Issue 9.2: April/May 2006

The Way Forward

story by Paul Devlin Wood
photos by Monte Costa and Franco Salmoiraghi

photo by Monte Costa
From left to right: Kawai Tsuha,
Derek Kekaulike Mar, Kalei Tsuha,
Andre Perez, Joanna Tsuha,

Conner Naho‘opi‘ and Mile Naho‘opi‘i
gather to greet the voyaging canoe

Makali‘i on thebeach at Honokanai‘a

Kaho‘olawe has its hooks in me. I can still feel that all-night mouse scratching under my sleeping bag; still see those miles of red earth running like ski slopes from the summit to the sea; still hear the bugling call of the pu (conch shells), pulling us together—for work, for meals, for everything, for the honor of greeting the sunrise, in fact for survival.

I can see the island from my house in Upcountry Maui. Even in the darkness, even as Kaho‘olawe sinks into its unelectrified blackness, I can see it. Last night, for instance, an amber crescent moon balanced above the island, and blue-white Venus stood directly above that, like a pearl dropping into a razor-thin cup. Just as I saw this portent, a pueo, a Hawaiian owl, flew past my head and let out its distinctive cry—a rusty shriek that shoots like a spear into registers above human hearing. Immediately I was back there. In my imagination it was midnight and I was lying once again on the shoreline at Hakioawa, listening to three women chanting wildly from somewhere in the distance, their voices penetrating the night’s thick silence with unbelievable velocity. Each time the voices paused, a pueo shrieked in the darkness. And when I lifted my head from the sleeping bag, I could see the myriad amber lights of Maui, one of them perhaps my own.

Am I here or there?

It’s now been six months since I first set foot on the island, joining seventy other pilgrims as part of a four-day “access” led by the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana. During our stay we worked hard and slept little. We cleaned up the “camp”—acres of thigh-high coastal grass in the simmering shade of thorny kiawe trees. We hiked to the island’s summit and jumped into a restoration project, staking itchy bales of native pili grass right into the slick red surface of an eroded mountainside. Then a storm walloped our departure, testing our endurance to the snapping edge. Not long afterwards, someone asked me if I would ever go back there again. “Go back?” I said, “I haven’t left yet.”

In the interim, I’ve come to know many people who have fallen under the grip of Kaho‘olawe. “This is my Mecca,” I’ve heard them say. “This is the piko”—the navel, the soul-center of Hawai‘i. I have found that everyone who gets involved with this island, from the occasional access participant all the way to Sol Kaho‘ohalahala, executive director of the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission—that is, “KIRC” (pronounced as a one-syllable word), the state agency responsible for the care of the island and its surrounding waters—everyone sincerely believes that this island represents the future of Hawai‘i. They are driven and earnest in their faith.

photo by Monte Costa
Alani Apio, looking toward Kaho‘olawe
on the boat trip from Maui

Now I’m hung up on the island, too. However, my case is quite specific, and I know my problem: I never learned the exit chant. Traditionally, when one visited another island—or any place that was not specifically home, for that matter—a mele komo, a request to enter, was chanted. In modern Hawai‘i, this tradition has become largely ceremonial, but on Kaho‘olawe it is otherwise: There are chants that occur throughout the day—for example E Ala E, which begins in the pre-dawn darkness and is used not only to wake the sleeping but literally to help the sun in its rising.

There is also Ke Noi ‘A‘ama, the request for release: You must chant in order to depart, asking the island to let you go; ask, as the final words of the chant go in translation, to be released “from my obligation as your guest.” But when it came time for us to go, holding hands in the pre-dawn gloom while the wind and rain flogged us and churned the waiting sea into smashing spikes, I couldn’t say the chant. I’d had no time to learn it. I did a Milli Vanilli. I lip-synced.

At that moment, I failed in my obligation as a guest. Let this story, then, be my exit chant.

