Can a new photography exhibit keep us from forgetting Maui County’s most inaccessible island?
For most of us in Maui County, the island of Kaho‘olawe exists only in photographs. Forbidden for much of the last century–the U.S. Navy used it as a bombing target from the end of World War II until 1993–the island is still largely off limits to visitors. For those few photographers who have trekked there, braved the unexploded bombs that still litter the landscape, the experience was unforgettable.
“I remember when I was hiking with Barbara Pope on the west side of the island,” photographer Wayne Levin, who visited the island in the 1990s. “We came across a beautiful circular fishing koa, surrounded by a grove of Keawe. There was a light rain so the rocks and the trees were glowing. The scene was magical, and contained all of the sense of ancient spirituality that I felt for the island. I had my 4×5 view camera and extended my tripod to the maximum height. I put on my widest angle lens, a 75mm, and stood on a large rock so that I could get the whole circle of the koa in the picture. The resulting image was one of my favorites of my photographs of Kaho‘olawe.”
For Levin, his expeditions to Kaho‘olawe in 1994 through 1996 to take those photos was like “stepping into ancient Hawaii.”
Photographer David Ulrich, who visited the island with Levin in 1991, wrote about his Kaho‘olawe experience in his book The Widening Stream: the Seven Stages of Creativity. He called his trip “a rare opportunity and great responsibility.”
“The ancient sites heiaus and other culturally significant places, have one remarkable characteristic: they have rarely been visited, except by a very few archaeologists and members of the ‘Ohana, and their mana is intact,” Ulrich wrote. “We had the feeling, upon visiting some of the sites, that the people of old simply got up and left this place yesterday–their tools and implements are still scattering the ground today. In many areas, we would find midden (shell and bone fragments) that represented the remains of someone’s lunch or dinner from over three hundred and fifty years ago.”
In 1995, the book Kaho’olawe Na Leo O Kanaloa came out. It featured the work of photographers Ulrich, Levin and Franco Salmoiraghi, along with a narrative from archaeologist Rowland Reeve. “We hope these books will bring Kaho‘olawe alive for those who have not yet had the opportunity to see the island for themselves, to walk its coastline or explore its hills, to experience its quiet beauty and feel its mana,” Reeve wrote in the introduction.
These photographs of Kaho‘olawe from an era of political strife and rediscovery bring the island’s history up close and personal. Shots of leftover shells overlap with images of the first makahiki performed by the Protect Kaho‘olawe Ohana (PKO) in 1982. Life untouched by modern development is demonstrated in pictures of monk seals and dolphins as well as leftover vestiges of ancient Hawaiian life in shrines and petroglyphs.
Seeing as there is still plenty of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left on the island, and a two-year waiting list for those who want to volunteer on the island (as well as a $150 permit fee), these books and photographs provide the best available access to still largely inaccessible island. And this Friday evening, the Bailey House Museum in Wailuku will become part of that access with a curated display of these photographs. Called “He Moku Poina ‘Ole”–An Island Not Forgotten–the show runs through Nov. 3.
“If you see Hawaii as part of you, then Kaho‘olawe is part of you,” Hokulani Holt is quoted as saying in a promotional postcard for the show. “It is not outside of you, it is part of you. Kaho‘olawe is for all of us.”
Kaho‘olawe rose from the ocean about a million years ago, making it older than Haleakala but younger than Mauna Kahalawai (the West Maui mountains). Today it’s silent and barely inhabited, the southernmost of the four islands that make up Maui County. Once a penal colony, goat ranch and military target, the island has been in brief period of respite since 1993, when the U.S. Congress voted to end military use there. That same year, the State of Hawaii created the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) to plan for the island’s future.
Those official acts were possible because of unofficial activism and courage. In 1976, nine members of Protect Kaho‘olawe Ohana secretly landed on the island–a move to get people stirred up against the Navy’s continued bombing of the island. The organization also filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Navy. Eventually, these actions led to federal government’s 1993 decision to leave Kaho‘olawe.
