story by Curt Sanburn
photos by Monte Costa
Landward of Keawanui fish pond, on the kukui and coconut tree-laden grounds of Moloka‘i’s Hawaiian Learning Center, veteran Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte sits with his wife Loretta, flipping through a thirty-year-old, scrapbook-style picture calendar. The images memorialize events in 1975, when a tight-knit band of islanders who called themselves Hui Alaloa (“group of the long trail”) organized protest marches to reclaim access to the island’s beaches and forests after 100 years of fencing and “no trespassing” signs.
“Okay, here we are marching on the old government road from Pala‘au to Hale O Lono, forty years after they closed it,” Ritte (rhymes with pretty) says, pointing to a snapshot of a rag-tag herd of 200 protesters, young and old, happy in the blazing midday sun, walking and carrying flags and signs along a barren coastal road.
He slips reading glasses over his dark watery eyes and peers closely at the faces in the sepia-toned images. He chants the names: Auntie Clara Ku, Auntie Mary Lee, Theo and Harry Purdy, Glenn Borden, George Helm, Sonny Kaniho, Leiala Lee, Barbara Kalipi. Mac Poepoe carries a Hawaiian flag. Judy Napoleon, fierce and beautiful, smiles behind sunglasses.
Ritte, now a lean and leathery sixty-two, turns to a picture of marchers uprooting a gate blocking the roadway while a few police officers stand to the side and watch.
“See, this was heavy, cuz nobody ever did anything like this before,” he says. “We were trespassing!” He adds that Hui Alaloa’s kupuna, its elders, insisted that the marchers rebuild the gate once they passed through as a courtesy to the landowning ranchers and their cattle, so they did.
The earnest marches worked: Landowners relented and opened roads to Kawakiu at the island’s northwest corner and Pala‘au on the south coast … for ten years, Ritte says. “This started a whole trend, statewide, that had a major impact on Hawaiians. Everybody started asking, ‘What the hell is this Hawaiian rights stuff?’”
A few pictures show Walter and Loretta together, already married, looking oh-so-dynamic and in love. Loretta, a hula dancer and a Miss Hawai‘i in 1966, leans into the calendar to look closely at her past—and her friends from the past.
In nearly every picture of her pony-tailed, bearded husband, a pig and deer hunter since he was twelve, Ritte holds a bullhorn. He brandishes it like a gun.
As a young hunter on Moloka‘i, Ritte says he always had “problems with access, getting passes, trespassing, and all that kind of stuff.” His and others’ experiences stood in stark contrast to the stories that he heard, just back from college on O‘ahu and doing community organizing, from the island’s kupuna about the old days—about how families used to go to forbidden beaches down roads now closed, about hunters who used to go up into the forests at will.
“So me and this group started meeting at Harry James Mowat’s house. We asked lots of questions, then we did research, looked at old maps when all these roads were open. That’s how we began to learn about these things, things that were never taught to us, not at Kamehameha Schools, not at UH, not anywhere. We had to learn this stuff on the streets.”
Ritte points out a caption in the calendar and reads it aloud: “Moloka‘i people must have control of their own island. We know what is best for us.” He tells me he produced and printed the calendar and wrote that line.
A near-legendary figure, Walter L. Ritte Jr. is best known today as the island of Moloka‘i’s most ferocious watchdog, defending its subsistence fishing/farming/ hunting lifestyle by hook or by crook against developers, politicians, cruise-ship operators and other “invaders.” He’s been doing it for more than thirty years, alone and unbending, among a shifting array of allies and foes within the tight-knit island’s population of 7,000 people, half of whom claim some Hawaiian blood. A visionary committed to a Hawaiian fu
But there’s more, a lot more, to the story.
Nearly forgotten is the profound, statewide impact the self-styled Moloka‘i warrior had on the formation of a new political consciousness, when Hawaiian activism, much of it spawned on Moloka‘i, thundered across the islands and became a potent force for change. Hui Alaloa was only the beginning. Then came Ritte’s heroic trespasses on the target island of Kaho‘olawe, followed by prison time. Then his work to create the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs and his election to its first board, only to be kicked off in a political power play. History books and newspaper clippings document the facts behind the Ritte legend, and it’s a damn good story—especially in hindsight, and especially now that Ritte has re-emerged, after twenty years of troubles and quiet work, as a potent political leader, a straight-talking, charismatic maka‘ainana (citizen) defender of the Hawaiian way.