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Native Hawaiian leaders share their connection to Kahoʻolawe and aloha ʻāina

Salmoiraghi kahoolawe-017.Adj.crop.g.2.2-0.25.blk.jpg
Franco Salmoiraghi
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Photographer Franco Salmoiraghi visited Kahoʻolawe 20 times over 30 years, capturing images of both the land and the reclamation process.

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.

The movement led to a rebirth of “aloha ʻāina” — a deep love and respect for land and nature. That spirit has played a role in current developments in protests from Maunakea to Red Hill, or Kapūkaki.

As part of an ongoing project with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Center for Oral History, we are bringing you stories of resilience from that time. Ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan shares the stories of three Native Hawaiian leaders talking about their connection to Kahoʻolawe and aloha ʻāina: Colette Machado, Martha Evans and Jon Osorio.

The late Colette Machado represented Molokaʻi and Lāna‘i with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for 24 years.  She served on many state boards and commissions, but, her heart was in grassroots community organizing and advocacy with the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana and Moloka‘i groups at the forefront of  “Keeping Molokaʻi, Molokaʻi.”

She was known for her honesty and fearless commitment to the wisdom of our Hawaiian kūpuna and is fondly remembered for her generosity and aloha for ‘ohana and the people of Moloka‘i.

Machado: What drew me to the movement was you had an island that was neglected. You had an island that had a contemporary history with a loss of lives with George Helm and Kimo Mitchell. You had a philosophy and approach about aloha ʻāina. You had cultural acknowledgment with archeological sites of being critical and they were fighting a, what they call a David and Goliath battle with the military and the federal government. So all of this struck a chord in what Hawaiians were being faced with. I think the major lessons learned is how precious land is. How valuable the word stewardship was, is associated with aloha ʻāina. A lot of people look at aloha ʻāina as just caring, but it's beyond the care. It's a lifetime of caring, which is where stewardship comes in. It's a commitment for a lifetime. It's not going to disappear 10, 20 years. It's going to be with you for a lifetime. Emmett told me, “Hey, you know, we're going to be the next kupuna,” and we were young then. So to me, the Aloha Āina movement brought in stewardship. This is what Kahoʻolawe means to everyone. We are being trained to be kupunas of the land.

Martha Evans was a teacher and school administrator on Lānaʻi who witnessed the bombing of Kahoʻolawe from across the channel and got involved in the Aloha ʻĀina movement to protect Kahoʻolawe with others from her island. She continues to work tirelessly to protect the Hawaiian heritage of Lānaʻi as a member of Lanaians for Sensible Growth and the Lāna‘i Culture and Heritage Center.

Evans: Aloha ʻāina. It is at the core of who we are, yeah. He Aliʻi Ka ʻĀina, He Kauwā Ke Kanaka. If we want to continue to thrive as a people, as a nation, we have to take care of our land. We have to take care of one another. When we, through our indecisiveness and our carelessness, allow things happen like deforestation because of introduction of non-native species and diverting streams that used to flow because we want to build streets. And blasting reefs so that we can change the way that the place looks so we can make a nice resort with white sand beach. When we build houses that go right up to the high watermark. And we build seawalls and all those kinds of things. The land has had it. And the ocean comes and Tūtū Pele comes and says, “that's enough.” And what can we do? I think the Aloha ʻĀina movement has helped us to put things into perspective and to understand that we cannot continue to take advantage of what we have. It's a reciprocal relationship and we need to care for each other. And that balance was there before, and we need to get the balance back again. Kahoʻolawe is the reason why all of these issues can be looked at in a different lens.

Dr. Jon Osorio is the dean of the UH Mānoa Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge and a renowned historian and musician. When he received the inaugural George Helm Leo Aloha ‘Āina Nā Hōkūhanohano Award in 2022, his keiki Heoli recited the names of nearly four dozen people who embodied aloha ‘āina. Here he places Kaho‘olawe within this mo‘okū‘auhau.

Osorio: Kaho‘olawe is a place that also sheltered our people in difficult times. It was more of a shelter than it was an exile. It was a place for our people to live. And I like the notion that Kaho‘olawe has attracted to her over all of these last 40 years, people who really had felt themselves distanced from this huge American culture that is, you know, seated itself in our islands. Those who have been disaffected, those who have been even cast aside, it has brought them and made us whole, it has turned us into better versions of ourselves, I think. I am not much of a scholar of traditional or ancient Hawaiian music, but I do know that songs have been written about Kaho‘olawe that celebrate her existence really as the youngest in our moʻokū‘auhau of islands having come last and being essentially the sheltered one, the protected one. And I think that that's kind of the way I've always seen the island, as an island that we stopped protecting at some point and had to learn how to do this again. And in doing this, the island protects us. It makes us better. It makes us more and makes us braver, more courageous, more sacrificing. It's been an amazing thing.

When Hawai‘i and its people seek to overcome the challenges of environmental degradation and military overdevelopment, as seen at Red Hill, the pathway of aloha ‘āina that the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana has followed serves as a shining beacon. Love and respect for the land imbues communities with the resilience to heal, grow, and thrive in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.

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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.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 27, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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