Everybody knows something of Kaho‘olawe’s history. The ancient people dedicated the land to the ocean god Kanaloa and used it as a kind of academy for the refined art of open-sea navigation. The western tip of the island, Kealaikahiki, shares its name with the channel that runs between Kaho‘olawe and Lana‘i—a name that translates as “the way to foreign lands.” Long-distance voyages departed from and arrived here. From the island’s summit, Moa‘ulaiki, one can see most of the other islands and observe the currents moving in most of the sea channels. I was told that forty-two winds strike the island; each wind has a name. At the highest point of land the ancient ones, somehow, placed an enormous circular stone that has a perfect fracture across its diameter, as though one of the gods had struck it precisely with an adze. How people got that multi-ton rock into such a precarious position defies explanation, but clearly they did, and they placed it at an angle that seems deliberate.

People lived on Kaho‘olawe. Nearly 3,000 archeological sites have been identified. There must have been fresh water once, though today there is none—except in KIRC’s new catchment system, which can hold half a million gallons. In former days, there was a “cloud bridge” that ran between Kaho‘olawe and leeward Haleakala. Today, both places have lost their native forest cover, and the bridge now rarely appears.

photo by Monte Costa
An offering at the rain ko‘a (shrine)
on the summit of Pu‘u Moa‘ulanui.

What happened? Goats, sheep and cows—they ate the island. Goats, dropped off by Captain Vancouver, started chewing in 1795. In the early 1830s, a penal colony was established at Kaulana, on the island’s northeastern coast; in 1858, five years after the colony was dismantled, the Hawaiian government began issuing ranch leases in neighboring Kuheia. The ranchers planted kiawe trees, which fed the cattle by root-sucking the island’s deepest and last reserves of fresh water. But even the famous Maui cattleman Angus MacPhee failed to make the ranching operation work. In 1941 MacPhee called it quits: He sub-leased part of the island to the U.S. military and pulled all of his cattle out of there.

Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese dropped bombs on O‘ahu, setting the style for warfare in the mid-twentieth century. The next day, the United States declared martial law and took control of Kaho‘olawe. For practice, the U.S. Navy started dropping bombs on the island, and then invited its international allies to do the same. Heavy artillery was launched from ship-mounted guns; a new brand of torpedo was tested, fired against the island’s underwater cliffs. In 1965, at a point on the island’s western shore now known as “Sailor’s Hat,” some 500 tons of explosives were detonated to simulate an atomic blast for sailors anchored offshore—in the process, the island’s underground water table was cracked, allowing fresh water to seep into the ocean. The island was bombed and strafed almost ceaselessly for thirty years before the people finally said: “No! Enough!”

That was in the mid-1970s, with the formation of the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO), a grassroots organization whose members began making illegal occupations of the island, putting themselves in harm’s way as vivid protest. Two young men, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, became martyrs to the cause, disappearing in the waters between Maui and Kaho‘olawe under mysterious circumstances. At the same time, the PKO challenged the Navy in Federal District Court, forcing it to conduct an environmental impact study, eradicate the goats and protect the island’s historic sites. For a time, the Navy was caught in an absurd situation—working on soil conservation and reforestation projects between bombing runs. It wasn’t until 1993 that the U.S. Congress voted to end military use of the island, conveying ownership to the state of Hawai‘i (which thereupon formed the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission), and authorizing $400 million for ordnance removal.

With those funds, private contractors removed nine million pounds of scrap metal and 11,000 tires from Kaho‘olawe. They surface-cleared 20,000 of the island’s 28,000 acres. However, they depth-cleared—that is, to four feet below the surface—only 2,500 acres, or less than 10 percent of the island. They created a ten-mile, cross-island dirt road at the cost of $8.8 million. Then the navy transferred $8.6 million of equipment—trucks, weed whackers, air-conditioners, beds, six helicopter landing pads, numerous composting toilets, a potable water system, and the entire collection of files from its exhaustive study of the island—to the State of Hawai‘i, and that was that. For the Navy, this was not only the largest cleanup in its history but also its largest-ever helicopter-based operation. The Navy’s website on this topic proudly proclaims its effort and closes with a photograph of Hawaiians in yellow regalia performing rituals on a small heiau.

Island reborn!

photo by Monte Costa
Revegetation is a major component of
Kaho‘olawe's ongoing restoration.

This photo was taken during a 1997
Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission

work trip.

