Kaho'olawe: An island reborn
July 8, 2021
While swimming in Hawaii, I overheard a woman talking to her grandson about the protests on Kaho'olawe, the island that seemed just a stone’s throw away from where I was standing.
“I was there, you know,” she told him, catching my attention in full. The day before, at the Maui Ocean Center, I read newspaper article after article about the island, the bombings, and the destruction of a sacred place.
The woman was kind enough to include me in her lesson, but after a quick internet search, I knew that the lesson was barely the tip of the iceberg. Kaho’olawe has a meaning to Native Hawaiians that I will never fully understand, but the history of the island is fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time.
Roughly seven miles southwest of Maui stands a red, barren-looking island. Kaho’olawe is a place with a brutal history but has begun healing through environmental and cultural preservation.
Archeological evidence suggests that Native Hawaiian people arrived on the island as early as 400 A.D., and nearly 3,000 historical sites and features have painted the story of the now-barren island’s past. Finds indicate that the island was once a navigational center for voyaging, home to an adze quarry, and is revered by the Hawaiian culture as wahi pana, meaning celebrated or noted, a legendary place or landmark of particular interest, and pu’uhonua, a place of refuge.
Between 400 A.D and 1750, Native Hawaiians continued to migrate from the South Pacific to Hawaii and, at an unclear point, dedicated the island to Kanaloa, the Hawaiian deity of the ocean.
From 1832-1852, the King of Hawaii, influenced by Protestant missionaries to abolish the death penalty, used the island as a penal colony until the law was repealed in 1853. By 1858, the Hawaiian government had issued its first island ranch lease, but uncontrolled livestock grazing over nearly 90 years resulted in the loss of soil via accelerated erosion.
In 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government declared martial law in Hawaii and the U.S. Navy began using Kaho’olawe as a bombing range. At this time, the goat population of the island reached roughly 50,000, introduced to the island by Captain Vancouver in 1793. Local residents protested against the naval exercises as soon as the bombing began.
Ship-to-shore tests with American submarines testing torpedoes by firing them at cliffs along the shoreline. Undetonated munitions were left on the island and washed up on neighboring island shores, putting residents at an even greater risk of injury or death.
In 1965, the “Sailor Hat” test was conducted on the island- three tests of 500 tons of TNT were detonated to simulate the blast effects of nuclear weapons on shipboard weapon systems.
Protests against the bombing practice turned into occupations in 1976, led by Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana, which brought national attention to the movement. Two men, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell died on a trip back from the island.
Simultaneously, the ‘Ohana filed a federal civil suit, seeking compliance with environmental, historical site, and religious freedom protection laws. The case was partially settled in 1980, with a Consent Decree which provided access to the land for religious, cultural, educational, and scientific activities. Today, the ‘Ohana has taken over 5,000 visitors to the island, and ancestral shrines, temples, and places have been rededicated, religious ceremonies have been performed, hiking trails cleared, and cultural-use areas have been established.
On October 22, 1990, President George Bush directed the Secretary of Defense to halt bombing and target practice, and in November, Congress established the Kaho’olawe Island Conveyance Commission.
In 1993, based on final recommendations provided by the Commission, Congress voted to permanently stop all military training and bombing of the island, authorized funding for the cleanup and restoration of the sacred island, and returned the island to the State of Hawaii. The island was littered with munition debris and unexploded ordnance.
Over the next ten years, a $400 million contract began extensive cleanup and restoration efforts that oversaw revegetation, construction of trails and roads, cultural sites, camping areas, and educational facilities. While certain parts of the island have been deemed safe, the majority of the island, and its surrounding waters, remain dangerous. Access to the island continues to be restricted.