Back then, Ke‘eaumoku Kapu worried about his father.
He wondered if he might be drinking too much. At the time, they were both living on Oahu. Kapu was a young man in his 20s working in construction building highways. His father, Paul Kapu, was living in an apartment in Waikiki.
Paul wouldn’t stop talking about a dream he kept having, of a woman telling him it was time to come home. The home in the dream was their family’s ancestral land deep in the Kauaula Valley. Nestled high above Launiupoko in West Maui, it’s where he grew up as a child, in an area where a powerful plantation had taken over massive swaths of land to grow sugarcane for more than a century. He left as a teenager, joined the U.S. Marine Corps, and never returned.
But by the 1990s, Paul felt a pull to go back that was too strong to ignore.
So Kapu, his father and family members flew to Maui, drove to the west side of the island and traveled up a long dirt road deep in the valley. They planned to camp. At the time, everything was so overgrown they couldn’t make out what had been there before.
But his father remembered. He vanished into the brush and pulled out an old poi pounder.
“Dad, you’re home,” Kapu remembers telling his father.
And so began the family’s decades-long journey to reclaim their ancestral land, one that’s still unfolding today. Almost 170 years ago, Kapu’s ancestors were awarded the land to live on, care for and farm during the Great Mahele, the 19th century land division that for the first time in history allowed private property ownership in Hawaii. But like an untold number of families, they lost hold of land in the century that followed, forced to seek work in the cities or displaced when plantations moved in and sucked up stream water that once fed flourishing taro patches.
There were also legal methods large landowners used for decades to gobble up acreage. A landowner could go to court to ask a judge to resolve any disputes over ownership, sometimes forcing the sale of a property to the highest bidder. In other instances, they could argue they held onto a property with a questionable title long enough that it became theirs — which, until the 1970s, was 10 years.
Even after the plantation era came to an end, and laws were strengthened to prevent such losses, the practice was used to buy up land for development or estates. In recent years, for example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg drew public outrage when he tried to use the quiet title process to force the sale of land on Kauai so it would go to a public auction.
It’s a similar legal process the Kapus have fought in Kauaula Valley for the last two decades. Pioneer Mill, the sugar plantation, sold its land to a development company that planned to pave the way for subdivisions of luxury estates complete with pools and lush green lawns. The Kapus, however, have asserted in a number of court cases that some of the parcels that Pioneer Mill sold to West Maui Land were never rightfully the company’s to sell.
Peter Martin, a developer and top executive of West Maui Land, was not available for an interview. In 2019, he told the Maui News that he inherited the problem and that he addresses ownership disputes through the legal system.
Throughout the early 2000s, West Maui Land filed lawsuits to clear up disputes over the property transferred from Pioneer Mill in Kauaula. The Kapus fought back.
In 2017, they won their first major legal victory when a jury ruled that Kapu’s family owned the entirety of a 3.4 acre parcel that had been awarded to his family more than a century and a half earlier. His attorneys, Lance Collins and Bianca Isaki, proved that Pioneer Mill had acquired the deed to the property in the 1890s by a person the family didn’t know — and who didn’t actually exist.
Then last month, the Hawaii Supreme Court handed down what Kapu sees as another win in the fight for a parcel neighboring the one he already owns, on which he built his father’s home years ago. The justices said that a lower court was wrong when it initially sided with West Maui Land during a hearing years ago that Kapu didn’t know about because his first attorney, Richard McCarty, had died. The ruling also said that the lower court abused its power when it denied Kapu’s request for a hearing when he was representing himself without an attorney.
Now, West Maui Land must start the entire process over again if it wants to continue the fight over ownership in court.
For centuries, land has been viewed as a shared and sacred resource for Native Hawaiians, a member of the ohana that must be cared for, according to a legal primer created by the University of Hawaii’s Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law.
Historically, land was held by the sovereign for the benefit of all people, but that changed during the Mahele, which has been called the “the single most important event in the history of land title” in Hawaii. It also paved the way for Native Hawaiians to claim a house lot and land that they were cultivating — known as a kuleana award. But fewer than 30% of Native Hawaiian men received those awards. In total, those lands made up 28,658 acres, less than 1% of Hawaii’s land area, according to the UH legal primer.
