Stepping on to Kahoolawe, stepping into history

When Walter Ritte Jr. and Noa Emmett Aluli stepped on to the shores of what was then the “target isle” of Kahoolawe 40 years ago, “we didn’t know what we were getting into,” Ritte recalled last week.

Ritte and Aluli would become part of what would be known as the “Kahoolawe Nine,” the first protesters to land on the island then officially off limits by the U.S. military, which continued to use it as a bombing range.

What Ritte and Aluli got into would change their lives and the course of history for the island, which in a matter of decades would shed its military-era moniker and eventually become revered as a sacred place. And, a series of landings and the deaths of two activists lost at sea would ignite a renaissance for Native Hawaiians and hold promise for their self-governance.

Recalling the first landing of Kahoolawe bombing protesters on Jan. 4, 1976 – 40 years ago Monday – Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana members Aluli, a founder of the group, and Davianna McGregor credited the late Maui Native Hawaiian leader Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. for providing the initial inspiration for the landing.

They acknowledged that Maxwell and others were inspired with other events that sprung out of the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, including the November 1969 to June 1971 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and the 71-day-long Native American uprising at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

McGregor said Maxwell had been working on a reparations bill for Native Hawaiians in Congress that stemmed from the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by American businessmen.

According to historian Mansel Blackford, in a 2004 article published in The Journal of American History, Maxwell organized the Aboriginal Lands of Hawaiian Ancestry in the early 1970s, and its

primary objective was to seek “land or money reparations from the United States Congress” in compensation for lands illegally taken during the overthrow. But that effort languished.

Then, according to Blackford, Maxwell experienced an epiphany in the summer of 1975 when despite a Navy prohibition against people setting foot on the island he was hunting with several friends on Kahoolawe, and they were surprised by a Navy helicopter. While Maxwell’s friends hid under kiawe trees, he took off his shirt and waved it at the helicopter.

Blackford said a thought had occurred to Maxwell: “I am a Native Hawaiian. I have prior rights . . . I should not hide. This is my land, my aina.” And that led to the protect Kahoolawe movement.

Fast forward, then, to January 1976, the 200th anniversary of American independence from Great Britain, and Maxwell had brought together a group of activists to occupy the island. The main goal was to draw attention to Native Hawaiian grievances resulting from the kingdom’s overthrow, Aluli said. The movement to end bombing of the island grew from there, he said.

Maxwell asked Ritte, an avid hunter who had been involved in protests against Molokai Ranch, to join the group to hunt goats.

“All we knew was we were going to help,” said Ritte, who was 30 at the time.

Pushing their boats out of Maalaea Harbor before dawn, the activists quietly set out for Kahoolawe. However, as the sun came up, helicopters appeared and Coast Guard boats began closing in, booming over their bullhorns to turn around.

Most of the boat owners started to turn back, Maxwell included, Ritte said. However, half a mile out from Kahoolawe, Ritte was so sick from the boat’s diesel fumes that he simply wanted to get to land.

He and several others jumped onto another boat, and the group of nine finally made it to the island. Aside from Aluli and Ritte, the others were: Ellen Miles, Karla Villalba, Steve Morse, Kimo Aluli, George Helm, Gail Kawaipuna Prejean and Ian Lind.

“Everybody was talking about eating,” Ritte said. “I was so seasick I wanted to throw up. I said, ‘See you guys later. I’m going to go check out the island.’ ”

As Ritte and Aluli headed into the bushes, the Coast Guard arrived and began detaining the rest of the group. Ritte and Aluli were not yet ready to leave, Ritte recalled. When a search helicopter flew overhead, they climbed into a ditch and covered themselves with grass. It was the start of a three-day evasion of authorities that would change everything for two men who’d joined with little intention of making a political statement.

“Our commitment to this island had nothing to do with sovereignty or Hawaiian rights,” Ritte said. “We stayed on the island because of . . . curiosity and going to the bathroom. It wasn’t anything planned.”

Returning to the empty beach at dark, Ritte and Aluli found several overturned water jugs. Morse later told Ritte that he refused to leave the island unless authorities set out water jugs for his two missing companions. Authorities agreed, but after everyone left, the man in charge turned all the jugs upside down in the sand. In later years, Ritte would share dinner with the man and his family.

“I asked him, ‘Why the hell did you turn the water over?’ ” Ritte remembered. “He said, ‘I knew you were a hunter. I knew if I left the water we’d never find you.’ ”

For three days, Ritte and Aluli wandered around Kahoolawe. They encountered historic sites demolished by bombs, deep craters left in the landscape and white paint marking targets. Trucks and equipment sat abandoned.