In reality, Kaho‘olawe is still in the midst of its labor pains. As far as the federal government is concerned, the clean-up operation is over—certainly no one is talking about appropriations to put the island back to 1941 condition, let alone to the condition it was in before Captain Vancouver dropped off the first goats more than two centuries ago. No. From here, we go forward.

“There is no way to guarantee 100 percent cleanup,” says KIRC director Sol Kaho‘ohalahala, confirming that there will always be some UXO (unexploded ordnance) on the body of the island. But KIRC’s emphasis now is on restoration. In other words, we are not at the end of the cleanup but rather at the beginning, the very beginning, of the reversal.

While I was on the access, several people made the point that the island’s ordeal could prove to be a strange sort of reverse blessing. Because of the bombing, Kaho‘olawe was spared other degradations—pavement, power lines, condominiums, courthouses, fast-food franchises. By state law, no commercial enterprises are ever to be allowed either on the island or in its surrounding waters. The land can’t be bought or sold. This explains why, during our access, when I felt exhausted by the exposure, the work, the risk, and the aches, my Hawaiian brothers and sisters seemed to grow more joyful. “We don’t need to sleep!” said our kua, Andre Perez. (“Kua”—that is, leader—actually means “back,” our supporters, our pillars of strength. Indeed, Andre and the other kua were just that, every moment of the access and especially during our hellacious return.) Andre told me that he considers Kaho‘olawe to be “an outdoor university for Hawaiians who want to decolonize and re-kalo-nize.” He said, “Before the land can be returned to the Hawaiians, the Hawaiians have to return to the land. This is the place to start.”

Sol Kaho‘ohalahala expresses the same kind of forward vision for the island—and he sees it as a model for the rest of the state. “Kaho‘olawe is an opportunity to demonstrate Hawai‘i’s ability to put in place sustainable practices,” he asserts. KIRC’s plan is to marry innovative technologies with the traditional practices of the kupuna (elders) to provide a new model for island-based living.

“We’ve been handed a facility that was designed for bombing exercises. To maintain that is not conducive,” he says. In other words, it would be wrongheaded to follow the military’s practice of flying diesel fuel to the island to run generators and trucks, to provide reading lights in the barracks by burning oil. KIRC sees the island as a perfect opportunity to explore “renewables”—energy from natural forces such as wind and sun. “We’re an island state. As a clean-slate laboratory for restoration, Kaho‘olawe can demonstrate the actuality of reforestation, the return of rainfall, the stabilization of erosion and the replenishing of ocean life.

“Restoration can lead to sustainability,” he continues. “What would prevent the other islands from also moving in that direction?”


photo by Monte Costa

Sol’s own story is an excellent example of Kaho‘olawe’s role as a symbol of hope for Hawaiian people. A Lana‘i boy who remembers the windows of his classrooms shaking whenever the Navy bombed the island next door, he was awakened to the spirit of activism by the PKO movement. In 1976 he started organizing citizen action on his own island, which was being prepared for development. He spent fifteen years making testimony at county hearings, then gave up.

“I could see that something’s not right here. The government is never responsive to the people,” he says. So he ran for a seat on the Maui County Council, was elected, and years later was elected to the state House of Representatives. He resigned his House seat to take on KIRC, returning to the cause that inspired him in the first place.

What good will come of the “Target Island”? Let’s see, we have community leaders of great conscience. We have the recharge of traditional Island values and new hope for Hawai‘i’s endemic culture. We have the Polynesian Voyaging Society planning to revive the traditional use of the island as a navigational academy—“a natural classroom for the art of wayfaring.” We have new, sustainable practices pointing the way to the future. In a bizarre twist of irony’s knife, the large, water-filled crater formed by the Sailor’s Hat detonations of 1965 is now home to a colony of endangered ‘opae ‘ula (red shrimp), and the waters around Kaho‘olawe—unfished because of the threat of submerged UXO—are now teeming with sea life that constantly spills out to renew the fishing grounds of all adjacent islands. What good, indeed.

I went on the Internet recently and found a cheesy site that said this about Kaho‘olawe: “Visitation is not encouraged.” I disagree. I say that a PKO access experience should be required of anyone who wishes to buy property in the Islands, anyone who wishes to establish residency or do business in Hawai‘i. There’s no better way to know Hawai‘i.

