Island Out of Time

by aaron on February 9, 2012

(This article appeared in the Dec-Jan 2011, Hana Hou Magazine)

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photos by Jyoti Mau (my talented sister-in-law)

A half-dozen outrigger canoes line the narrow beach on Sand Island. Fishermen squat on overturned buckets, reeling in sardines. Jet skiers rip across Ke‘ehi Lagoon, racing around the perimeter of a flat, barren island. No one pays much attention to the four weathered houses clinging like barnacles to this sand spit, nor to the old man reclining on his porch pier over the water.

“I first came to Mokauea in 1960,” says Alejandro Romo, former president of the Mokauea Fisherman’s Association and its oldest surviving member. “I was working at Dole Cannery, and all my friends—the forklift operators—lived on the island. They invited me to stay and I never left.” With his bald head and perpetual smile, Romo looks like a contented Buddha. In many ways he is like Mokauea itself: insular, unassuming, easily overlooked. Yet once you visit, neither is easily forgotten.

If you’ve never heard of Mokauea, you’re not alone. Every year more than three hundred thousand flights carrying nearly 22 million people touch down at Honolulu International Airport. Every single one passes low over the tiny, ten-acre triangle in Ke‘ehi Lagoon, just a quarter-mile offshore. You could live your entire life on O‘ahu and never know the island exists or that the people who live here are struggling to preserve the ways of generations of subsistence fishermen.

When Captain James Cook landed in Hawai‘i in 1778, he documented more than five hundred fishing villages. For a culture dependent on the ocean, these villages were the heart of early Hawaiian society. Here elders passed on all the mana‘o, or knowledge, their children needed to thrive off the sea: the currents and tides, the seasonal behavior of fish, net making and canoe building. The ancient Hawaiians also constructed fishponds to trap and maintain a constant stock. At one time there were 187 ponds on O‘ahu alone. The biggest was fifty-six acres; the smallest, on Mokauea, was two.

The word “ke‘ehi” means “to tread upon”; the lagoon was so named because at low tide it was possible to walk among its six islands. Until the twentieth century, Ke‘ehi was one of the richest fishing grounds in Hawai‘i, and Hawaiian royalty had summer homes here. According to Kehaulani Souza, a cultural archaeologist and former Mokauea resident who has spent the last twenty years researching this area, Ke‘ehi was so abundant that “royalty would stand on the beach at Mokauea and point out what fish they wanted for dinner from the surrounding fishponds.” In 1839 King Kamehameha III deemed the lands surrounding Ke‘ehi a sacred royal fishing site. Fifty years later Hawai‘i’s last king, Kalakaua, purchased Mokauea, which he used as his personal place of refuge.

Today the residents claim Mokauea as one of only two traditional fishing villages left in Hawai‘i (the other is Miloli‘i, on the Big Island). As urban Honolulu developed, maintaining the island’s village and its lifestyle has been a battle, one that its residents and their supporters have doggedly fought—with varying degrees of success.

The lagoon itself has changed since the days of Kalakaua; only three of its original six islands remain. Dredging to expand the airport’s reef runway and widen Honolulu Harbor for cargo ships has destroyed the other three. Of the lagoon’s original forty-one fishponds, all that remain are the streets of Sand Island, named for the ponds they buried. But even before these changes occurred, the island’s subsistence culture was endangered. While accurate estimates of how many people lived on Mokauea are difficult to come by, the day after America declared war on Germany, December 12, 1941, the US military evicted all the residents to install a military outpost and deepen the harbor for Navy ships. Generations of Hawaiian families whose ancestors had lived on the island since pre-contact days saw their lineage broken. The military never built the outpost, but by the war’s end the surrounding reefs had been so damaged that most families refused to return.

Still, over the ensuing thirty years Mokauea slowly recovered. The two or three original families that had returned welcomed the newcomers, “mainlanders” like Uncle Romo, who resettled the island. By 1964 fourteen homes dotted Mokauea. The elders who had stayed passed on the teachings of net weaving and aquaculture. Romo, a master spearfisher, learned his skills from them. Once again the island became home to a small but thriving fishing community, though of the ancient ways of true subsistence, much had been lost. No longer able to walk across the dredged canal at low tide, motorboats shuttled residents back and forth. The line between past and present blurred: Residents brought in propane to cook their food, generators to power their homes. Instead of relying on rain, they carried fresh water over in five-gallon jugs. While fishing remained the primary livelihood, many residents like Romo commuted to shore to work in factories and on plantations.

At the same time, the fight for Mokauea was in some ways only just beginning. Developers wanted to turn Ke‘ehi into an industrial park, and the airport needed a longer runway to accommodate bigger passenger planes. A case dating back to November 27, 1964, reveals just how complicated land rights issues were; both the state and Mokauea residents claimed ownership of the island, and both staked titles stretching back to the days of Hawaiian royalty. The judge ruled in favor of the state; residents were classified as squatters and given eviction orders. When they refused to leave, the state arrested several fishermen. In a final eviction attempt in 1975, state agents burned five houses to the ground.

