converging in harmony. Lōkahi.
Congress convened the Kaho‘olawe Island Conveyance Commission, or KICC, in 1991 following the end of the bombing of the island to make an assessment and recommendations as to the future of this island. The U.S. was going to fund the cleanup of ordnance and rehabilitate the island to a useable status. Smartly, a conveyance of control from the U.S. Navy to the State of Hawai‘i to hold in trust for a future Hawaiian sovereign entity was planned before the 10-year cleanup was to commence. Had it been devised to occur upon certification for safe use following the cleanup, the island would still be in military hands today.
This week, we are reminded that less than 10% of the land surface was cleared to a depth of 4 feet, far short of the goal of 30%; 75% of the island is surfaced cleared, much less than the agreed upon 100%. Access to uncleared areas is restricted and free roam areas are explicitly marked.
Someone had a master plan that day in May. I just showed up with all my weekend needs in a dry bag and a willingness to kōkua. A few people had rooms at a nearby resort the preceding Friday night; every corner had sleeping bodies. I spent the morning shredding kalua turkey chatting with a familiar-looking guy named Charlie. In the afternoon, I served water and lunch plates to the kūpuna under the tent. Music was non-stop.
Soon, Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli, Governor John Waihe‘e, Undersecretary of the Navy William J. Cassidy, and a couple of others were on stage signing deeds to the island on a table from the Ke‘anae kitchen of Uncle Harry Mitchell. A line of pū blowers the length of Palauea Beach faced Kanaloa Kaho‘olawe and blew those shells 100 times. Canoes neared shore to take 100 people to continue the ceremony on island. Somehow, I made the cut. I talked story with Uncle Les and the kāne kia‘i.
The ceremonies continued in Hakioawa, commitments were made over ‘awa at Hakioawa, and Kaho‘olawe belonged to the people. Belongs to the people.
That day signaled renewal. Self-determination. The first ‘āina belonging to the future Hawaiian sovereign entity. “One down, seven to go.”
Understanding the underlying causes of the Kanaka Maoli plight identified by Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell—depopulation, the threat of being a minority in one’s own homeland; the loss of lands due to colonization; cultural conflict; despair and self-destruction; and racism—the return of Kaho‘olawe to the people of Hawai‘i from the strongest military power in the world was empowering.
New work commenced, new technologies were innovated. We were hopeful and energized. Huaka‘i, visits to the island, continued for cultural, educational, religious, and scientific purposes.
A young social worker named Julie took a women’s group she was working with to Kaho‘olawe, encouraging them to participate in the revegetation activities during the day, identify the lessons the island has to offer, and maintain their journals at each day’s end. The women, all in different stages of healing, immediately recognized the island—which had been bombed for nearly 50 years—as a metaphor for one’s personal recovery from trauma and abuse. Not much later a Hawaiian psychologist took a group of men, who experienced similar sensations, same outcomes.
The Native Hawaiian Health & Wellness Summit, hosted by Papa Ola Lōkahi in 1998, offered each island the opportunity to hold ‘aha, island gatherings, to bring the people together to identify the priorities for health and wellness. Kaho‘olawe—the smallest, least populated island—held three ‘aha, identifying the characteristics and practices of well-being, some of which are:
- On-island co-existing: experiencing rites of passage not often undertaken in modern times, ‘ohana or kauhale communal living, kōkua and laulima, substance-free environment, history that provides into the lives of po‘e kahiko; cultural protocol and other practices; and resource management
- Wahi pana, wahi kapu: encouraging focus, particularly during specific ceremonies such as Makahiki; kapu kai, a cleansing of body, mind, and soul; self-reflection and renewal; and different types of rites of passage
- Stewardship training provides Kaho‘olawe as a model for how places on our home islands can be protected. Healthy environments derive healthy people.
- Leadership training. The Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana is a living model for grassroots organization bringing people together from all islands as an ‘ohana with a common cause. Organized intergenerationally and a history of unprecedented kūpuna support, thus a built-in spiritual base. The ‘Ohana continues to mentor and produce new generations of leaders.
Kaho‘olawe Healing was recognized and we made more intentional efforts to develop curricula featuring the lessons of the island. In 2000, we took the first group of Hawaiian health professionals to camp at Hakioawa with similar results. Each huaka‘i has had a theme, cross-disciplinary teachings and a convergence of shared understandings of different healing and environmental practices. Just this week a group of Hawaiian physicians is championing regular trips with medical students to lay a foundation for their budding careers. A solid foundation.
I am an advocate of facilitating huaka‘i for those who are on the fringe, in the margins, who are seeking, searching, healing, mending. I have found that it isn’t necessary to tell people what the island has to offer, because each will have her or his own personal—usually deep and profound—experiences. Absent the clutter of modern life, the lessons of Kanaloa Kaho‘olawe surface immediately.
On May 7, 1994, a tiny, abused, sacred, recovering island was returned to Hawaiian hands, providing inspiration to the lāhui to thrive, to reclaim the lōkahi and well-being of our ancestors. Forests are planted one seed at a time. Lands are reclaimed one island at a time.
Healing an island, healing a people, healing a nation.
~ Na Kim Ku‘ulei Birnie
- Joyous Hawaiians reclaim battered Kahoolawe Island, LA Times, May 8, 1994
- Kahoolawe Island Reserve: A Hawaiian Cultural Sanctuary, Mānoa, Summer 1995
- Kahoolawe Healing, 1998
- Native Hawaiian Health & Wellness Summit: Ka ‘Uhane Lōkahi‘Uhane Lōkahi, Pacific Health Dialog, Summer 1998
- The bombing of Kaho‘olawe went on for years. The clean-up will take generations. HawaiiNewsNow, February 27, 2018.
- 25 years hence, recovery work continues on the island of Kaho‘olawe, Maui News, May 5, 2019
- Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana
- Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission
- Maui News
- Maui News
- Drs. Jeffrey Akaka & Kekuni Blaisdell, swimming to shore, Kaho‘olawe, 2000. Photo by KKBirnie
- Drs. Dee-Ann Carpenter, Martina Kamaka, Noa Emmett Aluli, Hakioawa, Kaho‘olawe, April 2021. Photo courtesy Dee-Ann L. Carpenter.