After the illegal overthrow of the monarchy, many Hawaiian families continued to lose property, for reasons ranging from the lack of a will outlining inheritance to the fact that after parcels were leased to sugar plantations they “changed so much in appearance that they literally could not be found,” according to the primer. Plantations also acquired land through quiet title, a legal process in which someone asks a court to clear up any issues that arise through title transfers.
For example, a number of siblings might have owned a family parcel they inherited from their parents without a will, and then one of the brothers transferred his interest to someone else — except the brother, legally, could only transfer his share of the ownership, not the entirety of the property. If that mistake wasn’t caught until decades later, there might be dozens of heirs who can trace back their ownership claims to the siblings who never gave up their rights to that property.
“When most people buy their houses, they have title insurance, and they probably don’t even know why they have title insurance,” said Lance Collins, one of Kapu’s attorneys. “And that’s specifically for this issue.”
In Hawaii, however, that quiet title process was often used by large landowners to take over property because they automatically won if no one else showed up in court. Plantations were also able to claim land through adverse possession — holding onto land with a questionable deed until it was legally deemed theirs. The practice that was so widespread that the Hawaii Constitution was amended in 1978 so that landowners could only take 5 acres at a time — and only once every 20 years. That change was also part of the reason why, in the decades that followed, Kapu’s father wanted to return home.
Pioneer Mill still controlled the land when Kapu and his family arrived there in the late 1990s. Kapu said the plantation worked with them. Its employees gave his family keys to the gates blocking the property, and the Kapus started notifying the state, county and even the U.S. census they were living there. The family built a small home, in the footprint where their house once stood generations earlier.
In 2001, West Maui Land purchased the deeds from Pioneer Mill. Soon after, West Maui Land filed a quiet title action on a 3.4 acre parcel at the top of the valley where the Kapus were living. On that parcel was a large pipeline carrying stream water down into the valley — a piece of infrastructure that the development company needed for the water system to supply the planned developments below.
“It’s all about business as usual,” Kapu said about West Maui Land. “If Pioneer Mill got away with it, then we’re going to get away with it, too.”
But after a nearly 20-year court battle, Kapu won the 3.4 acres. It was one of three main land disputes that the Kapus have been involved with West Maui Land, according to attorneys involved in the lawsuits. One is the case the Hawaii Supreme Court issued a decision on last month; the other is also waiting to be heard by the court.
From Kapu’s attorney’s perspective, the court proceedings have shown that it’s possible to work to correct the wrongs of the past — in the Kapu’s case, going all the way back to the 1890s, when Pioneer Mill took the deed.
“Because you can only sell what you have,” Collins said.
What’s unfolded in Kauaula has also increased public awareness about the issues that can arise with the transfers of titles.
A couple of years ago, West Maui’s council member Tamara Paltin said she began receiving calls from a citizen on the other side of the island about concerns over displacement because of title disputes. In response, she asked the Maui Police Department to articulate its policy on responding to such issues. The department said land ownership is a civil, not criminal, issue. If officers can’t determine the legal owner while on scene, they have no right to remove anyone from the property, according to MPD policy.
In her West Maui district, she’s watched over the years as families have lost land battles. And while the court battles continue over lands planned for development, Paltin said more issues have arisen — like whether the region even has enough water to supply the new homes.
“Just give the people back their land,” Paltin said.
After his legal victories, Kapu is now using his experience to help teach others about the court processes that for a long time shut many people out. He’s taught over 20 workshops across the islands to show people how to trace their genealogy and collect the government documents like birth, death and marriage certificates needed to prove lineage in a court. Most of the time, this isn’t so they can go reclaim property, but so they can prove they qualify for Hawaiian homelands or admission to Kamehameha Schools, Kapu said.
Looking back, Kapu said, he never imagined that he’d spend years studying court decisions and a century’s worth of government records to reclaim land. It’s all because of his father, he said, who was able to spend the last two decades of his life restoring his ancestors’ taro patches and rebuilding the family homestead. Paul died in 2019.
But the fight continues, Kapu said. In his view, it’s all worth it — not because of the wins in court, but because it might give hope to other families who would’ve otherwise given up on going back to the lands where their ancestors once lived.
“There’s a legacy, a story to be told,” Kapu said. “And hopefully that gives a lot of families the strength and courage to go forward.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.
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