EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER SEVEN
As the canoe sailed from island to island, she evoked complex emotions. Older Hawaiians mostly accepted their place in a society dominated by haole and, increasingly, by Asiatic migrants who were moving up into the managerial classes. Hawaiians learned to endure what they felt could not be changed. But from across the American Great Plains and through the disturbed cities of the seventies a wind was blowing that carried a message of renewed power among American minorities – blacks and Native Americans – and the wind began to buffet young Hawaiians. One of the places it blew most strongly was on the remote island of Moloka‘i which is still regarded, along with Ni‘ihau, as the most traditional and least-developed of the Hawaiian Islands.
Moloka‘i is redolent of an old way of doing things. There is a single main town and in the town there is a single main street. Many of the stores are false fronted, like frontier settlements in the American West. Even today, the largest grocery store boasts maybe six aisles and there are few buildings over two stories tall. The island’s few hotels are still small and cars are drawn up directly in front of the rooms. A single macadam road winds around the southern side of the island and degrades to dirt, then to a footpath as it heads north. The North Coast is accessible only by boat. It’s not surprising that a different kind of culture flourished here – one dedicated not just to hanging onto, but to restoring Native Hawaiian values.
From the main pier in the town of Kaunakakai, you can look out to a barren low-slung island called Kaho’olawe. Kaho‘olawe has long been an irritant in the otherwise quiet Moloka‘i lifestyle. In World War II, the island was taken over as a military bombing range. For a time, people approved of this. But in the midst of the Vietnam War, as many young men in America were called to rethink their patriotism, the constant thumping of bombs stimulated an already swelling antiwar consciousness on Moloka‘i. And gradually, antiwar sentiments entwined with rising anger over the past two hundred years of cultural oppression.
Moloka‘i, like all Hawaiian islands, is largely owned by absentee landlords descended in many cases from the original haole businessmen and missionaries who took the land from Hawaiians in the 1800s. The biggest landowner is the Moloka‘i Ranch, 65,000 acres, about forty percent of the entire island. The ranch lands are marked with signs that say “kapu – no trespassing.” Mel Paoa grew up in Moloka‘i and encountered adolescence as America encountered the war in Vietnam - the sixties. For young men like Mel and his friends, the kapu signs barred them from prime hunting lands and from the best reefs for fishing. But they recalled a previous right, an ancient Hawaiian one, that gave access to everyone for these purposes and also to visit ancestral shrines and temples, of which there were many on private lands. In 1973, Mel joined a group called Hui Alaloa, “the society of the long trails” which began public marches to restore access to fishing and hunting places. “A lot of guys my age were getting involved with trying to find out who we were, what rights we had as Hawaiians. What we did on Moloka‘i was open up a lot of access areas with quiet protest, marching and petitions. We didn’t do anything really radical like burning or things like that. But the protests opened up avenues for us.”
George Helm Jr. began a series of “invasions” of Kaho’olawe to stop the bombing of what many Hawaiians considered sacred ‘aina (land). Sometimes acting alone, sometimes with a group of friends, Helm would paddle to the island on a surfboard and attempt to hide. When the navy learned that people were on the island they were forced to cease bombing and go look for them. Helm’s activity garnered a great deal of press. “I used to hang out with George Helm,” Mel remembers. “He would talk to everybody about aloha ‘aina, about loving and taking care of our lands, about being proud of who we are and what we represent and how things should not be taken for granted – we should get back what spiritually belongs to us.” George and his companions in resistance knew they were practicing a dangerous game. It surprised no one when he was lost at sea on March 7th, 1977, paddling one last time between Kaho’olawe and Maui.
In 1975, Hokule'a sailed into this growing spirit of Hawaiian activism and revival that was now being called the “Hawaiian Renaissance.”
“The canoe - from the moment she was launched - and with momentum increasing as she went to neighboring islands, unexpectedly became a symbol of the renaissance of Hawaiian culture,” Dave Lyman recalls. “People would rally around the canoe because she was and is a beautiful thing to look at and because what she represents, the achievements of our ancestors, is so deep in every Hawaiian that the canoe generates this sense of pride. No matter how tough it might be living on a Spam and rice diet and losing the opportunity to subsist by fishing and farming, that canoe instills a sense of innate pride.”
“The timing of the canoe was fortunate because of the general feeling of desperation that the culture was slipping away, and if we did not reach out and grab it now it would be gone forever,” says Herb. “There was a general revival of interest in the culture. I can’t think of any area in which there was not a revival of interest.”
Hawaiians had called themselves kanaka, kanaka simply means “human,” for a long time. But as the renaissance of values continued, a new term emerged – kanaka maoli. Maoli means ‘real’ or ‘true’, so a kanaka maoli was a ‘true Hawaiian.’ For some Hawaiians that meant native to Hawai‘i; for others, it required a certain amount of Hawaiian blood - koko. But most Hawaiians thought kanaka maoli signified a deep feeling in the na‘au, the gut, of being Hawaiian and a commitment to back it up with action. At least that’s the way Sam Ka‘ai thought: “You say you are Hawaiian? Can you light the fire for the imu (earth oven) without a match? Can you kill a pig without a knife? Can you take his hair off without a razor? Can you cut him open without a knife? Your father’s father’s father’s father could. And so we are not maoli. We are just children. We have forgotten our father’s footsteps. If we don’t care – nobody else cares. A kanaka has got to care. So when Herb brought that vessel to us it was time to care. Forget everything. Take your honor and your resources and go.”