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Native Hawaiian activist Maxine Kahaulelio on the role of wahine in protecting cultural sites

Aunty Maxine Kahaulelio
Maxine Kahaulelio was the first of the kūpuna arrested during protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea in 2019.

For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we pay tribute to women of color like Native Hawaiian activist and author Aunty Maxine Kahaulelio. The Oʻahu-native has been active in Hawaiʻi’s demilitarization movement since the late 1970s, and fought against evictions in Chinatown and Waiāhole communities in the decades since.

In 2019, she was the first of the kūpuna arrested during protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea. And in 2021, she was named to the American Planning Association’s list of “12 AAPI Who’ve Shaped Our Cities.”

Kahaulelio took time recently to talk to The Conversation from her home on Hawaiʻi Island. She is one of the co-authors of "Nā Wāhine Koa: Hawaiian Women for Sovereignty and Demilitarization," an anthology edited by Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua about Hawaiian activism and the movement for sovereignty.


RUSSELL SUBIONO, HOST: When you were starting out as an activist, where did your passion come from? Was it something that your family instilled in you? Did something happen that you developed that passion on your own?

MAXINE KAHAULELIO: How I really got into activism? I went to high school, got married, and then my husband died in 1975. He was 36 when he died, and then I had hard time, very hard time. I lived in Hauʻula many, many years. And we did a welfare rights coalition because we were hurting. We were people half working, half on welfare. It was hard. I was young. I had five children. The system didn't like us. They don't like welfare recipients. We're the scums of the world, they said. And that's how I learned. That's how I started realizing, "Hey, wait a minute. Wait a minute." So a bunch of us got together. And I had hard time burying him because we didn't have money. So they wanted to put him Mililani, put him in a grave marked unknown. No, no, no, no. You don't do that to one kanaka. I married Kahaulelio. You don't just put somebody in one grave and put one unmarked stone. No, no, no, that's not gonna happen. But I fought. I fought, many of us fought. We went to the Legislature. We got things changed, making them pay our burial for our people. Then after that, I start going. And I started getting into it, involving in a lot of things. But prior to that, well we tried the best we can, as people from Hauʻula community, the drugs that took over was hard drugs, unreal, just eating up our community. So we got involved with that. Got involved with everything for our children. Then after that, I got involved and all of a sudden we hear about Kohe Mālamalama O Kanaloa, Kahoʻolawe. A whole bunch of us said, hey let's go to the meetings. We did. We listened. And in 1977, we got, I got arrested, 14 of us along with Liko Martin. We got arrested for illegally, "illegally" now going on our own island. And then we had Samuel King was our judge. We had seven years probation and $1,000 signature on our heads. So we could not go back to Kahoʻolawe in seven years. I said "Hell no, I'm going back. I don't care what. They tell me to go? I'm going." But anyway, that's how I got into it.

Ed Greevy
Maxine Kahaulelio makes her way into the courtroom in 1977 at a sentencing of fellow Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana members. Two weeks later, she herself would be landing on Kaho'olawe in protest of the military use of the island as a target.

SUBIONO: I'm curious about that era in the '70s when you guys were working to protect Kahoʻolawe, and you were being an activist in a lot of other different ways. What was it like for wahine at the time, who are also passionate about Native Hawaiian rights and willing to stand up for them? Was it very balanced? The men and women, were they right there side by side, or did it take a little while for wahine to be more involved?

Loretta and Water Ritte protesting the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea in 2015.
Te Rawhitiroa Bosch
Loretta and Water Ritte protesting the construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea in 2015.

KAHAULELIO: Definitely they were right next to us. In fact, we wanted to be right next to them. Let's put it that way. We seen our men, George Helm, Walter Ritte, all of them. They struggled hard to keep our islands being Hawaiʻi nei — and their wives, I mean, we have family. I have a family. I have worked with the State of Hawaiʻi, the Department of Education. I worked hard, but I went. If you like fire me? Fine, but enough already, stop desecrating our land, our islands, or whatever you may call it. And the kane who went on the island, also stood by us wahine. They took care of us. They took good care of the wahine. But we were warriors. Now I was a grandma already in '77, I had a 2-year-old grandchild, but I went — not only for my kids but for her. And that's the Hawaiian way. See, that's what they want to take away from us. They want to take up all this aloha, the meaning of ʻohana. Why? The government wanted to rule the Hawaiians. They wanted to delete the Hawaiians. But we're here, we're still here no matter what. So these are the things that I've done and much more. I've been arrested, I've been knocked at the state capitol, I've been punched by a security guard, you name it, I've been through it. Aunty's still here.

