Where Native Hawaiians Rule

Los Angeles Times
July 21, 2005
By Alex Tizon

WAIMANALO  –  From Honolulu, it takes an hour to drive here, heading north over dagger-like mountains and then east through rolling farm country to the outermost corner of the island known by some as the Hawaiians’ Hawaii. Tour buses circling the island don’t stop here except to gas up. Those who step off the bus won’t find hula dancers greeting them with leis, or five-star hotels, or even two-star ones. They’ll find a sleepy, rough-edged, working-class town of 10,000 people, some of whom don’t like tourists and don’t mind saying so.

“Haole, go home!” and variations of whites-aren’t-welcome are occasionally shouted from front porches as a reminder that this isn’t Waikiki. It’s a different world. Locals rule here.

Half the residents are native Hawaiians, and many more are part Hawaiian. This is a place where Hawaiian is taught as a first language in some schools and spoken among neighbors, a place where it is widely held that Hawaii was stolen by the United States and that someday these lands will return to the Kanaka Maoli, the ancient Polynesians who settled the islands.

Scattered throughout Waimanalo’s neighborhoods are state flags hanging upside-down, a symbol of defiance. In this corner of Oahu, Hawaiian sovereignty — a government of Hawaiians for Hawaiians — isn’t just a tropical dream. The people have seen a version of it materialize before their eyes.

In the foothills above town, there is a village unlike any other in Hawaii. It’s called Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo (“Refuge of Waimanalo”), a community of 80 native Hawaiians living communally on 45 acres. If Waimanalo is a stronghold of Hawaiian sovereignty, the village is its spiritual center.

Some people refer to it as “Bumpy’s town,” named after the 300-pound, tattooed, activist ex-con who negotiated the village into existence — wrangling with the state’s most powerful politicians — more than a decade ago.

Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, 51, is a descendant of King Kamehameha I and bears some of the warrior’s physical presence. When asked how far removed he was from the king, Kanahele thought for a moment, then lifted a massive leg onto a nearby table. He studied a row of blue and red triangular markings tattooed on his calf.

“Eleven generations, brah,” he said matter-of-factly. If Kamehameha were here today, he said, the king would be uniting his people as he did two centuries ago.

Kanahele is a folk hero in these parts. He did what no other Hawaii activist had done: carved out a little kingdom within a kingdom, allowing natives to live by their own rules and revive the ways of the Kanaka Maoli. For many locals, the village represents the most tangible gain in more than 30 years of agitating for Hawaiian sovereignty. When the movement first emerged in the 1970s, even native Hawaiians were skeptical.

“I didn’t think it could happen myself, but people like Bumpy made us see it could,” said Sandra Barney, 59, a native Hawaiian from Kaneohe Bay who has known Kanahele since he was a young man. “The proof is here. Bumpy stuck his neck out. I thought they were going to chop it. Now there’s a village in the mountains.”

The idea of sovereignty has become part of Hawaii’s mainstream consciousness, with the state’s most powerful political leaders — Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and Democratic Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka — supporting some version of it.

The U.S. Senate is considering a Hawaiian sovereignty law known as the Akaka bill, named after its chief sponsor and the first native Hawaiian in Congress. The bill, which has stalled in the Senate the past five years, was blocked again Wednesday by a Nevada senator concerned that it might encourage Hawaiians to build casinos. Both Hawaii senators said they had secured enough support to pass the bill if it ever made it to a vote. The House passed an earlier version.

The legislation would lead to federal recognition of native Hawaiians in the same way that the government recognizes American Indians and Native Alaskans. It would also initiate a process under which native Hawaiians could set up their own government, giving them the same nation-within-a-nation status as Indian tribes.

A native government would represent Hawaiians in negotiations with the federal government over contested land and resources, including nearly 2 million acres once owned by the Hawaiian monarchy — nearly half the state.

Forming the new government would take years, not counting legal challenges.

A 2003 survey by the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, like most in recent years, found that the majority of Hawaii residents supported sovereignty. But the Akaka bill has inspired an odd spectrum of opponents. On one hand are political conservatives, mostly Caucasian, who call the idea divisive and immoral.

“Every country that has used racial ancestry as the basis for who deserves recognition, who is entitled to privileges, has ended up disastrously,” said H. William Burgess, an attorney who has challenged the legality of state-sponsored entitlement programs for native people. Burgess said the Akaka bill would create “a race-based government.”

On the other hand are native Hawaiian activists like Kanahele who want nothing less than total independence from the United States. They see it as the only way to right the wrong of 1893 when U.S. troops helped overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy, leading to annexation and statehood, and, for the Kanaka Maoli, loss of a kingdom and an ancient way of life.

Today, the state’s estimated 240,000 native Hawaiians — those with 50% or more Hawaiian blood — make up about 20% of the population and fare poorest in almost all socioeconomic indicators. They have the state’s worst health statistics, highest number of school dropouts, highest unemployment rate and highest levels of incarceration.

Kanahele grew up in Waimanalo as one of the statistics, dropping out of high school and serving time for theft and assault. In his 20s, the angry young man transformed into a ferocious advocate for his people, leading protests against the “illegal occupation” of Hawaii.

One day in 1987, Kanahele recalled, he went to a nearby beach and saw homeless people camped under the palm trees. Nearly all of them were Kanaka Maoli. How could this happen in their own homeland? he recalled thinking. The next thought changed his life: “The government will never give back our land. How about if we just take it back?”

