Kahoʻolawe

Click here to see interviews about the Kahoʻolawe struggle

For generations the island of Kahoʻolawe, also known as Kohemalamalamaokanaloa, has been a place of learning, training, and subsistence for Kanaka Maoli. Like all of our islands, Kahoʻolawe is alive, and yet this life was threatened by the United States military’s test bombing for several decades, between the 1940s-1990s. The interviews collected in this section include stories and experiences of people who risked their lives to stop the bombing of Kahoʻolawe and who helped reinvigorate the life of this sacred island through cultural and religious practices that affirm the connection between Kanaka and ʻāina.

Since the onset of the US military occupation of Ko Hawaiʻi Pae ʻĀina (the Hawaiian archipelago), numerous culturally significant and sacred lands have been subjected to extensive violence in the name of American national security. The U.S. Navy took control of Kahoʻolawe during World War II, and the island was used for live-fire and combat training, particularly to practice and simulate airfield attacks. U.S. allies participated in some of these training maneuvers as well. In 1965, the US Navy simulated a nuclear explosion on the island. The blast utilized 1 million pounds, over 450,000 kilograms, of TNT. In addition to leaving a massive visible scar on the land, the detonation caused valuable fresh groundwater to leak out from the island’s underground water table.

Many of the people who became involved in the movement to stop the bombing of the island grew up watching, hearing, and feeling explosions and gunfire on Kahoʻolawe from across the channel. In January 1976 during the season of Makahiki honoring peace, a group of resistors landed on Kahoʻolawe. Although contingents from various islands gathered on Maui in an attempt to get across the channel, only one boat actually made it to the island and was primarily filled with people from Molokaʻi, a neighboring island that is home to about 7,000 people. A few weeks later, a second landing of four people, again from Molokaʻi, was made. In all there were nine known landings made without consulting U.S. Naval authorities, and, in fact, in direct defiance and opposition of the U.S. military’s authority over and usage of the island. These landings not only required the courage, and physical and spiritual preparation of those who landed, they required a broad network of supporters to help watch children, raise funds, locate and run the boats, lobby, and make phone calls. The interviews included here talk about these struggles, the joys and the hardships, the motivations and victories.

The focus of the stories collected here are on the early unauthorized landings and the early movement to raise popular awareness and consciousness about the life of the land and people. From 1976 to 1990 the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana has facilitated landings, work trips, and revitalization efforts to end the desecration. Beginning in 1980, the PKO entered into a Consent Decree with the U.S. Navy to allow for regular, but limited and monitored visits to the island. The PKO’s subsequent efforts to bring people to the island so that they might develop relationships and attachments to the place has been essential to stopping the bombing and to healing the island. Although the bombing was halted in 1990 by a U.S. presidential order and the island formally returned to the State of Hawaiʻi in 1994, the work of healing the land and the lāhui continues today.

Most recognize George Jarrett Helm, Jr., an early leader of the movement, as the person who did the most to bring the term aloha ʻāina back to popular consciousness. Helm was among the handful of men and women who placed their own bodies between the bombs and the ʻāina. During those early landings, he and others kept journals on their reflections and experiences. During one of his last occupations of the island before his disappearance, Helm wrote the following entry:

Last Sunday of the month/day of Kahoʻolawe occupation using flashlight to write this note much has been done in preparation for this protest (spiritually especially). Without the spiritual element, life would be like an empty breath, no substance. Piʻilani is guiding us through this adventure as we offered hoʻokupu and mohai aloha to the kupuna of the past at Hale o Piʻilani. The occupation of the military reservation is not so much a defiance as it is a responsibility to express our legitimate concern for the land of the Hawaiian. Kahoʻolawe is a part of my culture…We are against warfare but more so against imperialism.

Helm’s words scrawled under the light of a flashlight while he rested on the dry, rocky earth of Kahoʻolawe, exemplify the kind of aloha ʻāina we hope to carry on for many generations.

Brief Timeline

    Jan 1976 First landing on Kahoʻolawe by protestors of the bombing and desecration (Emmett Aluli, Kimo Aluli Mitchell, Warren Haynes, Ian Lind, Ellen Miles, Steve Morse, Gail Prejean, Walter Ritte, Karla Villaba and George Helm);
    second landing by four individuals followed two weeks later (Emmett Aluli, Walter Ritte, Loretta Ritte and Scarlet Ritte).1976 Kahuna Sam Lono and Emma DeFries conduct a ceremony at Hakioawa asking permission to re-open religious sites.

    Feb 1977 Fourth landing lasting ___ days made by Walter Ritte and Richard Sawyer, along with a news reporter who left earlier.

    March 1977 George Helm and Kimo Mitchell are lost at sea.

    At least five more known landings on the island follow, continuing the protest of the US military’s destruction of the island and restoring cultural practices and protocols there.

    1979 Kumu Hula John Kaimikaua conducts a ceremony to restore life to the land, including offerings of food and hula.

    1980 A consent decree between the U.S. Navy and PKO is signed. The decree stops the bombing for 10 days a month and limits explosions to 1/3 of the island’s surface. The agreement also calls for the eradication of goats, soil conservation and re-vegetation. Some members of the PKO resign, unsatisfied with a compromise that would allow the Navy to continue bombing the island and exercising authority over it.

    1982 The first Makahiki ceremonies are conducted on the island in honor of the god Lono, as taught to them by Aunty Edith Kanakaʻole and her daughter, Auntie Nalani Kanakaʻole of Hālau o Kekuhi.

    1980 – 1990 PKO continues monthly access trips to address erosion, clear trails, rededicate heiau and other shrines, and build a hālau and pa hula.

    Oct 1990 The U.S. bombing of Kahoʻolawe is halted by a U.S. presidential order.

    Nov 1993 U.S. Congress passes a law recognizing the island as a national treasure and establishing the Kahoʻolawe Island Conveyance Commission

    May 1994 U.S. Navy formally turns control of the island to the State of Hawaiʻi

Interviewees so far:

    Walter Ritte
    Loretta Ritte
    Scarlet Ritte
    Bridget Mowat
    Glenn Davis
    Sherman Napoleon, Sr.
    Collette Machado
    Noa Emmett Aluli
    Joyce Kainoa
    Stacy Crivello and Adolph Helm