SUBIONO: One thing that I think about is the example that you set for wahine, and after the kūpuna were arrested on the mountain and the women locked arms and sang — when they were ready to be the next ones to stand up for the mountain, how did that make you feel about the future?

KAHAULELIO: Very proud. You know, I'm gonna go a step back further. Okay, at this meeting, when I kind of expressed about us getting arrested, the kūpuna and everything. I think when it went back to the younger generations, the young ones, and we were at the kūpuna tent and stuff, you should see the reaction of all the young people. They cried their heart out. But their kūʻē (resistance), that's what made me more proud. They stood there because they knew that wasn't their time to move in. They knew that we as legends, as kūpunas, it was our time. And the respect, ah, they were there singing the meles, singing and holding each other. And that's what we wanted. We wanted them to kūʻē, that they see their kūpuna going forth for them, to go forth in their generation. And, you know, I think we did it because it went global. And we didn't, I didn't do it because that's my celebrity status. B.S. No, it is time for us to get our land back, get our culture back. And damn, if they're gonna ruin any more of our sacred mountains. You know, Tibet has their own sacred mountain. Japanese has their own sacred mountains. Everybody has — the Mayas have their sacred mountain. Why are we different? Why do they hate us so much as kanaka? We gon' win. Even if we have to go back on the road and stop the desecration of our mauna. We're gonna do it, and you ask every kūpuna, they're gonna go back. I know I'm going back. I mean, if I have to go back on my walker, or cane, or whatever, I don't care. You know who's gonna be next to me? The next generation.

Ryan Finnerty

SUBIONO: In all of your years of activism and all of your years for standing up for Native Hawaiian rights, Native Hawaiian lands. Had you ever seen our people come together like that?

KAHAULELIO: No. Standing up for our rights. It's about time, don't you think so? We Hawaiians have nothing actually left. What do they want? What do the government want? We are living here. This is my home. This is where I gon' hala (die). This is where our kids supposed to be, but they can't be. And I'm not understanding of all this hewa that's going on for years and years and years. What do they actually want from us Hawaiians? First of all, they want land and they want our resources. That's all we have. We're just an island. People forget that. You know, and it's a small island. We can't build a bridge connecting all our islands. We need to build bridges for people. And I have seen a multitude of our people. In fact, the march that they took on Maunakea in Oʻahu, there were 30,000 marchers in Oʻahu for Mauna a Wakea.

auntie maxine kahaulelio
Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Hawaiian Activist Maxine Kahaulelio, affectionately known as Aunty Mack, autographs copies of a new book that she co-created called "Nā Wāhine Koa: Hawaiian Women for Sovereignty and Demilitarization."

SUBIONO: What would you like your legacy to be? What would you like to be remembered for?

KAHAULELIO: Me? Just a person. Just Aunty Max. Nothing big. I think this was my call. Because when I first went on Kahoʻolawe — there was a parable in our Bible, and I went on that basis. I'm not really worried about what people think of me, but I go according to my ke Akua who has led me, who has given me this responsibility. And I'm pretty sure he's proud of me because I have committed to working for the land, and to working for the people. And you know what? If I got paid I would frickin (laughs) but that's not where I'm coming from. I have never took a cent. I've never been paid. I have never, that's okay. My legend? Who I want them to think of me? As being a warrior. That's all. Nothing special. Nothing special. Just the warrior — Aunty Max The Warrior. To teach my younger generation because someone told me many years ago, and I was young, I was a widow at what 36, raising five children and a moʻopuna (grandchild), plus a job, plus community work, plus all this. Someone told me, Mack, you want to help the Hawaiian people? You better not be afraid. Because if you are afraid, if you get fear, oh, no be in this movement. Why? You cannot have fear. This gon' take you all kine way, you know? I go, really? He tell me, yeah. You really want to be in the movement? Don't bring fear in you, but only love — love and aloha. And I have put that around my heart and I told my younger generation, I told those girls at the mauna, if you get fear? Go home. You no more fear? Stay here. (laughs) How simple. I was never afraid. Afraid for my family. I mean, you know, just in case, and ke Akua has taken care of me, all through these years. He has rebuilt my strength. I'm old now, I gon' be 84 in September. And I'm not done yet. I am not done.

This interview aired on The Conversation on May 12, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at
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