“We could see the island was dying,” Ritte said.

At the end of their journey, they broke into a military camp and hungrily devoured cups of fruit cocktail, crackers and peanut butter. They then sat on a rock and waited to be found. Later, as they were escorted onto the helicopters in handcuffs, Ritte said his life hit a major turning point.

Disappointed, he was looking out the window at the island spreading out before him when he heard the land calling to him to be saved. He said he felt a tingling through his whole body, and everything that followed – the loud landing on Maui, the frantic rush of policemen, friends and family – was a blur.

“That changed my life,” Ritte said. “From then on, that was it. Every movement was about Kahoolawe after that and it never stopped.”

Ritte was raised in a generation in which the goal “was to assimilate” in a changing cultural landscape. Hawaiian history and cultural knowledge took a back seat. Even as a student at Kamehameha Schools in the 1960s, Ritte said he and his peers learned nothing about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

However, his experience on Kahoolawe spurred his interest in Native Hawaiian rights. He consulted more with kupuna before taking action, an intergenerational connection that Ritte said “really made Kahoolawe a success.”

After that first journey, Ritte made more prohibited trips to the island, hoping to evoke a political response from the government. He and fellow activist Richard Sawyer spent 35 days on Kahoolawe in 1977, living off goats, eels, opihi and coconuts. Despite their presence on the island, the military resumed bombing.

In March 1977, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell were lost at sea during one of the Kahoolawe landings. Their deaths further fueled the protect Kahoolawe movement.

Sawyer, Ritte, Sam Kealoha and the late Karl Mowat eventually landed in maximum-security prison for six months, but efforts to “aloha aina” were already in full swing. The Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana formed and eventually took the U.S. Navy to court. In 1978, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was born. In 1994, the U.S. government officially turned the island over to the state.

“Kahoolawe was a political revival,” said Ritte, who became a well-known activist on Molokai and throughout the state.

(His later causes included protests against Molokai Ranch development, cruise ship visits to Molokai, genetically modified organisms and stands in favor of Native Hawaiian rights.) “The (Kahoolawe) movement demanded that Hawaiians be leaders. We were trying to save an island and on that island was our culture.”

Forty years after the 1976 landing, many Native Hawaiians are involved in the restoration of Kahoolawe. There are movements, commissions and nonprofits dedicated to its revival. People travel to the island for religious ceremonies and replanting projects.

The Kaho’olawe Reserve Commission has less than 10 percent of a $44 million trust fund set up for its operations. Last year, the commission asked state lawmakers for about $6 million to continue operations over two years, but it was given only a third of that. The commission was looking at raising money from commercial activity outside of the reserve area, and it laid off three of its 18 staff members and reduced two to part-time status.

However, in the struggle to revive Kahoolawe’s barren landscape, Ritte said the best course for the island’s future is to simply let it recover on its own.

“We wanted (restoration) to be done quickly so we could become born again Hawaiians, go over there and find ourselves,” he said. “That’s all personal gain. What’s best for the island is to leave it alone.”

Not that planting is a bad idea, he said, but it often requires setting up fully functioning camps of trucks and air-conditioned units for people to stay in during the process. He said he believes “nature will show us how to bring it back to life.”

“Leave the island alone for 100 years. That’s nothing for nature,” he said. “I still believe we don’t know how to treat these islands. There’s a lot for us to learn.”

Looking back, Aluli said he was “proud to be guided by the kupuna of the generation before us.”

“Building upon the foundation laid by George Helm before he passed it’s been 40 years of working as an extended family for aloha ‘aina throughout our islands stopping the bombing of the island; healing the island; reviving the makahiki ceremonies; opening access to our fishing grounds on Molokai; protecting our iwi kupuna at Honokahua, Maui; defending Pele from geothermal development; working for Ea, our own self-governance, through state, national and international pathways.”

The pattern of protest, rallying around a cause and the airing of Native Hawaiian grievances continues today with protests of telescope projects atop Haleakala on Maui and Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

Craig Neff, a Mauna Kea protester, credited the “lessons of aloha aina learned from the ‘Ohana for Kahoolawe” as fueling present-day stands by Native Hawaiians.

“Kahoolawe taught us how to pray, work and take political action together to fulfill our kuleana, our responsibility to connect, heal and protect our sacred places,” he said.

* City Editor Brian Perry contributed to this report. Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.