25 years hence, recovery work continues on the island of Kahoolawe

Anniversary of sign-over ceremony is a time for reflection and vision

Kaal Leong of the Big Island blows a conch shell 100 times to signal the start of a Kahoolawe deed transferring ceremony on May 7, 1994, at Palauea Beach on Maui’s south shore. About 800 people attended the event, where the U.S. Navy signed over Kahoolawe to the State of Hawaii, which will hold the island in trust for a Native Hawaiian entity. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Kahoolawe was once more known as Kanaloa, named after Hawaiian god of the sea. In ancient times, the 45-square-mile island was a place where navigators learned to find their way across the Pacific.

Today it still holds navigational purposes for Native Hawaiians. Kanaloa points them to an important center, where connections among land, sea, kupuna (elders) and akua (divine) intersect. The area is ripe with cultural beliefs and practices. But it took prolonged work on many fronts to recover Kanaloa, torn up by decades of U.S. military bombing.

For all Hawaii residents, Kahoolawe, or Kanaloa, depending on how it’s viewed, offers a sign of hope — evidence that new things can come after ashes and life can grow despite overwhelming human destruction.

This Tuesday, the island will mark its 25th homecoming anniversary. A landmark event on Maui’s south shore May 7, 1994, transferred the island from U.S. military ownership to a State of Hawaii trust that holds the land for a Native Hawaiian entity.

The deed sign-over ceremony, with hundreds of people attending, was the culmination of decades of work by grassroots activists. Also, it required the alignment of stars, politically speaking, where bipartisan agreements to return, restore and protect Kahoolawe were reached on federal, state and county levels.

Rear Adm. William Retz (left) and Gov. John Waihee sign quitclaim deeds while Undersecretary of the Navy William J. Cassidy Jr. (center left) and Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission Chairman Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli wait their turns May 7, 1994. The deeds, one in Hawaiian and the other in English, formally ended the Navy’s 50-year control of the island. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Individuals pivotal to the sign-over reflect on that day, a quarter century ago, and share what came before it, what came after and what they say is yet to come.

The story is one that shows when everyday people rally for what’s right, the sky is the limit.

“We are telling the story of Hawaiian culture. The other story we try to tell is if you don’t take care of the land, this is as bad as a place can get,” said Mike Nahoopii, executive director of Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission. “But it also gives you the hope that you can bring these damaged places back to life. Other places that have been devastated can be brought to life, too.”

‘It looked like it was crying’

Residents on Maui could feel shaking and see flashes of light when U.S. Navy bombs hit Kahoolawe. Explosions on the tiniest of the main Hawaiian islands, already damaged from years of uncontrolled ungulate grazing, would happen regularly over the course of about 50 years.

The front page of The Maui News on Sunday, May 8, 1994, chronicles an important day in Kahoolawe’s history — the Saturday ceremony to transfer its deed from U.S. military rule to the State of Hawaii. Twenty-five years later, some who were involved in the transition recall the time surrounding that landmark occasion. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

It started with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that ushered World War II in 1941 and the declaration of martial law in Hawaii. The U.S. Navy took Kahoolawe over shortly after and did not stop military use until 1993.

Those years, Kahoolawe was called the “Target Island.” Underwater torpedoes; air-dropped, general purpose bombs; three, 500-ton TNT charges; target airfields; and other weapons were set off there, striking an island that was filled with thousands of historical and cultural artifacts.

Noa Emmett Aluli, who works as a medical doctor on Molokai, was one of the famous Kahoolawe Nine known for occupying the island during the 1970s to resist U.S. bombing events. When they landed, he said, red dirt was sliding into the sea and Kahoolawe looked as if it were crying.

“It was painful,” he said. “We had never seen such destruction of land and surrounding bays. It was all red with runoff. . . . It looked like it was crying — the land was just suffering.”

Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana, a grassroots group of activists that popularized “aloha aina,” a call to care for natural resources that has spread throughout Hawaii to various causes, oversaw the series of occupations. The resistance led to arrests and in some cases imprisonment, all of which brought national attention to the island.