By that time, Kanahele had a following, many of them friends from Waimanalo. In the spring of that year, he and about 50 protesters took over a former Coast Guard station and the surrounding 300 acres at Makapuu Lighthouse, the easternmost tip of Oahu. The acreage, owned by the state, was part of what Kanahele called “the stolen lands.” Kanahele’s group occupied the site for two months. During one confrontation with police, Kanahele pulled out a shotgun. He was arrested and served 14 months in state prison. It turned out to be a fruitful time.

“Most of the people in there were brothers,” Kanahele said, fellow native Hawaiians “who were caught up.” He proselytized and recruited and, upon his release, had a new army of followers who eventually joined him. In 1993, the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. takeover of the islands, Kanahele led 300 people in an occupation of Makapuu Beach, a short drive from Waimanalo.

News cameras captured images of Kanahele armed not with guns but copies of President Clinton’s newly signed “Apology Resolution,” which acknowledged the U.S. role in overthrowing the monarchy. The political climate had shifted. John Waihee, then the state’s governor and the first of Hawaiian ancestry, had recently told constituents that sovereignty was only “a matter of how, when and in what form.”

Polls showed that three out of four Hawaiian residents supported sovereignty, and Kanahele — the most militant of the activists — gained a reputation as a thug-hero. Arresting him could have stirred the 40 other Hawaiian sovereignty groups to join the occupation.

Kanahele began building houses on the beach. After 15 months, Waihee finally intervened. The governor’s office proposed a deal: If Kanahele and his group vacated the beach peacefully, the state would give them a 45-acre parcel above Waimanalo in the foothills of the Koolau Mountains.

Kanahele accepted. In June 1994, the protesters disbanded and the core group made its way to the future site of Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo.

Gina Maikai, 44, recalled those first days in the hills: “It was a forest. There was nothing but trees. At first, we lived in tents while the men made a road. Then we moved onto platforms while the men built houses. We had to find our own lumber. We did all the work. Mosquitoes were a problem.”

The entrance to the village lies at the end of a long country road. A swinging metal gate opens up to another road that winds uphill into a clearing, where a string of 22 cottages rests along the sway of the land. It isn’t a place of straight lines. The feel is lush and slightly messy, like a rumpled blanket.

There are no fences. The home sites blend into each other. Wild chickens scamper between cottages, children chasing them. Rising above the clearing are green mountains whose steep curving sides create a hollow that amplifies the sounds of tropical birds, a constant chorus.

A lot has happened in 11 years. Kanahele’s group eventually agreed to sign a renewable 55-year lease at a cost of $3,000 a year, which worked out to about $60 annually per adult, a token payment. No government official will publicly admit it, but the state has adopted a hands-off approach to the village, waiving many regulations — such as building permits and fishing and hunting licenses — and allowing the villagers to govern themselves.

Village affairs are managed by four women — a “council of aunties” — who appoint responsibilities, hear grievances and settle disputes. Recently, a village mother was found to be using cocaine, and the council ordered her to enter drug rehab or face eviction.

“Once I had to evict my own mother-in-law,” said Maikai, who heads the council. “You have to be part of the big family, and she couldn’t handle it.”

When space opens up in the village, the council decides who can move in. Most residents have known each other for years and, in many cases, their families have been acquainted for generations. One villager is in charge of collecting garbage, one tends the taro patch, one cultivates ti leaf and another provides security by patrolling the village perimeter. Everyone has a job, and every adult contributes to paying the lease and whatever other expenses come up.

Of the 80 residents, half were among the occupying group at Makapuu, and about 30 are children. Most adults work piecemeal jobs on the outside, mainly in the building trades. Every adult is in charge of instructing the children in at least one traditional skill, such as killing a wild animal or catching reef fish with throw nets. The children learn the Hawaiian language, memorizing names for plants and creatures, such as the reef triggerfish — the state fish — that Hawaiians call humuhumunukunuku apua’a.

As for Kanahele, his life changed along with the village. Not long after his group moved into the hills, he was convicted of harboring an activist who had refused to pay federal taxes. Kanahele spent four months in federal prison and emerged with an even greater reputation among hard-core activists.

The political establishment continued to warm up to him. In 2002, then-Gov. Ben Cayetano granted Kanahele a full pardon for his prior convictions and hailed him as “a leader in the Hawaiian community.” Kanahele thereafter vowed to avoid all violence, choosing instead a Gandhian path of “passive civil resistance” and “throwing spears of aloha” at his opponents.

With his three children grown and his wife of 28 years busy with her own projects, Kanahele spends his days cooped up in his office in the village. He cobbles together a living as a speaker and consultant on native issues, but his main work is here, on the phone, trying to figure out a way to spread the seeds of Pu’uhonua village.

His vision is to form similar villages throughout the islands. Recently, the president of French Polynesia, Oscar Temaru, visited Kanahele. Temaru has long advocated independence from France. The two longtime friends compared notes. Kanahele showed Temaru the view from the highest point in the village.

“Let me show you what I showed him, brah,” Kanahele said to a visitor.

Walking through several doorways, his hulking shoulders filling them as he passed, Kanahele stepped onto the village road and hiked a short distance to the top of a hill. From there, he gestured north toward Waimanalo and beyond, to a white-sand coastline and a slice of crystal blue ocean.

“This is what sovereignty is to me,” he said. “Standing here on your land, not owing anything to anybody, not being afraid of anyone, knowing you fought the right fight with attitude — and looking out at that. This is the beginning, brah, just the beginning.”