A Road Less Taken
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 pastand 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 daysabout 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 storyespecially 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.
The 13,000-acre Ho‘olehua Homestead in central Moloka‘i is one of dozens of tracts of mostly marginal land throughout Hawai‘i set aside for Native Hawaiians by the U.S. government in 1920. Thirteen years ago, Walter Ritte’s mother, Anna Hi‘iaka‘ikapoli‘opele Purdy Ritte, who died in 1999, was awarded a ninety-nine-year lease on three-acre lot 69E. She had been on a waiting list for more than thirty years. For $5,000 in materials, Ritte built a kauhale on the quiet, hilly plot; that is, a three-house compound for herand for him, Loretta and their four children Tiare, Li-Ana, Kalaniua and Kamohai.
“We didn’t know anything about building houses,” Ritte says as he proudly points out the main house’s massive log pillars, “but we figured that if birds could build their own places, so could we.”
The construction mimics ancient Hawaiian house building with exposed center, end and wall posts that Ritte harvested from the island’s ironwood forests and mangroves. The posts are sunk three feet in the ground. Because no building permits for the plywood-sheathed structures were issued, the electric company doesn’t provide service; so the Ritte family’s electricity and hot water are both solar. “All you need are good storage batteries,” Ritte says, recommending his photovoltaic power system. The gravity-fed hot water comes from a Plexiglas-covered water trough on the roof.
On the big, simply furnished lanai of the main house, Walter and Loretta serve a square meal of venison and rice, along with tomatoes and greens from their garden. The evening air is soft. A neck-load of track medals glitter on a hook on the wall. (Last July, Walter competed in the annual Aloha State Games, winning his 60-65 age group for both the 100-yard dash [13.3 seconds] and the 200 [28.9 seconds].)
“I can bring home a deer and have food for two months,” Walter brags, chewing the tough meat, washing it down with a beer and opening up the subject of his impecunious life. The family’s cash flow is dependent on occasional grant awards from various state agencies, from a Honolulu-based, private nonprofit called the Pacific American Foundation (PAF), and from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA, along with OHA and the state, funded much of Ritte’s recent work rebuilding Moloka‘i’s ancient fishponds. OHA funds the Hawaiian Learning Center, Walter’s current baby, while PAF is lead funder for Loretta’s youth leadership-training program, of which she is coordinator.
“Yeah, it’s grant to grant to grant,” Walter says summarily. “It’s a struggle, but we drive Volkswagens, not Cadillacs. We don’t have electricity bills, we don’t have cable, and the papayas, ‘ulu, squash, mangos, they walk in the house.”
I ask how the couple, married now for thirty-eight years, first met. It was on Moloka‘i in 1966, when Loretta Ann Perreira, a Hawaiian/Portuguese Kaua‘i girl, visited the island in her role as Miss Hawai‘i to preside over the Miss Moloka‘i pageant. They married three years later.
What drew her to Walter?
“The word I use is pu‘uhonua (refuge),” Loretta says. “I use that because whenever he came to visit me, he wasn’t the typical guy. Always in his slippers, T-shirt and jeans; he was really local, but I could go to him whenever I needed something or was in a bad situation. I felt safe with him.”
“We were always together; we were like one,” Walter says.
“I mean, he wasn’t working. He didn’t have a job. He was a hunter, so wherever he went, I went with him, up in the mountains or wherever. We were always togetherthat was the beginning of our marriage. After we had kids and he did all the things he went out to do, I stayed home. It wasn’t easy all the time, but we were always good friends.”
Mosquitoes zyzing in my ear, I ask Walter about favorite books, authors, poets. He says he hasn’t read any books since college because he falls asleep, and then haltingly offers a few memorized scraps of The Listeners, a poem by English poet Walter De La Mare that he discovered during his three years at the University of Hawai‘i:
Is there any body there? said the Traveler,” he recites, “
Knocking on the moonlit door
Tell them I came, and no one answered, that I kept my word.
“I liked that poem,” he says.
An old colleague of Ritte’s said that she had once asked him over drinks who he would be if he could be anyone in the world. Leonardo da Vinci, he’d said. I ask him if it’s true.
Walter laughs explosively. “Yeah, he was my hero!”