Hookupu (offering) is given by an unidentified person to Keoni Fairbanks (right), who became Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission’s executive director and sole employee in 1994. -- Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission Archive photo

During this time, occupation efforts claimed the lives of two of the Kahoolawe Nine. George Helm Jr., 26, and Kimo Mitchell, 25, were lost at sea March 7, 1977, after attempting to retrieve two fellow Kahoolawe Nine members from the island, who unbeknownst to them had already been picked up by the military. They attempted to return to Maui in stormy seas and were never seen again. Their lives are memorialized through ongoing work to revitalize Kahoolawe.

‘Unsurpassed cultural event’

Changing the course of history requires more than just opposition, according to Davianna McGregor, co-coordinator of PKO, who is now a University of Hawaii at Manoa ethics studies professor. The period that followed occupation and leading up to the sign-over “wasn’t as flashy and not as famous a period of time.”

She and the others recall U.S. Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka, President George H. W. Bush, Gov. John Waihee and Maui mayors Hannibal Tavares and Elmer Cravalho, among many government officials, who were key to the process.

“It was just a long period of commitment and dedication,” McGregor said. “You have to work slowly and build up that broad base of support across the spectrum of society to get to where there is enough to change the hearts and the minds.”

The many years of hard work, along with the two who lost their lives, were thoughts that McGregor, Nahoopii, Aluli and others had during the sign-over ceremony May 7, 1994.

“It was an unsurpassed cultural event,” said Aluli, who was the first president of KIRC and honored onstage during the event. “We were just jubilant. It was wonderful to have so many people who were part of the effort to return the island to the people to be able to witness it happen.”

Waihee remembers being onstage with Aluli.

“It was a very moving moment,” he said. “I know for myself and for many people who were there, we remember the struggle. That is what I thought about that day — all the things we had been through and all the people who had been involved. And to realize that — despite everything — we won.”

With the transfer comes the commission

Nahoopii remembers his military whites and a 50-pound awa plant.

Then a U.S. Navy lieutenant at Pearl Harbor, Nahoopii was approached in the ’90s by a senior official about a specific job: to serve as officer-in-charge of Kahoolawe. Historically, people in that role had been having a hard time, he said.

That position came with a few requirements — the role needed a line officer, combat qualified, engineer background with Native Hawaiian ethnicity. He fit all of the rarities, and offered another piece of experience. At age 15, he had been among the first kids allowed to visit Kahoolawe.

When Nahoopii went back to Kahoolawe in his new role, people who were “maybe a little cold because they don’t like the Navy” warmed up because he recognized people he knew. “It worked out well,” he said.

When the Navy official was preparing for the sign-over event, the military was asked to bring a hookupu (offering) for that day. Friend Keoni Fairbanks knew exactly the thing, he said: A huge awa plant from the back of Ainahaina on Oahu, which was carried down on foot, cleaned and washed. “I had to keep it in my room and it couldn’t touch the ground. I had to protect it until the morning of the turnover.”

The morning of May 7, the hookupu would be taken out to sea. “They said, ‘We want you in the canoe too,’ so here I am in my dress whites sitting in the middle of four guys in malo and we take it into the ocean. Somebody later told me they say a huge turtle come out of the water right as we released the awa.”

Nahoopii would eventually move on to help lead KIRC, which was created in 1994 to restore and manage the island until it can be transferred to a Native Hawaiian entity. KIRC, with seven commissioners and 16 positions, along with PKO and many groups and volunteers, is working to heal Kahoolawe after it was returned to Hawaii.

Kahoolawe present and future

A 10-year, $400 million ordnance removal project completed in 2004 cleared unexploded ordnance from about 75 percent of the island’s surface (10 percent of which is cleared to a depth of 4 feet). The remainder of the island remains unsafe.

As federal trust money dwindles, a program to generate funding through state grants, donations and revenues was launched in 2013. KIRC continues to rely on volunteers, with half of its workforce composed of Maui residents and students.

KIRC has made substantial headway in moving away from fossil fuel reliance, combating erosion and climate change impacts, planting dryland forest, eradicating invasive species, planning infrastructure and building up its Kihei office, among other tasks.

