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When Andre Perez called the Office of Hawaiian Affairs on Jan. 17 and heard unfamiliar voices on the line, he knew there was something wrong.
Perez, a longtime Hawaiian activist, was on his way to Iolani Palace for the anniversary of the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. He drove to OHA’s headquarters on Nimitz Highway after the unsettling phone call and discovered more than a dozen men had stormed the building, claiming OHA’s assets as their own.
The men were part of the Polynesian Kingdom of Atooi, a Kauai-based organization that one of them, Ene Faletogo, describes as the descendants of a royal lineage that predates King Kamehameha I.
“Atooi in Polynesia means the light of God,” Faletogo, 62, told Civil Beat in a phone interview Tuesday. “We are the tribe of Judah … Our history doesn’t only go back to Hawaii, it goes all the way back to the beginning. We are the Israelites.”
The incident on the anniversary of the overthrow underscored how the events of 126 years ago continue to impact Hawaii today. It pitted a relatively obscure neighbor island activist group using blunt methods to restore the Hawaiian Kingdom against a multimillion-dollar public agency that’s pushing to improve the lives of Hawaiians through state-sanctioned action.
The incident also highlighted differences within the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, sometimes misunderstood as a monolithic group, and illuminated frustrations with OHA, which has been a source of disillusionment for many.
Within the Native Hawaiian community, many people condemned the Kingdom of Atooi as an extremist fringe sovereignty group unfairly attacking other Hawaiians. But some said that even though the tactics were wrong, they understand the frustrations with OHA, a state agency created for the benefit of Hawaii’s indigenous people that’s recently been embroiled in scandal.
If you hadn’t heard of the Kingdom of Atooi before this month, you’re not alone.
“I don’t know those guys, recognize their faces,” said Perez, who has been involved in the sovereignty movement for more than two decades. “They do not engage in the Hawaiian sovereignty community or the activist community.”
On Kauai, the Kingdom of Atooi is known in part for clashing with protestors who were occupying land in defiance of the Coco Palms Resort development. Several members, including Faletogo, have criminal records for crimes including drug-related offenses.
Faletogo told Civil Beat the group supports Kauai resident Aleka Aipoalani as the heir to the Kamehameha dynasty. He eschews the media coverage that’s described the Kingdom of Atooi as merely a “Hawaiian sovereignty group.”
“We are not a sovereignty group. We are a sovereign nation,” he said.
Faletogo says he can’t talk about what happened Jan. 17. But video footage of the office building that day shows men dressed in “federal marshal” shirts and badges telling OHA staffers to get out.
Suddenly the camera shakes as a man slightly off-screen falls to the ground. The camera pans to a man in a red shirt towering over an OHA staffer.
“Get out, now!” he said.
“We said no physical —” someone off-screen interrupts.
“OK! Get out!”
Five men from the Kingdom of Atooi were eventually arrested. OHA staffers were shaken and one was left with three broken ribs.
The act of reclaiming land to assert Hawaiian control has been a defining part of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Perhaps the most famous instance was in the 1970s when activists landed on Kahoolawe, then a Navy bombing range, said Ilima Long, a Hawaiian activist and doctoral student at the University of Hawaii.
Long has been involved in nonviolent protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. But she criticizes the methods of the Kingdom of Atooi men, who reportedly used derogatory language toward female OHA staffers.
“No group of dudes claiming some kind of royal authority, calling women bitches, are going to lead us to the finish line,” she said.
Many found the Kingdom of Atooi’s actions disorganized and confusing. Perez says he actually organized a past occupation of OHA that involved sleeping in the lobby the night before a board meeting. But it was unclear this time what point the group was trying to make.
“When you do nonviolent direct action it requires a lot of discipline to maintain your composure or have good messaging. They were just coming in strong with their badges … and wanting to take over OHA,” he said. “I felt it wasn’t very realistic.”
“If it was to make a statement they should have had a statement prepared,” Perez said.
The assault on the OHA staffer was condemned by leaders in the Hawaiian community who held a press conference Jan. 24 highlighting the nonviolent example set by Queen Liliuokalani.
Numerous Hawaiian organizations and leaders, along with OHA trustees and legislators, issued a statement condemning the action.
“We will not tolerate extremists co-opting the Hawaiian sovereignty movement and all this progress being made for and by our lāhui,” the statement said. “Those 13 men came here last week seeking individual gain, not to serve our community.”
The statement questioned why the five men who were arrested were only charged with misdemeanors and some were quickly released on $100 bail. The cases have since been referred to the Attorney General’s office because OHA is a quasi-state agency.
“Within hours of attempting to seize a government building, impersonating federal officers, and assaulting government officials, these men posted bail and were home taking to social media to celebrate the day’s affairs,” the statement said. “The seeming inequity is questionable at best. We are left to wonder if the events of last week had occurred at any other government agency, would the response by authorities have been the same.”
The press conference outside OHA’s offices brought together not only elected politicians but also activists like Molokai resident Walter Ritte and leaders of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs. As former Gov. John Waihee left the building, he remarked that it was rare for the many factions of the Hawaiian community who often disagree to come together.
But the show of unity belied continuing tensions. Kaleikoa Kaeo, a longtime Native Hawaiian activist from Maui, says he and several other activists chose not to attend the press conference at OHA because they disagreed with calls for harsher punishments for the Kingdom of Atooi members in part because that could set a bad precedent for future activism.
Kaeo says he condemns the men’s violent tactics, but understands where they’re coming from because he and a lot of Hawaiians are frustrated with OHA’s policies and management of Hawaiian resources. The agency is the subject of both state and federal investigations into misspending and public corruption.
Kaeo also questions where OHA’s outrage was when he and other activists were arrested and charged by the state for protesting telescope construction on Mauna Kea and Haleakala.
University of Hawaii President David Lassner was among the many officials who did attend last week’s press conference. To Kaeo, Lassner “represents the interest of those who want to maintain the exploitation of our sacred sites.”
It’s moments like that when “the Office of Hawaiian Affairs really shows itself as really being part of the state and its apparatus,” Kaeo said.
“To me it just reeked of OHA’s privilege and their power,” said Long.
She said even though the Kingdom of Atooi isn’t really taken seriously by the broader Hawaiian sovereignty movement — the word “Atooi” is a misspelling of Kauai by a European mapmaker — she didn’t like distinctions being drawn at the press conference between “what is a good Hawaiian or bad Hawaiian, what counts as sovereignty and what doesn’t.”
“You can say that your dysfunctional family member is not part of the family but they’re ultimately part of the family,” Long said.
Noelani Goodyear-Ka’ōpua, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii, also took issue with the calls for harsher penalties, noting that OHA has conducted research showing how the criminal justice system disproportionately punishes people of Native Hawaiian ancestry.
“Why would we then call for that system to be the one to deal with these men?” she asked. “It’s completely ironic to me that OHA would be the ones to release that study and that data and OHA would be the one calling for that very system to deal with these ones.”
A spokesman for OHA said that the press conference was not called by OHA but by other Hawaiian community groups. Lassner said through a spokesman that he was invited to attend and did so to support nonviolence.
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