He’s amazed the boozy confession has resurfaced. But he’s not embarrassed about his affinity for the original Renaissance man: “When I was at Kamehameha, I read a lot about him,” he says. “He was an athletic, strong person who was into nature, art, science, everything. He created things. Everything that turned him onthat’s what turned me on ”
He stops talking and looks at me. “Eh! How the hell did you know that? You’re worse than Peter!”
“Who?” I ask.
Four years ago, Peter Nicholas, an executive with Singapore-based BIL Investments Ltd., a global investment conglomerate, arrived on Moloka‘i to turn around BIL’s cash-starved property, the 65,000-acre Molokai Ranch, which it bought in 1986. Essentially, Nicholas’ difficult job has been to soften the island’s notoriously anti-development defensiveness and befriendand/or disarmits battalion of warriors, Walter Ritte chief among them.
Walter explains his remark equating Nicholas and me. Nicholas is, he says, “a really nice guy who did his homework on me and let me know that he knew all about me.”
The 100-year-old ranch covers nearly a third of the island, most of the dry west end, and has a long and paternalisticalmost feudalhistory with the island’s people. It was the target of Hui Alaloa’s protests in the 1970s, and Ritte has been deeply involved in ranch-related access, water-rights and development battles ever since.
In 1998, a jury acquitted Ritte and another man of charges that they damaged a five-mile section of a vital water pipeline owned by the ranch. Two years later, Ritte was put on a year’s probation after he pleaded guilty to charges that he set fire to a ranch building. If residents of the state know anything about Walter Ritte, it’s safe to say that they know him as the tough local guy accused of busting up the water pipes on Moloka‘i.
“My whole credibility went down the tubes,” Ritte says about the guilty plea. “Instead of being a Hawaiian activist fighting for Hawaiian things, I became an arsonist and a criminal. But what do you do? I know who I am, and I don’t see myself as being a bad guy.
“It’s like if somebody threatens your daughter or your wife, you’re not gonna go write a letter to the editor. That’s how I look at it. When you’re young, you’re passionate. When you’re old, you lock the doors.”
Two years ago, Nicholas invited island leaders, including Ritte, to join a volunteer committee to work with the ranch to formulate a master plan that would settle, once and for all, the disposition of all the ranch’s land. Media reports hailed the master planning as a model of community cooperation: “Ranch talks are healing old wounds on Moloka’i,” read a Honolulu newspaper headline in 2004. Gov. Linda Lingle signaled her support. The committee came up with a plan that, among other things, gave permanent protection to nearly 50,000 acres of land; and they voted to approve it, nineteen to six.
Ritte voted “no,” thereby breaking with several of his old activist colleagues. For him and others, the sticking point is the plan’s allowance for 200, two-acre, oceanfront residential lots to be built on the island’s remote southwestern-most extremity, La‘au Point. Ritte’s stunning turn-around on the master plan was seen by some as a typical “no, no, no” move, and as a betrayal of the cooperative process.
“In order for the activists to come to a split,” Ritte told a Maui newspaper, “people have to be tired of fighting. I’m tired of fighting, too, but you cannot give up your heart and your soul because you are tired.”
Walter tired? On his own, maybe. He began calling out the troops against the plan, characterizing the multimillion-dollar-vacation-home subdivisionand the fulsome advertising that inevitably will be used to sell itas a “malignant cancer” that threatens the island. “Once it starts,” he says, “you cannot stop it.”
Last September, Ritte deployed about fifty men and women in a month-long protest occupation at La‘au Point. On Oct. 7, 300 islanders marched four miles to join them, wearing red t-shirts emblazoned “‘A‘ole La‘au” (“Not at La‘au”), in what Ritte claims was the largest demonstration ever on Moloka‘i.
The march echoed Hui Alaloa thirty years ago: Had Ritte come full circle and was he copying himself? Or was he simply being consistent, doing what he has always done, organizing the troops and fighting the odds with a warrior’s sense of clarity, with a serene and fearless righteousness?
At the age of thirty and fresh off of Hui Alaloa’s success, Ritte found himself on a boat at dawn and seasick, enlisted to join the historic first invasion of the restricted island of Kaho‘olawe. The date was Jan. 4, 1976. At the time, the U.S. Navy was using the rugged forty-four-square-mile island, eight miles off the south Maui coast and dotted with Hawaiian archeological sites, as a practice bombing range, as it had since 1953.
