30 years of land struggles in Hawaii

In Hawaiian, kue means “to oppose, resist, protest.” It’s a word central to the development of what has become known as the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, a cause shaped by 30 years of struggle-battles over eviction, land development and the U.S. military presence in the Islands. Photographer Ed Greevy has captured the movement’s defining moments.

It all started in Kalama Valley in 1971. When George Santos, an area pig farmer, refused to leave in the face of planned development by Bishop Estate, his stand struck a chord with people, and the valley became the focal point for activist groups such as Kokua Hawai’i. At the time this photo was taken, access to the valley had been restricted by activists and the few remaining residents, and the atmosphere inside was tense. Above, activist Kalani Ohelo gives an impromptu salute.

Photos: Ed Greevy

Nov. 10, 1979
This unidentified woman lived in a ramshackle shelter in the fishing settlement on Sand Island. Her house was bulldozed by the state less than three months after this photo was taken.

April 23, 1972
Activist Terrilee Kekoolani denounces a proposed development at Wawamalu (Sandy Beach), which would have built between 5,000 and 7,000 upscale houses near the popular fishing and surfing spot.

March 1971
The drama of the Kalama Valley evictions captured the popular imagination, bringing together organizations that might not have otherwise collaborated. For this protest at the State Capitol, at left, Save Our Surf, originally founded to preserve surf sites, joined forces with activists from Kokua Kalama. Protesters were generally respectful, staying clear of the roped-off artwork in the center of the rotunda.

May 1975
A property dispute goes up in flames on Mokauea Island, off Sand Island. The state, frustrated with the repeated eviction and return of a resident group of fishermen on the island, hired a contractor to burn down the makeshift houses in an attempt to permanently evict them. Here, Mokauea resident Billy Molale brings Greevy and SOS activists John Kelly, Antonio Andres and Lorna Omori in for a closer look. The families were allowed to return to the island a year later under a long-term lease.

Jan. 1980
By 1979, Sand Island had become home to a rapidly growing settlement of fishermen and other locals, who claimed it as their birthright, much to the dismay of the state. Although the island was artificially constructed between 1940 and 1945, the source of the coral dredgings, the Keehi Lagoon area, was part of the ceded lands. The state was not impressed with the argument, and after repeated eviction notices, it bulldozed about 135 houses on Sand Island, on Jan. 23, 1980, arresting those who refused to leave their houses.

George Helm, pictured here without his iconic beard, became one of the Hawaiian movement’s most prominent figures, thanks to his music career and his activism with the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana. He participated in the group’s Kahoolawe protest landings, and was lost at sea during one such trip in 1977. The object of Helm’s political crusade has been realized-the Navy finally completed its handover of Kaho’olawe in April 2004, after a 10-year, $460-million cleanup.

June 1996
Greevy began documenting the beach community at Makua in 1996, when the state announced plans for eviction. He writes, “Some residents were hesitant to be photographed or have their humble living quarters pictured. This resident, Barbara Avelino, was very proud and quite willing for me to make an image of her and her home.”

An unidentified man stands outside Iolani Palace on the 100th anniversary of the United States’ annexation of Hawaii. As the Hawaiian sovereignty movement has developed and matured, the focus of protest demonstrations has shifted from the State Capitol to Iolani Palace, the Hawaiian monarchy’s last seat of government.

May 1977
Another source of anger for Hawaiians was the military’s use of Kaholawe as a bombing range. Hawaiian grassroots organizations such as the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana protested by landing on the island in defiance of no trespassing orders and symbolically reoccupying the land. These men in traditional Hawaiian gourd headpieces stand outside the federal court building in support of their friends inside, on trial for criminal trespassing.

Jan. 1993
By 1993, the anti-eviction efforts and other land disputes of the past two decades had helped unite and organize the Hawaiian community, and the focus of Hawaiian activists had shifted to the larger issue of Hawaiian sovereignty. On Jan. 17, 1993, Ka Lahui Hawaii, one of the biggest grassroots sovereignty organizations, commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by marching to ‘Iolani Palace.


Since his arrival in Hawai’i in 1967, photographer Ed Greevy has immersed himself in the Native Hawaiian community and become an avid supporter of Hawaiians’ efforts to live on the land of their ancestors. He brought his camera along the way, documenting both the movement’s dramatic milestones and its moments of quiet beauty. A collection of his best work, titled Kue, is being released this month. Mutual Publishing, 2004, $36.95.