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Years later, the 31-year-old stands under an expanse of stars near Moaulaiki, the second-highest peak on Kahoolawe. The cool night air is a welcome relief after an unbearably hot day spent hauling rocks and cutting thorny kiawe trees to clear a trail.
Rawlins, now in her third year of law school, is one of about two dozen volunteers spending four days on Kahoolawe doing environmental restoration work. The uninhabited island was used as a Navy bombing range throughout the Cold War and despite a $344 million cleanup, it is still littered with unexploded ordnance. Relentless erosion caused by lack of vegetation and topsoil makes it difficult for native plants to grow.
Despite a long day of work that started before dawn, Rawlins and most other volunteers are wide awake. They stand in a circle, holding hands. Their voices rise into the darkness as they sing a pule three times:
E hō mai i ka ʻike mai luna mai ē
ʻO nā mea huna noʻeau o nā mele ē
E hō mai, e hō mai, e hō mai ē (a)
Give forth knowledge from above
Every little bit of wisdom contained in song
Give forth, give forth, oh give forth
In silence, they ascend the peak to study the night sky.
Moaulaiki is the site of a stone known as the Navigator’s Chair, worn into a shape of a seat by the elements. Sitting at the rock on clear days, one can see Lanai, Molokai, Maui and the Big Island, and watch the churning of the channels between the islands.
Hawaiians used to gather at the peak to teach the science of navigating by the stars.
The area is one of about 3,000 historic sites that remain on Kahoolawe even after its 50-plus years as a bombing range for the U.S. military. Opposition to the bombing became a rallying point for Native Hawaiian activists in the 1970s, catalyzing the Hawaiian cultural renaissance.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush agreed to give the island back to the state. Now, Kahoolawe is on the National Register of Historic Places, and state law requires Hawaii to hold it in trust until an independent Hawaiian nation is established.
Each year, hundreds of volunteers like Rawlins visit, many drawn by a spiritual connection to the island. But the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, the state agency in charge of managing the island, is running out of money.
For the past 20 years, KIRC has been mostly relying on $44 million in federal money. By the end of next year, the agency will have to end its volunteer program and shut down its base camp on Kahoolawe if it doesn’t find enough money to keep it going for another year.
State lawmakers will have to decide next session to what extent they’re willing to fund the restoration of Kahoolawe, which relatively few people have visited. Yet to those who are dedicated to the island’s restoration, shutting down the volunteer program would be a huge setback, not only for the environmental work, but also for the perpetuation of cultural practices and education — key parts of KIRC’s mission.
Since the Navy returned the island to the state, Kahoolawe has largely fallen out of public view. But many residents still hold it sacred and see its restoration as intimately tied with the identity of the Hawaiian people.
Kahoolawe’s original name was Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of the sea. It is the only Hawaiian island named for a deity, and some Hawaiians consider it to be a manifestation of the god.
Hawaiians settled the island circa 1000 A.D. Residents of Maui apparently sailed there for fishing, setting up homes along the shoreline. The island was also used a gateway for navigating south to Tahiti. The channel between Kahoolawe and Lanai is known as Kealaikahiki, “the pathway to foreign lands.”
Goats were introduced to the island in 1793 as a gift to Chief Kahekili of Maui. The Kingdom of Hawaii briefly used the island as a penal colony starting early in the 19th century and began issuing leases for ranching in 1858.
The unbridled grazing of goats, sheep and cattle eventually destroyed much of Kahoolawe’s native vegetation, leaving many areas barren and vulnerable to rapid erosion.
The military began to lease parts of the island in the 1930s for army pilots to practice throwing bombs at targets on the island. In 1953, the Navy took full control through an executive order, turning the entire island into a bombing range.
In the decades since the monarchy was overthrown, the Hawaiian people had lost more than their nationhood. A 1983 report to Congress concluded Native Hawaiians had the lowest life expectancy, highest suicide rate and highest infant mortality rate of any ethnic group in Hawaii. One third lived in poverty, and only 4.6 percent graduated from college, less than half the statewide average.