Uncle Romo remembers that day, watching with the other residents from behind a row of security guards across the channel as the flames engulfed their former homes. “I remember the helicopter hovering overhead to make sure we didn’t cross over,” he says. Joni Bagood, one of only twelve permanent residents today, knows as well as anyone how difficult life on this contested island can be: Her father’s house was one of the five destroyed. “Every day on Mokauea is a struggle,” she says. “The only reason we’re here today is because of John Kelly. That man was our angel.”

John Kelly is a storied figure in Hawai‘i history, both in the ocean and the courthouse. A surfer, teacher and political activist, Kelly earned a reputation as a beach lover’s John Wayne. In 1961 he founded Save Our Surf, a grassroots organization that fought to protect Hawai‘i beaches from development. In 1964 Kelly got involved in the battle for Mokauea, organizing the Mokauea Fisherman’s Association (MFA) with the consent of Uncle Romo and the island’s other residents to make the island 100 percent sustainable. “We always talked about going back to the roots,” Uncle Romo says, “living entirely off the land.” Kelly saw Mokauea as a microcosm for the Hawaiian Islands as a whole: If they could make a sustainable model work here, as early Hawaiians had done, perhaps they could make it work for the entire state.

Kelly forced then-Gov. George Ariyoshi to stop the burning of homes on Mokauea. “He threatened to charge the state with arson and navigational hazard,” Romo chuckles. “They stopped immediately.” A few days after the fires, Mokauea’s residents returned to sift through the rubble. Just two feet beyond the fire’s perimeter, they made a miraculous discovery: a 150-year-old canoe buried in the sand. “It was a clear sign,” Souza says. “Mokauea wanted us to rebuild.” Apart from its spiritual impact, the canoe became critical in demonstrating the island’s cultural significance. The state Historic Preservation Division proclaimed Mokauea a landmark, eventually resulting in a sixty-five-year lease grant to the residents.

With the lease secured, the rebuilding began in earnest. In addition to restoring the canoe, the residents went about creating a true fishing village. With Kelly’s help the MFA built a new loko i‘a, a traditional fishpond. They rebuilt their houses and replanted gardens of sweet potato, banana and dry-land taro. The mission, in John Kelly’s own words, was to create a village that “will be a living example of aloha ‘aina [caring for the land], self-reliance and kokua [cooperation]—an educational resource for visiting schools and community groups.”

But as is often the case, the road to revival hit a dead end somewhere between idea and actuality. For the next thirty years, shifting family dynamics and financial hardships saw restoration projects languish. Invasive weeds took over the fishpond, and the unfinished canoe, now exposed to the elements, began to rot. To make matters worse, residents didn’t have the resources to deal with the waste runoff from mainland O‘ahu. “Everything that goes into the stream, everything that goes in the water from the beach, washes up on the island,” Souza says. When outrigger canoe paddler Donna Kahakui, who has long been an advocate for Native Hawaiian culture, first set foot on the island in 2005, “there were over thirty tons of marine debris!” she says. “It was basically a dump.”

Kahakui believes that “once you touch something, you become responsible,” so she founded Kai Makana, a nonprofit that has been working to restore the island ever since. For the last five years Kai Makana has worked in conjunction with the MFA to bring in thousands of volunteers, mainly high school students, to clear the rubbish, strip the invasive kiawe (mesquite) and pickleweed and replant native gardens. “Whenever we step on this island,” Kahakui tells the kids, “we are walking in the footprints of our ancestors.”

For a moment the sound of a lowflying plane drowns out Joni Bagood’s already quiet voice. She waits patiently, with the amused half-smile of someone for whom such interruptions are normal. Beginning August 1, 2011, Kai Makana officially passed the baton back to the MFA and shifted from a leading to supporting role. And while much has been achieved in the last few years, many challenges lie ahead before Mokauea can once again become a model traditional fishing village of old. The MFA needs funds to cover lease fees, property taxes, water bills and boat repair. But it also needs new canoes to bring Hawai‘i’s school kids across the channel and help to build an education center where, Souza says, the children of Hawai‘i can experience at least some of the old ways. “We want to keep this island so that the kids can come and see with their own eyes where they can perpetuate the ancient fishing practices,” she says, “not just by talking but through maka hana ka ‘ike—learning by doing.”

Even with the challenges, Bagood is optimistic: “It’s not what we get out of Mokauea; it is what we can do for the island—what we are going to make of it. This island is our home but it is also our responsibility. We aren’t residents; we are caretakers.” She pauses as another plane rumbles overhead. A massive Matson freighter lumbers in the channel. And far out beyond the fishpond, a manu-o-ku (white tern) dips low along an unbroken wave. Joni regards the pure-white seabird and smiles. “And because it is a blessing. We need to share that.”

Story by Aaron Kandell

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