The word “Russian” has been blacked out with spray paint on the entrance sign to Kauai’s Russian Fort Elizabeth, a widely misunderstood 19th century landmark that has become a flashpoint among scholars and government officials from Russia and Hawaii.

The vandalism is the latest iteration of a debate that has been waged on Kauai, in New York and in government offices in Honolulu and Moscow: What should the site be called and what version of history should it tell?

The entrance sign at Kauai's Russian Fort Elisabeth in Waimea.
At Kauai’s Russian Fort Elisabeth, vandals spray painted over the word “Russian” on the Hawaii State Parks entrance sign amid intensifying local opposition to the site’s misleading name. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Native Hawaiians built the fort, and it became a home to Hawaiian royalty, including Kauai’s last independent chief King Kaumualii, for more than 40 years. Although local scholars say Russian presence at the fort was minimal — the fort’s Italian-style design was provided by a passenger on a Russian-American fur-trading company vessel — the site took on the name Russian Fort Elizabeth, also sometimes spelled Elisabeth, in 1970 when it became a Hawaii State Park.

A local groundswell to rename it Pā ʻulaʻula to emphasize its role in Native Hawaiian history has been met with resistance, however, from Russians and Russian-Americans who want to brand the site as their own.

But that resistance was greatly undermined last week when a dual Russian-American national who tried to influence decision-making around the park’s future was accused of acting as a secret Russian agent on U.S. soil by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Elena Branson — who organized the fort’s 2017 bicentennial and two years later led Hawaii residents, including an elected official, on an expenses-paid trip to Russia — returned to Moscow after the FBI raided her New York condo. Authorities say she is still at large.

The park’s name has so far not been changed. But on Thursday the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Communications Department said in an email that state highway officials had removed a pair of highway signs for Russian Fort Elizabeth, “in preparation of a future request to the Board of Land and Natural Resources to rename the state park to Pā ʻulaʻula to accurately honor and reflect our host culture heritage and the place name of this historic location.”

DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said in an email last week that Hawaii State Parks officials were invited on the trip to Russia organized by Branson in 2019 but declined.

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.”

Peter Mills, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii Hilo who documented the fort’s complicated 200-year history in the book “Hawaii’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History,” said that he’s often been astonished by the amount of money and focus that Russians and Russian-Americans have given the fort, which today amounts to little more than a pile of rubble.

“I think we really undermined their effort,” he said. “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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