The language was also dying. A law requiring that only English be spoken in public schools had contributed to the near-extinction of the Hawaiian language. In 1987, Honolulu Magazine reported there were fewer than 2,000 native speakers of Hawaiian, and less than 30 were under the age of 5.According to historians and activists Davianna McGregor and Haunani-Kay Trask, urbanization and gentrification in the 1970s displaced Hawaiians, sparking protests and a growing national consciousness.
A group of activists eventually decided to occupy Kahoolawe. Some sought to draw attention to Hawaiians’ loss of land, and others aimed to garner national awareness to Hawaiians’ need for reparations.
In 1976, 10 boats set off for Kahoolawe but were met by naval helicopters. One boat with nine people successfully landed. They included Molokai activists Emmett Aluli, George Helm and Walter Ritte.
The activists, calling themselves Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, conducted several more occupations of Kahoolawe, which led to arrests, jail time and lawsuits.Tragedy struck in 1977. Helm had gone to Kahoolawe with Kimo Mitchell and Billy Mitchell, but the boat that was supposed to pick them up mysteriously sank. They sought to paddle on surfboards back to Maui, but only Billy made it.
The disappearance of Helm and Kimo Mitchell made them martyrs for the cause. Many particularly mourned the loss of Helm, a charismatic leader who coined the movement’s slogan, aloha aina, or love for the land.
In response to a lawsuit, the Navy signed a consent decree in 1980 giving the PKO access to the island for cultural purposes. Bombing ceased in 1990, and the Navy agreed to return the island to Hawaii in 1993.
By then, the fight for reparations had become a fight for sovereignty that had gained political legitimacy. The state agreed to hold the island in trust until a Hawaiian government is established, after which Kahoolawe will be transferred to that nation.
Hans Wilhelm loves driving an off-road vehicle on Kahoolawe’s rugged roads. The Hawaiian language teacher at Kamehameha Schools is an access guide with the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission and brings his students to the island to help them understand its history and significance.
In the late afternoon, Wilhelm steers a Polaris on the road lined with gulches from rain that won’t stick to the hardpan. He’s talking about the first time he came to Kahoolawe, when the Navy was still cleaning up. One of his students picked up a rock that crumbled in her hand.
“The island is a huge mirror and it will turn right on you and you’ll see exactly what you need to see,” he said. “It’s the kind of place where beauty is alongside the ugliness of man’s nature.”
White dinner plates stained with red dirt stick out of the ground on the roadside. Volunteers placed them there to lessen the erosion, an attempt both innovative and desperate given the extent of the problem.
“I’ve seen Kahoolawe exhibits, but it’s not the same as watching my student pick up a stone and have it turn to dust,” Wilhelm said. “There’s nobody here except the land, the sky and your ancestors.”
Wilhelm first came to Kahoolawe as a member of the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, the activist group that is now a nonprofit organization and still the fiercest defender of the island.
Three of the seven seats on the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission board are designated for PKO members or chosen from a list compiled by the PKO. About seven months a year, PKO organizes cultural visits to the island separate from the state.
In 2011, the state Senate considered reducing the organization’s influence on KIRC, with Sen. Michelle Kidani suggesting it was unfair for one nonprofit to have so much power.
Kidani’s effort failed, and the PKO is still a strong influence on the commission. But like KIRC, the organization has suffered from diminishing financial support in recent years.
The nonprofit reported receiving more than $114,000 in grants and contributions in its 2007 but received only about $4,500 in 2012, according to tax forms. That year, the PKO reported another $40,000 in gross receipts, but the total of $45,000 in revenue still was less than half of its 2007 revenue.
McGregor, a University of Hawaii professor, wants the state to fund KIRC and hopes Kahoolawe will someday host a training center for training Hawaiian cultural practitioners. But she emphasizes that the PKO is dedicated to Kahoolawe even if the state closes down its base camp.
