Transforming a pile of rubble into a replica of the historic 19th century fort is a shared vision of government officials and scholars from both Hawaii and Russia. But the event did little to sort out a controversy over what the site should be called and what version of history it should tell.
Local scholars say Russian presence at the site was minimal — and any plan to rebuild it should focus on the fort’s place in Native Hawaiian history.
A local groundswell to rename the site Paʻulaʻula to reflect its Hawaiian heritage, however, has been met with opposition from some Russians who want to brand the site as their own.
On Tuesday, the woman who organized the fort’s 2017 bicentennial — and who two years later led Hawaii residents, including an elected official, on an expense-paid trip to Russia — was accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of acting as a secret Russian agent on U.S. soil.
The dual Russian-American national tried to sway Hawaii government and community leaders against renaming the site to Paʻulaʻula to better represent its Hawaiian heritage, according to the indictment. Her attempts to influence policy decisions came at a time when a growing number on Kauai argued that the site had for too long been perverted by a misleading Russian moniker.
The leader of several pro-Russian organizations, Branson fled the country in 2020 after the FBI raided her New York City condo. Authorities say she is still at large.
Mauna Kea Trask, a former county attorney, said he hopes the indictment accelerates a local effort to compel the state to tear down the Russian Fort Elizabeth highway sign and put up a new sign featuring the site’s Hawaiian name.
“State Parks should really do what’s right for the people of Hawaii and the Hawaiian people,” he said. “Protecting Native Hawaiian culture and tradition and all that, that’s in the Constitution. So they have an obligation to us, not to the Russians.”
Maureen Fodale, secretary of the Friends of King Kaumuali‘i, a nonprofit trying to correct misunderstandings about the old fort’s history, described Branson’s indictment as a blessing because she said it sabotages the pro-Russian effort that has halted the site-renaming effort.
Fodale said that Hawaii State Parks officials have assured her that new road signs are coming. One hang-up, according to Fodale, has been that the state still needs to decide if it will also include Russian Fort Elisabeth on the signage.
“The name will be changed, it’s not even a question,” Fodale said. “But there’s a lot of bureaucracy. It’s not like you go out and repaint the sign tomorrow.”
Dan Dennison, spokesman for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said in an email that Hawaii State Parks officials were invited on the trip to Russia organized by Branson in 2019 but declined.
The park’s name has so far not been changed, he said. He declined to comment further.
The indictment details strategies used by Branson to influence Hawaii government and community leaders.
She allegedly told Russian government leaders she was taking five Hawaii residents to Volgada, Russia to serve as delegates at a Russian-American peace conference in the summer of 2019 to promote “friendliness” and for a “show,” and that she would need funding to pay for their food, hotel and expenses.
Kauai County Councilwoman Felicia Cowden, who attended the trip, was fined $500 by the Kauai Board of Ethics in January 2021 after she acknowledged that she made multiple ethics violations unintentionally in connection to the Russia trip.
The complaint against Cowden alleges that she used her status as a member of the County Council to secure a spot on the excursion. It also faults her for using a letterhead that identifies her as a council member to write to Gov. David Ige and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz urging them to attend the Russia conference, which “gave the impression attendance at the conference was being promoted by the Kauai County Council.”
Cowden said in a prepared statement on Wednesday that she did not knowingly play a role in Branson’s efforts to sway public opinion regarding the old fort’s Russian connection. In the past she has described the ethics complaint against her as politically motivated.
Peter Mills, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii Hilo who has studied the fort extensively, said he knew Branson from her visits to Hawaii. He also traveled with her to Volgada, Russia, alongside Cowden, as a delegate at the Russian-American peace conference. The FBI interviewed him about Branson several times after the trip, which he said seemed to be an effort to make sure that he didn’t have any anti-Russian sentiment.
“I have always been sort of curious and unsettled about the amount of money and politics that were getting thrown into this issue,” said Mills, who documented the fort’s complicated 200-year history in the book “Hawaii’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History.”
“But I think we really undermined their effort,” he added. “They threw a lot of money and a lot of political power at this and they did not get their way. I think that they might have slowed some things down, as far as decisions about name changes, but overall they did not get their way.”
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