It was the PKO’s passion, beliefs and 20-year fight that led to the state takeover of the island and $400 million to clear unexploded munitions. Of that money, $33 million went to the Kaho‘olawe Rehabilitation Trust Fund to support KIRC’s programs of restoration, cultural practices and education.
Today, Kaho‘olawe remains a treasured resource that’s highly significant to kanaka maoli and a historic landmark, but still very much a work in progress. In 2003, the Navy officially ended its cleanup of the island and turned over access control to the State of the Hawaii with the ordnance. In reality, just 75 percent of the island’s surface has been cleaned, and a mere 10 percent has cleared to a depth of 4 feet. In fact, a quarter of Kahoolawe remains “unsafe” to this day.
What’s more, KIRC’s money has been steadily running out. In fact, this is the last year of the KIRC’s trust fund, and the organization will have to head to the state Legislature soon to set three bills in motion to keep their mission for Kaho‘olawe on track.
“The biggest thing for us is the core function of the KIRC,” says KIRC Executive Director Michael Naho‘opi‘i. “Making sure that there is safe meaningful use of the island, which means that when visitors come to the island they are safe. And also make sure that the general public is able to make use of the island in a very safe manner. Those items we feel should be coming out of state funds because that is a endeavor for the broader public use of the island.”
A native Hawaiian, Naho‘opi‘i is uniquely qualified for his job. A graduate of both Kamehameha Schools and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, he actually worked on the island before the state took it over. He came onboard the KIRC in 2008, immediately seeking self-sustainment from the trust fund. He reorganized KIRC budgets and sought grants. His hope was to extend the life of the trust fund.
He originally thought the fund survive off interest, but the stock market crash in late 2008 and recession sucked the life out of that plan. Today, his plan is to fundraise, apply for grants and reintroduce a bill similar to last year’s HB 2101, which made it through House and Senate before dying, that will earmark a percentage of the conveyance tax for KIRC. In the upcoming legislative session, KIRC will also ask for a line item in general funds and direct funding from the Legislature.
“One of the things we want to make clear to the Legislature this year is that we are a part of the state,” says Naho‘opi‘i. “We are a state agency. In 1993, the state legislature created Act 340. It was with the understanding that Kaho‘olawe is an extraordinarily unique island that is important to the people of Hawaii. The state of Hawaii wanted its return for the use for people of Hawaii. That was the obligation that they took on in ’93. We are the ones continuing that mission.”
The KIRC has also been busy working with the PKO and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), conducting community meetings on the development of a strategic plan for the Kahoolawe Island Reserve through 2026, called “I Ola Kanaloa” (Life to Kanaloa). Their goal is to complete the plan before the end of the year. To see the vision so far visit iolakanalua.org.
Hence the photography exhibit at the Bailey House Museum. The time is right, too.
These days, Kaho‘olawe is awfully quiet. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the activism and occupation of the island made national news, and the active military shelling and detonations kept the county very aware, but these days, the plight of the land has a hard time competing with issues like GMOs. This is unfortunate, because now that Kahoolawe is back in state hands, there is a new responsibility at hand for the stewards of the land: to teach the passion of the island to future generations.
Back in 1995, Noa Emmett Aluli–one of the PKO activists who occupied the island in 1976 and member of the KIRC today, wrote the foreword to Kaho‘olawe Na Leo o Kanaloa. His words are just as true today.
“Each of us, in some way, has heard the varied voices of the island, has felt the pull to come back to care for it, has kept being drawn into a tighter connection with the island and with each other,” he wrote. “We’ve each had a feeling, a response, a reaction, a calling to this island and to the cause of helping to save it and helping to lay a firmer, more secure foundation for the generations ahead.”
He Moku Poina ‘Ole
Runs Oct. 10-Nov. 3
(Opening Reception: Friday, Oct. 10 at 6pm)
Bailey House Museum
2375A Main St., Wailuku