If KIRC stops having a consistent presence on Kahoolawe, PKO visits would be a lot riskier. The group camps on the opposite side of the island from KIRC in an area that has no fresh water or generators. Visitors can drink only the water they bring, and must walk to get anywhere. The PKO relies on KIRC to provide emergency services and supplies when necessary.
But even if the state agency wasn’t on the island, McGregor said the group would continue to visit. “As an ohana, we commit for generations,” she said.
Despite the devotion of McGregor and other PKO members, their vision of Kahoolawe isn’t shared by all Hawaiians.
Ritte was one of the nine people who first landed on the island in 1976, defying the Navy. The prominent Native Hawaiian activist even spent six months in jail for breaking the law.
But Ritte said he disagrees with spending money to restore the island, fearing that doing so will ultimately lead to development. He doesn’t buy the idea of Kahoolawe as a place for Hawaiians to re-establish their culture, or as the future land of a sovereign nation.
“What was the purpose for us going to jail? It wasn’t to form a nation. It wasn’t to have a place for Native Hawaiians to find ourselves. It was to stop the bombing. And now that purpose has become secondary, and almost lost,” Ritte said.
Ritte’s opinion is the polar opposite of that of Aluli, who spent two days hiking Kahoolawe with Ritte on the first 1976 landing. Aluli is now a KIRC commissioner, and sees the island’s restoration as a necessary step in the fight for sovereignty.
“It’s a commitment we have to our kupuna that we start something and we finish it,” he said. “It is still the first land to come back.”
The Native Hawaiian Roll Commission is in the process of compiling a list of Hawaiians who will vote on delegates for a constitutional convention. Aluli is disappointed that the process has taken so long, but in the meantime, KIRC takes its role as a cultural steward of Kahoolawe seriously.
Kuiokalani Gapero is the man behind KIRC’s cultural program. His job is to help protect historic sites and facilitate the island’s use for cultural practices.
When Gapero organizes trips, he asks volunteers to lead Hawaiian chants before meals and help document archaeological sites like fishing shrines and temples.
Even hard labor is infused with cultural awareness. As volunteers stack rocks to build a trail, they’re asked to put their mana into the task and think of the kupuna who may one day walk on the trail barefoot.
Gapero would still have a job if the volunteer program is shut down, but he wouldn’t have anyone to teach. In his view, volunteers are the lifeblood of KIRC’s work.
“This is the biggest school in Hawaii,” Gapero said. “Ma ka hana ka ike— in doing, one learns.”
Rawlins visited Kahoolawe for the first time two years ago with the PKO. For the entire trip, she and her companions spoke only Hawaiian. Every morning they chanted, calling the sun to awaken from the sky’s first lightening until the sun rose. Everyone gathered at the sound of a conch shell.
Rawlins wondered whether this was what life on Kahoolawe was like, centuries before the goats roamed and the bombs fell. It felt right. This is what should be normal, she thought: Hawaiians speaking Hawaiian, cultivating their own land.
On her most recent trip with KIRC, Rawlins stands beside a shrine on the highest peak of Kahoolawe. PKO members built it in honor of the Hawaiian gods Lono and Kane, to encourage them to bring rain to nourish the barren land.
Rawlins steps up to the shrine to oli, or chant. As her lungs fill with air and her voice vibrates in the wind, she feels the mana of her kupuna who came before surging through her. She starts to cry, thinking of how much has been sacrificed to allow her to be on Kahoolawe at this moment.
Rawlins grew up on Molokai and often thinks of George Helm, whom she never had a chance to meet. She feels a kuleana — a privilege and a responsibility — to continue the work he started, but worries about the enormity of the task.
“The island is disappearing,” she said.
Coming Wednesday: Should the Navy return to the island to finish removing unexploded ordnance?
Read the full series and related content here.