Long Live Kaho‘olawe: Restoring the Former Military Bombing Site Off the Coast of Maui
Twenty years after the bombing stopped, Kaho‘olawe sets a path for the future.
Editor’s Note: In 2013, Mana Magazine’s team traveled to Kaho‘olawe to see the work that was being done to restore the former military bombing site. Editor Ke‘ōpūlaulani Reelitz wrote about the moving experience in the January 2014 issue of Mana, our sister publication that’s no longer in print.
“To go to Kaho‘olawe, you have to be ready, and the island has to want you to come… The island kind of clings to you. You keep thinking of the island. It touches something within you,” says University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa professor Davianna McGregor.
Several months ago, John Kalili Casson Sr. was diagnosed with cancer. When he learned that, despite doctors’ best efforts, the cancer could not be permanently removed, he started a bucket list.
Casson Sr.’s son, John Kalili Casson Jr., asked his father what he wanted to do. “You want to go around the world? See Europe?” the junior Casson recalls saying. His father shook him off. “I like make kulolo one more time,” the senior said. So his son brought the whole ‘ohana together and made kulolo. Next on the list was a trip to Maui so the senior Casson could show his ‘ohana where he was from.
After two items were in the bucket, John Jr. asked again, “Sure you don’t want to go around the world?”
He didn’t want any of it. He wanted to return to Kaho‘olawe, and he wanted Makana, his great-grandson, to go too. So, four generations of the Casson family went with the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana.
Kaho‘olawe lives and breathes. It calls to you to care for its wounds and, in turn, the island sings its promises to care for us.
Kaho‘olawe has clearly called to kānaka maoli, like the Cassons, for a long time. But, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Kaho‘olawe became such a special place to Hawaiians. The earliest date of settlement attributed by radiocarbon is 1027 A.D. But mo‘olelo of the island recognizes Kaho‘olawe as a kinolau (one of many physical manifestations of our gods) of Kanaloa, stretching its significance much farther back in history.
The island, often referred to as both Kaho‘olawe and Kanaloa, was significant in voyaging between the Hawaiian Islands and southern Polynesia. “Our ancestors thought of the island as a key place to observe the stars that enabled them to navigate that two thousand miles across the Islands to Tahiti, and then more importantly to be able to return to Hawai‘i,” says McGregor, all “by observations that they made there on Kanaloa Kaho‘olawe.”
Kanaloa’s fate was sealed in 1778 when Capt. James Cook and his ships arrived in Hawai‘i. The island underwent significant changes after sheep, cattle and goats overgrazed and decimated the vegetation.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 set Kaho‘olawe on an entirely different course. The U.S. military subleased the island from Kaho‘olawe Ranch Co. for $1 per year and began using Kanaloa as a training ground and bombing target.
On Jan. 6, 1976, a group would reclaim the mo‘olelo of Kanaloa. Nine individuals made it to the shore by boat from Mā‘alaea, Maui. The Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana was formed from those efforts and filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy.
The bombing officially ended in 1993, when the U.S. Congress voted to cease military use of Kaho‘olawe and authorize $400 million for cleanup. In 1994, Kaho‘olawe was officially transferred back to the state to be held in trust until the formation of a “sovereign Hawaiian nation.”
It has been 20 years since Congress officially stopped military use of Kaho‘olawe and, through the efforts of the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (the ‘Ohana) and the state-run Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) as well as countless other volunteers, the island has begun to recover from nearly 200 years of destruction.
“I think it brings out the best in you. It brings out the best of one person to another.”
John Kalili Casson Jr. didn’t go to Kaho‘olawe until he was 47 when his daughter, Jessica, asked him to join her on a high school trip. His father, Casson Sr., didn’t go until he was 79. Kaho‘olawe has been a special place for the Casson ‘ohana to reconnect to their culture.
“The first thing I wanted to do when I came back was plant taro,” says Casson Jr. His daughter agrees with the sense of cultural grounding. “It was just a new sense of self that I found. It instilled more pride as a Hawaiian in me,” she says.
No matter who we asked, the answers were similar: Kaho‘olawe changes you and connects Hawaiians to their culture. “I always tell people that’s where I learned to become Hawaiian, on Kaho‘olawe, and from the people I met on Kaho‘olawe,” says KIRC executive director, Michael Naho‘opi‘i.
