Meet Paulette Kaleikini: The woman who stopped the rail


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The rail project isn’t Kaleikini’s only legal battle. She’s currently involved in a lawsuit against Kawaiahao Church, claiming the church was desecrating iwi by moving forward with construction of a $17.5 million multipurpose center. To date, more than 600 burial sets have been counted in the area, to some of which Kaleikini can prove ancestral ties. You might have even seen her Sunday mornings by the church. For months, she and her family protested on the corner of King and Punchbowl streets with homemade posters reading “Stop the eviction of our ancestors.” One Sunday in March 2011, things escalated. Another protestor went inside the church grounds. Members called the police immediately. “I walked in to find out what they were arresting her for, what they were handcuffing her for, as soon as I walked in, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a mistake.’ They couldn’t wait for us to step out of line,” says Kaleikini. “So I turned to walk away and they grabbed me.” She was arrested, too, and both women posted bail. She had to go to court, but the trespassing charges against her were eventually dropped.

Long before Kaleikini was arrested in front of Kawaiahao, she took on General Growth Properties in the Ward Village lawsuit in 2006. (Former HONOLULU Magazine writer Ronna Bolante covered the story in the November 2007 “Bones of Contention.”) Kaleikini filed her first lawsuit in 2003, against the developers of Wal-Mart on Keeaumoku Street. The Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. has represented Kaleikini in all of her cases and, as a public-interest law firm, it gets its funding from grants, donations and fundraisers. Because of that funding, clients like Kaleikini don’t have to pay attorney fees, nor do they make any money from damages from their lawsuits.

Kaleikini’s litigious spirit raises the question: Is she simply antidevelopment? She says no. “I’m not against development, but I look forward to sensible development,” she says. This, she explains, means protecting the iwi first and foremost, and “development that leaves a legacy for our children and grandchildren.”

When it comes to iwi kupuna, Kaleikini says she considers herself an advocate, but “I was always an activist … for our kingdom.” For this, she gives credit to her mother, Alice Keliilumilani Kekahiliokamaku Keaweamahi, who likewise taught her the ways of protecting the iwi kupuna. “She … [talked] about the lands taken from our kupuna and that interested me more—what do you mean it was taken?” During her days at Sacred Hearts Academy, she remembers fellow students getting involved in the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana organization which formed in 1976 and others protesting to start hula on campus. “At our school they taught the French language, they taught Japanese, Spanish, and yet there were a lot of Hawaiian [students] and they didn’t [teach] Hawaiian.”

Since then, Kaleikini says she’s learned more about sovereignty “and what really happened to us.” Today, she is a member of a handful of organizations that align with her causes. One is Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei, which advocates for the re-internment of iwi and cultural artifacts, and in some cases does so. It become well known in 2000 when some of its members borrowed more than 80 artifacts from Bishop Museum and then buried them in sea caves on the Big Island. After a member was jailed and the federal court intervened, the items were returned.

Kaleikini is also a member of Hui Pu, which formed in opposition to the Akaka Bill, the namesake bill introduced by outgoing Sen. Daniel Akaka that, if passed, would create a process for Native Hawaiians to gain federal recognition similar to Native Americans. Kaleikini doesn’t think it would do any good. “It’s legislation that was formed without Native Hawaiians in mind,” she says, adding that she’s also against the state’s Native Hawaiian Roll Commission. Hui Pu even protested in front of Iolani Palace in 2005, when the bill was first heard in Congress. Members walked through the gates ready to be arrested, although they never were. “I advocate for the return of our kingdom,” she says, “I support people like Keanu Sai, who is doing just that.” Closer to her home, she’s actively involved with Malama Makua, which lobbies for the demilitarization of Makua Valley.

On an early Saturday morning, Kaleikini and other members of Malama Makua perform the opening ceremonies for Makahiki in Makua Valley. This photo was taken during noa (a rest period during a sacred ceremony); the actual ceremony is never photographed.

Every month, this group visits the valley, sometimes accompanied by fellow members William Aila, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Aila is perhaps unlike anyone else with whom Kaleikini associates: The two are both members of Hui Malama and Malama Makua, and yet Aila’s department oversees SHPD, the division tasked with protecting iwi. He’s been personally named as a defendant on her lawsuits. “I think she takes some very strong stances and, because she takes some very strong stances, in my official capacity I can’t agree with her, thus resulting in several lawsuits that we now have,” he says. The two have known each other for close to 15 years and, while he’s transitioned from activist to government director, he says he still respects Kaleikini’s work. “I think we’ve remained friends because we both share the same values. However, my personal values and my professional values have to be different sometimes,” he says. “People misinterpret what she’s doing as antidevelopment. One thing is clear with Kaanohi, she’s pro-protection of iwi and, if people perceive that as antidevelopment, that’s their misinterpretation.”

Kaanohi Kaleikini's tattoos symbolize her lineage and her kuleana for protecting the iwi kupuna, and were traditionally done.

For Kaleikini, disputing a Kakaako developer, questioning the city’s transit plan, filing a lawsuit or protesting in front of the palace all carry a deeper meaning. It’s about a kuleana to which she’s dedicated years of her life, one for which she’s culturally recognized by the state and for which she’s gotten traditional tattoos: Malama na iwi kupuna.






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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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