Ritte was the first to leap off the boat and onto the sand at Hakioawa Bayhe says he needed to relieve himself. After two days spent eluding authorities, he and fellow Moloka‘i activist Emmett Aluli gave up, exhausted and hungry. They were arrested and taken back to Maui in a military helicopter.
Ritte remembers taking his seat in the helicopter and staring out the window. He dumbly focused on a nondescript rock on the ground. He says that something about it kept his gaze. As the helicopter lifted off, the rock grew smaller and smaller until Ritte found himself staring at the whole island with the same intense focus.
“I got this tingling feeling in my feet,” he says. “It started coming up my legs and took over my whole body, and I was looking at the island and this thing said to me, ‘I’m going to die!’
“That was it. I don’t know where I went, but my whole being totally changed. All I knew was that I wasn’t gonna let this island die.”
Ritte’s news-making trespasses on the island totaled four. His fourth occupation occurred a year after the first and lasted thirty-five days. He and comrade Richard Sawyer, always hiding from bombs and search helicopters, tried to live by the ancient ways. Meanwhile, back in Honolulu, the military manhunt for the two men played on the evening news like high drama, provoking intense debate about the treatment of sacred Hawaiian lands and, by extension, treatment of the Native Hawaiian people. Public opinion moved against the bombing. There were reverberations in the halls of Congress. Two fellow activists, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, died martyrs’ deaths, disappearing at sea while attempting a rescue operation on surfboards. Ritte and Sawyer finally turned themselves in and ended up in the state’s maximum-security prison for six months, where inmates treated them with the deference accorded to heroes. The bombing of Kaho‘olawe finally stopped in 1990.
Fresh out of jail, Ritte used his high profile to help shape and campaign for the historic “Hawaiian package” of amendments to the Hawai‘i state Constitution in 1978, which affirmed traditional native Hawaiian religious, gathering and access rights, and created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the state agency charged with bettering the conditions of Native Hawaiians. Ritte took a seat on the nascent agency’s first Board of Trustees, elected by Hawaiians statewide in 1980. He was the highest vote-getter.
Determined to use OHA to fight for Native Hawaiian claims against the state and federal governments, the pugnacious trustee cultivated high-level political enemies. A 1984 hunting incident on Moloka‘i added to Ritte’s growing arrest record, but this one led straight to a speedy trial and conviction on night-hunting and firearms felony charges. At the urging of the state attorney general, and after accusations flew that the case was a political power play designed to silence Ritte, his fellow OHA board members voted to remove him. Months later, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court overturned the conviction, but it was too late, and Ritte withdrewfor a long timefrom statewide politics.
His comeback happened in stages.
Four years ago, Ritte led the successful if polarizing campaign to stop Hawai‘i’s new fleet of giant cruise ships from including Moloka‘i on their inter-island itineraries. “That was a good fight,” Ritte says. “I think a lot of people got blinded by dollar signs, but it really was about common senseI mean, we only got one bathroom at the wharf!”
In the spring of 2006, the ever-quotable Ritte again became a fixture on the evening news when he went to O‘ahu and mobilized the Hawaiian community in a hard-nosed confrontation with the University of Hawai‘i. Hawaiians won decisively. Somber demonstrations involving hundreds protested the university’s work on the genetic modification and patenting of taro, the starchy tuber and traditional staple of the Hawaiian diet. In the Hawaiian cosmogony, the taro plant is the original ancestor of the Hawaiian people.
At the confrontation’s climax, Ritte padlocked the door and literally locked out the university’s Board of Regents from a scheduled meeting. Long story short: Ritte wasn’t arrested, the regents saw the light, and the taros are now back in the public domain. “Basically, we contributed to the global debate about owning life forms,” Ritte says. “We just gave the argument an understandable Hawaiian vision, to make it clearer. The kaona (secondary, or hidden, meaning) of the taro fight is that you can’t own life forms, because you’re not God. If you understand the Hawaiian point of view, then maybe you understand why life forms can’t be owned.”
Located in the ahupua‘a of Ka‘amola on the lush east end of Moloka‘i, the Hawaiian Learning Center (HLC) occupies a large seaside plot fronting on a magnificent Hawaiian fishpond called Keawanui, whose ancient rock wall encloses fifty-four acres of shallow reef water. In the old days, the pond produced thousands of pounds of fish annually.