More than 400,000 native plants were reintroduced to Kahoolawe; they went from 5 percent survival initially to 80 percent recently, according to KIRC.

“The island today is way more covered in vegetation,” Nahoopii said. “I was walking around a couple months ago and I couldn’t find a certain area because it’s all covered in vegetation.”

PKO has opened 300 yards-plus of a trail that will eventually encompass the island and connect all 12 ili (a smaller division of land).

“For the ‘Ohana, our main role has been to develop the island as a cultural and learning center for Native Hawaiians,” McGregor said, noting that Kahoolawe is transforming into the scientific and cultural learning center that it once was for their ancestors.

“It will take generations to rebuild. I think we have a good start,” McGregor added.

As 25 years passes and another chapter has been written, the story of renewal is far from over.

“It’s the symbol of something much larger, that is what we are all responsible for, malama honua, taking care of our planet,” Waihee said.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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Kahoolawe (Kanaloa) timeline

400 A.D.-1750 — Native Hawaiians migrate from the South Pacific and continue to settle; the island is dedicated to Kanaloa, Hawaiian deity of the ocean.

1793 — Goats, a gift from Capt. George Vancouver to Maui’s Chief Kahekili, are introduced to the island.

1832-1852 — Adult men are sent to a Kahoolawe penal colony for various offenses; in 1853, the law establishing Kahoolawe as a penal colony is repealed.

1858-1941 — In 1858, the Hawaiian government issues the first of many ranch leases for the island; subsequent uncontrolled grazing of hundreds of thousands of ungulates causes loss of soil through accelerated erosion.

1941 — After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declares martial law, leading to the use of Kahoolawe as a practice bombing range.

1941-1988 — The goat population reaches about 50,000.

1953 — President Dwight D. Eisenhower transfers title of Kahoolawe to the U.S. Navy with the provision that it be returned in a condition for “suitable habitation” when no longer needed by the military.

1976 — Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana members start a series of island occupations, and file suit in U.S. Federal District Court, in efforts to halt bombing.

1977 — The court orders a partial summary judgment requiring the Navy to conduct an environmental impact statement and supply an inventory of, and protect, the historic sites on the island.

1980 — PKO and the Navy sign a consent decree that results in a Memorandum of Understanding requiring the Navy to begin soil conservation, revegetation and goat eradication programs.

1981 — Kahoolawe is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated the Kahoolawe Archaeological District.

1990 — As a result of PKO actions and litigation, President George H.W. Bush orders that Kahoolawe bombing be stopped.

1993 — U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii sponsors Title X of the 1994 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, which authorizes conveyance of Kahoolawe and its surrounding waters back to the State of Hawaii; Congress votes to end military use of Kahoolawe and authorizes $400 million for ordnance removal.

MAY 7, 1994 — U.S. Navy transfers Kahoolawe deed of ownership to the State of Hawaii during a ceremony at Palauea Beach on Maui’s south shore;

Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission is established to manage island activities.

1997-1998 — Navy awards contracts for unexploded ordnance removal on Kahoolawe.

2003 — Transfer of access control from the Navy to the State of Hawaii is celebrated in a Nov. 12 ‘Iolani Palace event.

2004 — Navy ends the Kahoolawe UXO Clearance Project. At its completion, approximately 75 percent of the island’s surface was cleared of unexploded ordnance — of this area, 10 percent of the island, or 2,647 acres, was additionally cleared to the depth of 4 feet; 25 percent, or 6,692 acres, was not cleared and unescorted access remains unsafe.

2004-2016 — The state Department of Health, Polluted Runoff Control Program provides nearly $1.9 million in funding to KIRC, supplemented by nearly $1.9 million in matching funds from volunteer restoration activities, to help restore two watersheds, minimize erosion and reduce nearby sediment.

2013-present — Aloha Kahoolawe program is designed to create a funding plan through the State of Hawaii as the federal Trust Fund recedes; membership program, community-building events at KIRC’s Kihei site and Kahoolawe’s first appropriation of General Funds follow.

— Information from Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission

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