Besides the PKO experience, you can go to the island by helicopter as a KIRC volunteer, working on restoration projects and bunking in the former Navy quarters. Last year, 560 volunteers made the trip with KIRC. Now KIRC is boosting that number to 700 in order to match the requirements of a Department of Health grant for ocean quality monitors, sediment traps and stream gauges, as well as efforts to decrease erosion by restoring the native vegetation cover through hydromulching, hydroseeding and other innovative planting techniques. The wait list is long for both organizations.

Let me assure you, however, that a visit to Kaho‘olawe is no easy thing. The exertion required for a PKO access is just as relentless and urgent as though you are one of a small tribe living on its own—which is what we were. There were over seventy of us, enough people and gear to require three channel crossings in Bobby Lu‘uwai’s fishing boat. All of it had to be transferred into a flat-bottomed, inflatable zodiac raft and then into the sea, where we formed a line, either standing on slippery boulders or swimming, to pass gear, water cans and even people to shore, where we held hands and chanted and then went to work. The majority of the group was teenagers from schools as diverse as Punahou and Kua ‘O Ka La Hawaiian charter school on the Big Island. Some couldn’t swim. None of that mattered. We labored, we did ceremonies together, we gathered and laughed and talked openly and even wept together, and in the end none of us were unchanged. We became an ‘ohana. Never again will I use that word lightly, as a business slogan or club designation. ‘Ohana is rare. It means total risk and radical honesty.

When the pu summoned us that last morning, survival itself seemed to be the challenge we were about to face—as though every pu blast previous had been a rehearsal for the real thing. Our return was one of the most difficult in the history of the PKO. In the pre-dawn blackness the wind was howling, blowing sheets of sparks from our seaside bonfire hundreds of yards up the dry riverbed where we had camped. As the sky weakly lightened, we could see that the waves were smashing against each other from every direction—pure cold chaos. Our kua were tight-lipped and steely-eyed, as determined as warriors. “This is it, people. Let’s go.”

photo by Monte Costa
Van Kawai Warren looks toward Maui
from Pu‘u Moa‘uluiki. Warren is part of a

Kaua‘i hui that is building a new
voyaging canoe, the Namahoe.

We plunged into a sea that no one person would ever choose to enter. The crazy currents kept scattering us. It took all the energy we had just to keep something like a line. People were yelling and gasping—then cracking jokes whenever we got a slight break in the madness. The zodiac kept soaring house-high, then crashing back down. Some crazy side-wave whipped the contact lenses out of my eyes. On board the fishing boat, kids were vomiting and crying. I remember looking at one young Hawaiian girl who had said to me back on the island after breaking her big toe on a hike, “I never quit for nothing.” She still had that same look in her eye. We knew what we were doing—we were doing what the island required of us.

Returning to Maui was weird, because the shore was calm and warm and bright, and there were tourists and cars. On the last boat over, the exhausted kua were shouting, “Get a kayak! A kayak!” An ambulance screamed up to the shore. One of our leaders—a man I had last seen laughing as he bobbed in the crazy waves saying, “When you’ve handled ten-foot waves at Pipeline, this is nothing!”—was now draped across the back of the boat, broken by exhaustion.

Once all were on shore, Ikaika, one of our most steadfast and lighthearted kua, grabbed a conch shell and waded back into the water up to his chest. He blew signals back to Kaho‘olawe. They seemed to be notes partially of triumph, but mostly of respect: The island had proved to us that it is a patient god. Like a mythic sea turtle, Kaho‘olawe had risen and given us one blow of a fin, one small taste of its living power, and it just about knocked us all silly.

I flashed back for a moment to the previous night. While the wind was turning our roof-tarp into a giant lung and churning up the sea channel that we were destined to cross at dawn, one of our ‘ohana spoke about Kaho‘olawe as a place of hope. “Hope for us as a culture,” he said. Then he added: “Hope I’m going to get there. With every access, I’m getting better. If it takes 117 accesses to get to the point that I don’t have to come any more, I hope I’ll get the chance.”

My exit chant, my own variation, I now borrow from T.S. Eliot’s great poem Four Quartets: “The end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” HH