Rebuild Lahaina Not As A Tourist Spot But A Place For People To Live - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan K. Osorio

Jonathan Osorio is a professor of Hawaiian Studies and dean of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge. His kupuna are from Hawaii island and he resides with his family in Wahiawa.

Once a home for Native Hawaiians, the town is deeply connected to American and European imperialism.

I was asked to provide some historical context to the ongoing horror of the wildfire that destroyed the town on Aug. 9.

I am not kamaʻāina to Lahaina or to Maui island, but our lāhui (nation) lives everywhere in this pae ʻāina, and what transpired on Maui, and not just in Lahaina, could happen to any of our communities, and so this is very much an expression of aloha between cousins.

The town of Lahaina is deeply connected to haole (American and European) economic imperialism and religious conversion that grew exponentially in Oceania through the 19th and 20th centuries.

A home away from home for whaling crews and their ships in the early 1800s, Lahaina was a focal point of tension between Aliʻi (chiefs) who tried to stem the contagion of venereal diseases and alcoholism that sailors brought ashore employing missionary inspired regulations, and other aliʻi who worked more cooperatively with haole merchants and were suspicious of missionary intentions.

The early kingdom’s seat of power in the 1820s was in Lahaina and it was there at Luaehu that Kamehameha III, instituted constitutional government in 1839 and set our nation on the path of modernizing its political and economic foundations in an attempt to coexist peacefully with global powers.

theee  Banyan tree  look it up
Lahaina’s famed banyan tree, which still stands for now in spite of the wildfires. (Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021)

The Americans’ illegal and unwarranted seizure of our government and lands in 1898 ushered in the U.S. militarization of hundreds of thousands of acres throughout Hawaii, and an almost feudal control of Maui island by a handful of missionary descended sugar and pineapple plantation owners.

By the early 1960s, as sugar and pineapple faded, the emergence of colorful and historic towns like Lahaina as tourist destinations were emblematic of Hawaii’s shift to massive corporate tourism and land speculation, which has left the Kanaka Maoli (native people) with little political representation, many living without shelter, sufficient nutrition and adequate health care.

But Hawaii is home to our people as well as a magnet for investment and entertainment and so first and foremost is that this is a horrible tragedy that has likely killed hundreds of people, erased their livelihoods, destroying artifacts and buildings that are significant historical resources for Kanaka Maoli, and instantly adding to a houseless population that could suffer enormous hardship for years to come.

At the same time, we see in this tragedy the results of climate change driven by the same industrial economy that surged into the Pacific more than 250 years ago. The worst effects of climate change are maintained by the refusal of those industrial giants to restrain themselves despite decades of dire warning.

Lahaina Town is gone. But Lahaina is still there.

What is happening to us in Hawaii has already been demonstrated to hundreds of communities on other Pacific islands who have seen ocean rise inundate their homes and livelihoods and forced them to migrate, and there is much more of that to come.

The unwillingness of the wealthy nations to seriously deal with this means consigning hundreds of thousands of Oceanic people to a very uncertain future, although at least Native people are refusing to simply surrender, and are employing community organization, political advocacy and legal opposition to try and carve a way for people to manage the environmental changes that are upon us.

Lahaina Town is gone. But Lahaina is still there. May it be rebuilt, not as a tourist spot but a place for people to live, as Kanaka Maoli once lived.

With resources and will, Lahaina can very quickly be restored to productivity to be a place, again, for the people who once sang songs of praise and gratitude for their home beside the sea.

Kuʻu home, i ka ulu o ka niu
ʻo ka niu kū kilakila
Napenape mālie
(My home is surrounded by coconut trees
That stand majestically
In the gentle breeze)

—“Pua Mana,” composed by Irmgard Farden Aluli

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About the Author

Jonathan K. Osorio

Jonathan Osorio is a professor of Hawaiian Studies and dean of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge. His kupuna are from Hawaii island and he resides with his family in Wahiawa.

Latest Comments (0)

As a person from Kansas, it's not my place to tell anyone in Maui how to rebuild, but please try to do it with respect to your heritage. Too often commercial interests take precedence. There is plenty of touristy places left in the islands. Keep Lahiana for the Real Hawaiians! Yes, I've visited many times and will miss it the way it was, but please pass laws to prevent corporate buy outs of your lands. Keep it real Hawaii!

Horse93black05 · 3 weeks ago

Something akin to Kahana Valley on Oahu? Maybe eco tourism to share the culture and resurging nature, schools both English and Hawaiian, farms, fish ponds and taro fields. Niihau does a limited amount of tourism for people who want to experience a Hawaii before the missionaries, whalers and those people who took over and took advantage of the land and people for profit. And of course housing, small businesses to support a local economy. Please no government committees and studies taking years only to be useless and somehow beholden to corporations and politicians. As a haole girl who was born there and who came back as soon as I was a self supporting 20 year old and who spent the best 25 years of my life before I was priced out along w many others who couldn't afford to retire. I dream somehow, someway Hawaiians could have their land back and be able to be self sufficient. I'm sure there are many reasons people will say this is not possible but this is my dream. Aloha nui

pegginalanilarrick · 4 weeks ago

As the conversation gradually turns to rebuilding it raises a question for me. Where will funds come from to rebuild Lahaina? The esitimate of the damage is in excess of $5B. Maui certainly doesnt have that. The state doesn't either. The federal government is $30T in debt with $175T in unfunded liabilities. Who exactly is going to rebuild Lahaina? The homeowners and business owners who lost their property hopefully had insurance and will get a check. What they do with that is up to them. Some may choose to rebuild, some may not. Some may take their insurance money and sell their land. Listening people talk about their expectation that Lahaina be rebuilt they way the want it rebuilt makes me wonder. Who exactly is going to rebuild it?

Tavares · 4 weeks ago

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