Ritte spent much of the last decade and thousands of man-hours working with local youth to rebuild a few of the island’s sixty-odd remnant ponds that edge the south shore like so much lace. He wanted to teach Moloka‘i kids pride in their native cultureand revive the ancient Hawaiian science of aquaculture so that maybe the island will be able to feed itself once again.
Despite his title as HLC coordinator, Ritte admits he doesn’t care much about reports, or forms, or red tape of any kind. Luckily for him, he has a part-time secretary who does most of it for him. Still, it’s hard to get any clear information out of him about what HLC actually does.
“Well, there’s a whole curriculum called Kahea Loko,” Ritte says slowly. “The school kids come down from three schoolsyou know, social studies and science classesto learn about the fishponds, and we talk story with them.”
We’re sitting on a split-coconut-log bench inlaid with seashells on HLC’s lawn, waiting for “some church people” to arrive so Ritte can talk story with them. The morning is sunny, with a breeze.
“This is where we preach,” he pronounces, reformulating his answer with a little more energy, looking around at the two quiet classroom buildings (one enclosed, the other an open-walled pavilion) and his trailer office. Four cats lounge on the trailer’s steps.
Three vanloads of church people arrive and settle down at picnic tables in the pavilion. They’re from all over Hawai‘i and the Mainland, of all races and ages, touring O‘ahu and Moloka‘i to listen to Hawaiian issues and concerns. In exchange for Ritte’s mana‘o (thoughts, ideas), the ecumenical group will spend the afternoon helping to clear mangrove from the fishpond.
Ritte stands among his polite, wide-eyed guests and begins by explaining where they are on the island. His speaking voice is barely audible, his delivery slow and deliberate. He gestures toward the looming mountain valley behind them and explains the ahupua‘a of Ka‘amola, how Hawaiians had everything they needed in a single pie-slice of land, usually shaped by a valley, from the mountain timbers, plants and herbs down to the fish and limu (seaweed) in the sea, with a stream flowing down the middle.
He contrasts it to modern living, where everything is “sideways.”
“You’re supposed to have all the stuff you need in your ahupua‘a. That was the concept. It’s like a high-rise with everything in it,” he says. “In Hawaiian culture, everything is connected together.”
He tells his guests how the ahupua‘a system was ravaged by western notions of propertyby upland cattle-grazing that leads to reef-killing erosion, and by the water demands of giant sugar and pineapple plantations that diverted countless streams throughout Hawai‘i.
Someone asks him why Moloka‘i seems so different from O‘ahu or Maui. Ritte answers that Moloka‘i is “still a Hawaiian place, the last Hawaiian place.
“It’s a good island,” he says, “a valuable island. Developers drool when they see Moloka‘i. In the old days, it was called ‘aina momona, or fat island, because of all the food that was produced here. So, my hope is that in the future, we’re going to have taro farmers and fishpond operators and sweet potato farmers.
“That’s why we’re talking to the kids here at the center, teaching them everything we’ve learned so maybe things will be different in the future.
“Moloka‘i is very hard to put your finger on,” Ritte says when I ask him, back on his lanai at home, about the island’s mood at the moment. “Very few people can feel the pulse of Moloka‘i. I’m one of the guys who’s been trying to do that for thirty years. Right now, what’s happening is people on Moloka‘i are scared. There’s a huge influx of strangers coming in. We hardly recognize anybody when we go to the supermarket nowadays. And no one knows what to do about it. They all expect me to do something about it.
“Okay, so, how do you control it? You don’t go with big developers, you go with your community. The process calls for some suffering. That’s the part people don’t like. If one of their kids cannot have a job over here, they get really pissed off. But that’s the way it is. You got four kids, maybe two gotta move off the island. Some kids aren’t gonna like the rural lifestyle anyway. I got two kids on Maui, in [expletive deleted] Kihei! You cannot make this island for everybody. It just doesn’t work that way.”
He shakes his head, thinking about his kids and Kihei, a South Maui boomtown, full of condos, Californians and fancy cars. “I hate Kihei!”
I ask him what’s next, after La‘au Point.
“I’m gonna build our nation,” he says firmly.
“We have to build it one person at a time, and each person has to be sovereign: They have to have a sovereign attitude, they have to believe they are Hawaiians. Without that base, I don’t care what piece of paper you have.” HH