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While ending the military use of the island was a monumental achievement, McGregor believes another important accomplishment was the reestablishment of “our Native Hawaiian religious practices. In a way, restoring our soul as a Hawaiian people.”
The first Makahiki ceremony on Kaho‘olawe took place in 1982. Since then, McGregor says, we “have continued annually to call Lono back to bring the rains to help the Islands. We’ve called back Kanaloa into our lives, as the island is a body form of Kanaloa. But also Kanaloa in all his forms, that deep and innate knowledge that is the knowledge of Kanaloa,” as well as other Hawaiian gods, such as Kāne.
McGregor notes that the efforts have not gone unheard. “The island has responded to our caring of these gods by revealing new places,” she says.
Kānaka have also responded to the cultivation of the cultural kīpuka. “So strong that place,” notes Casson Jr. “I think it brings out the best in you. It brings out the best of one person to another. That human relationship, it brings out the best, because that’s all you have, is the people and the kūpuna.”
“There are so many elements of education that can be done on the island. It’s ridiculous how much there is out here with so little.”
A Future for Kanaloa
You’re sure to meet people who have the island’s best interests at heart whether you’re with the ‘Ohana in Hakioawa or the KIRC in Honokanai‘a.
While work in the state’s first decade of ownership focused primarily on clearing unexploded ordnances, much of the efforts since then have involved reestablishing native vegetation.
KIRC’s cultural resource project coordinator, Kui Gapero, first accessed the island in 1997 as a teenager. He remembers he “had to wear a dust mask all the time … Just walking down the hill, my whole body was just dirt red.” He says it’s not as bad as it once was and credits revegetation efforts as a big reason for that.
Paul Higashino is a KIRC natural resource manager, or a restoration ecologist, as he likes to call himself. He agrees revegetation has been one of the biggest changes in the past 20 years, aside from the removal of ordnances. He also sees a future beyond simple regrowth. He wants to see more native plants and Polynesian-introduced food crops.
Higashino’s thoughts are part of a larger vision that others share. McGregor hopes “the island will be a very important cultural learning center, but unique because it’s undeveloped.”
Gapero agrees. “I see this whole island almost like a hālau, like a school. People want to come here and learn, practice their culture, come out here and experience something. There are so many elements of education that can be done on the island. It’s ridiculous how much there is out here with so little,” he says.
Whether it’s navigation, fishing or another expression of Hawaiian living, Gapero believes there are “so many different disciplines that can be learned out here. For the future, … I think this is a place of learning, reconnecting,” he says.
The work ahead will not be easy. Earlier this year, a state-commissioned audit found that the KIRC “is a long way from its vision of returning the island and surrounding waters to pristine conditions.” Additionally, the U.S. Congressional funding set aside for the state-run KIRC will run out in about two years.
The KIRC and the ‘Ohana have set their sights on the future, though. The organizations have conducted focus groups and community meetings all around the state with key stakeholders. Their goal is a clear strategic plan for Kaho‘olawe to guide efforts through 2026, the 50th anniversary of the Kaho‘olawe Nine landing. Efforts are also supported by the newly formed ‘Aha Moku.
Naho‘opi‘i hopes the future vision will be one that melds cultural practice with land management. “It eventually will be a cultural reserve because that’s what people always expected, a place for traditional native Hawaiian practices. But that also needs to be balanced,” says Naho‘opi‘i. “Why would you have cultural practices in the middle of kiawe forests?” he asks. Naho‘opi‘i believes the land must be restored to give context to the cultural practices.
As the strategic planning process moves forward, a common thread seems to be a desire to bring people to experience Kaho‘olawe. That sentiment encouraged the Cassons to take their family’s youngest generation to Kaho‘olawe. “Part of the reason I wanted Makana to go was to have him experience cultural things and get his mind open. He deliberately closes his mind on Hawaiian things,” says Jessica Casson.
In the process of reconnecting to culture, it seems Kaho‘olawe has given the family something even more important. Casson Jr. noted it was important the four generations to go so he “and Papa will know that [the younger generations] can gather for their kūpuna or their children.”
Ask anyone who has visited Kaho‘olawe what the island has given them to understand its significance – a connection to our history, a kuleana to our land or a kindling of a fire in our na‘au. But, let’s also start asking what we will do for Kaho‘olawe in return.
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