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Native Hawaiian activists stopped military bombing on Kahoʻolawe 32 years ago

TNT detonation on Kahoolawe Kahoʻolawe Operation Sailor Hat 1965
Public Domain/U.S. Navy
/
Wikimedia Commons
Operation "Sailor Hat" -- the detonation of the 500-ton TNT explosive charge for test shot "Bravo," the first of a series of three test explosions on the southwestern tip of Kahoʻolawe Island. (Feb. 6, 1965)

Thirty-two years ago this month, the U.S. government stopped a practice it had been conducting since late 1941: the military bombing of Kahoʻolawe. It was the result of protests led by Native Hawaiian activists.

A landing by nine protesters on Kahoʻolawe on Jan. 4, 1976, led to the rise of the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana as a grassroots islands-wide movement for Native Hawaiian rights.

As part of an ongoing project with the Center for Oral History at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, HPR is bringing you voices of history. Ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan shares memories of that time from Puanani Burgess and Gordon ʻUmi Kai, two prominent Native Hawaiians who lived through that period.

Puanani Burgess, an inspirational poet and community organizer from Wai‘anae who grew up in the 1950s, talks about the wave of excitement that attracted her to get involved.

Interviewer: Did you hear anything about Kahoʻolawe when you were growing up?

Burgess: Not really, but it was all over the news, and everybody was watching — maybe not understanding what this was about because Kahoʻolawe was so distant. And they were talking about things that were happening to a place that nobody went to, nobody understood and really nobody cared about. It wasnʻt until those first guys went to land, that allowed so much, I donʻt know if it's anger as it is curiosity about how much stuff can be happening around you that you have no idea about its righteousness. So many things that are being controlled by so many dragons that you donʻt know about. Kahoʻolawe was one of those. I think it was that thing that helped us see. You cannot ignore what's happening on that little island because it's symbolic of other things that Hawaiʻi has undergone, big power saying, “We gonna do what we like, we have all the right to do it.”

Gordon ‘Umi Kai, a master carver and teacher of the lua fighting art, reflects on the movement sparked by the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana, and George Helm, a leader who was lost at sea with Kimo Mitchell during one of the island occupations. They ignited the movement that raised awareness about the military and Hawaiian lands.

Kai: Kahoʻolawe is, for me, a starting point that everybody was starting to realize and grow their consciousness about being Hawaiian, about the value of the land. George was instrumental, but PKO was the one that really brought it out. And I think that started an awareness and people started to look into things. I would say that you're never too small or too weak to make big decisions or big moves. The Kahoʻolawe movement was something I believe the U.S. government and the state never thought it was going to be possible, never thought that a small organization was going to be able to move them off the island. And it did, so I think it set a guideline and a precedent for the Hawaiian community to stand up and fight for what you believe and donʻt give up."

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This collaboration is supported by the SHARP Initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.

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