KAPAA, Kauai — Five days after a judge ordered a pair of Native Hawaiians out of a 2,000-tree coconut grove that is the namesake of the famed Coco Palms resort, a Sunday night eviction deadline sparked the opposite of the intended effect.
In a show of solidarity, about 200 people joined dozens of men, women and children who have occupied the property sporadically over the last 10 months, with about 20 of them routinely sleeping there in makeshift housing.
Under a ceiling of coconut fronds illuminated by a waxing moon, the crowd sang, chanted and prayed to reconfirm their commitment to guarding ancient bones on the property and practicing sustainable farming. Many of the visitors joined the occupiers for a warm meal under the stars and pitched tents to spend the night.
As the blowing of conch shells perforated the night air, law enforcement officials were nowhere to be seen. The State Sheriff Division is the entity that is responsible for responding to a violation of a court order, county officials said.
Neither of the defendants who lost his bid to assert genealogical ownership rights in the contentious land dispute said he intended to leave.
“They can’t even show us proof of annexation. How can they decide the land title?” said Kamu “Charles” Hepa, a co-defendant in the civil case. “They’re really afraid of what we’re doing here because it’s food, it’s water and it’s free.”
The occupiers, who have stalled plans for the Coco Palms resort redevelopment by almost a year, say they are keeping watch over ancient burial sites they fear could be mowed over by heavy machinery.
They spend their days raising goats, clearing guinea grass and farming taro, sweet potato and soursop. In the evening, they pound taro and fry fresh-caught fish on a large community fire.
“Our staying here is a way to stop what Coco Palms Hui seeks to do and that is putting our culture on the back burner while they build a new, big hotel,” said Ke’ala Lopez, 22, an anthropology student at Columbia University who has been sleeping at the camp since New Year’s Day. “I intend to stay. Perhaps that means trespassing charges, but I know I’ll be regretful if I just bail. All I want to do is grow food and help our community in a positive way and de-commodify our culture and decolonize our minds.”
“For me, sovereignty has everything to do with taro,” Lopez said. “We are working on restoring all these lo’i so we can feed the community so we don’t have to wait for a barge to come in every week.”
The skirmish over land rights has delayed the rebirth of the majestic Coco Palms hotel, where Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” was filmed, where Frank Sinatra stayed, and long before that, where Kauai’s royalty reigned.
Chad Waters and Tyler Greene of the Honolulu-based redevelopment firm Coco Palms Hui say they are committed to reopening the site as the Coco Palms Resort by Hyatt with an estimated $135 million project that will pay tribute to the property’s storied heritage.
The resort has been closed since being ravaged in 1992 by Hurricane Iniki.
“As we look ahead, we would like to reaffirm that our guiding principles have not changed and we are excited to continue to move the project forward,” Waters told Civil Beat. “We share the community’s vision for a project that creates meaningful employment opportunities, provides unique visitor experiences and is inclusive of local residents, all while perpetuating the rich history and culture of Kauai.”
Prior to the resort’s grand opening in 1953, the property was the 19th century home of Kauai’s last queen, Deborah Kapule Kaumuali’i. This and other aspects of the land’s rich history would eventually breed the hotel’s popular Hawaiiana aesthetic.
Ancient fishponds were repurposed as romantic lagoons. A nightly torch-lighting ceremony launched a statewide trend in hospitality. In the resort’s glory days, notable guests ranged from Duke Kahanamoku to Liberace.
“Coco Palms was the heart of Kauai,” said Larry Rivera, 87, who entertained guests for more than half a century in the hotel lounge. “From Elvis to Bing Crosby, everybody came there and everybody came to my show.”
The 46-acre resort redevelopment blueprint includes 350 rooms, three restaurants and a cultural center offering Hawaiian language, hula and ukulele classes on the 4 acres that are being occupied.
In an attempt to resolve the land dispute with occupiers, Waters and Greene offered co-defendants Hepa and Noa Mau-Espirito each a seat on the advisory board that will manage the cultural center and its activities.
The defendants asserted in court a desire to rehabilitate the entire Wailua ahupua’a, an ancient Hawaiian system of land stewardship and resource management extending from the mountains to the sea and now largely consisting of private property.
Bill Fernandez, a former judge from Kapa’a, said the Coco Palms occupiers are a threat not only to the resort redevelopment but also to those, like himself, who reside within the larger boundary the occupiers say they intend to restore.
“These young men have made the claim in court that all of Wailua really belongs to them,” said Fernandez, vice president of the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not just an idle statement. We’re talking about land issues that have been settled at least a century ago to allow people to build things like homes and hotels. I’m very distressed that they are making Hawaiians look like a group of people who will not obey the law.”
Fernandez brushed away associations between the Coco Palms occupation and the ongoing legal battles over telescope construction at the Mauna Kea and Haleakala volcano summits.
“Coco Palms is not necessarily a special Hawaiian place and it doesn’t have any relationship to the sacred grounds of Mauna Kea or Haleakala at all,” Fernandez said.
During a trial in which spectators hurled heated accusations and insults at the judge and U.S. court system, the co-defendants had no legal representation. They used Hawaiian Kingdom law as the basis for their ownership claim, arguing for their standing as the lineal descendants of the property’s last owners prior to the overthrow of the kingdom.
At its core, the occupiers’ defense rested on the idea that U.S. law is void in Hawaii because the U.S. government acquired the Hawaiian islands without a treaty.
But Judge Michael K. Soong ruled in favor of Waters and Greene, ordering the ejection of the co-defendants from the property and confirming the validity of the special warranty deed to the property which the plaintiffs had purchased from an insurance company.
In their closing arguments, the defendants accused Soong of being complicit in war crimes.
On the heels of the judge’s eviction order, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho encouraged everyone involved to respect the court’s decision and move forward peacefully.
“When this issue came to light, I had encouraged both parties to seek resolution in court, where they could publically share their documentation and have it thoroughly reviewed,” Carvalho said in a prepared statement.
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner from Oahu who served as court interpreter, said Soong was accommodating to the defendants, who had little understanding of the judiciary system.
“The judge was fully aware of what they were trying to do,” Wong-Kalu said. “But it’s not up to the judge to have to school them on how to present their case. If they had the ability to bring in a lawyer sooner, I think things could have played out very differently. The lesson from this is that it really says to our people that in order for us to gain any leverage in issues that are geared toward our political independence, we need to be extremely cautious and calculated.”