Overview: Kaho‘olawe: Nā Leo O Kanaloa (The Voices of Kanaloa)

Impact Zone and Tires, Kaho‘olawe, HI 1994

It is our kuleana (privilege, concern, responsibility) that something of the island will be translated to others through our eyes.

Kaho‘olawe is the smallest of the eight principal Hawaiian Islands. Located on the leeward side of Maui, Kaho‘olawe is uninhabited and devoid of a permanent water source. It is the only island named after a god and is sacred to the Hawaiian people, with over 500 archeological sites: heiau’s, fishing shrines, petroglyphs, house platforms and astro-archeological observatories. Kaho‘olawe is a national treasure, with the entire island being included on the National Register of Historic Places.

The west end of Kaho‘olawe, located on the Kealaikahiki channel (pathway to Tahiti) with its strong Southerly currents, is known as the launching place for the great canoe voyages to Tahiti, using only the stars, ocean currents and ancient oral legends as navigational guides in their 2500 mile odyssey. Pacific voyaging was an art of the highest order, reserved only for those with extraordinary sensitivity, strength and discipline. The highest mountain on Kaho‘olawe, known as Moa Ula, offers a breathtaking view of most of the Hawaiian islands and reveals a dramatic glimpse of the constellations in the night sky. It is believed to be the site of an ancient navigation school, where adepts would spend time learning their art with master navigator/teachers.

On December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, Kaho‘olawe was commandeered by the US Navy, in the interests of national security, to be used for ordnance training and practice. Kaho‘olawe was to be bombed, shelled, strafed, and used for all types of weapons training for nearly 50 years. In recent decades, all twelve Rim PAC nations were invited to use Kaho‘olawe for ordnance training during their annual exercises. Thousands, if not millions, of shells and other explosives, weighing up to 500 pounds each, were detonated on the island, and in the surrounding waters. To this day, live ordnance remains a danger over the entire island with many bombs buried up to 18 feet underground, making any occupation of the terrain extremely hazardous.

In the early 1970’s, a group of young Hawaiian activists made a series of illegal accesses to the island, resulting in increased public pressure on the US Government to stop the bombing. The Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana was formed to exert political pressure on the Navy to protect the valuable archeological resources of the island, and to allow the use of Kaho‘olawe by the Hawaiian community for its traditional cultural and religious ceremonies, and for revegetation efforts. In 1980, a Consent Decree was signed with the US Government, authorizing an island-wide survey of its archeological resources and providing access to Kaho‘olawe for the educational and cultural activities of the ‘Ohana for a limited period each month.

In 1990, President Bush signed an Executive Order calling an immediate cease to the bombing, and the US Congress appropriated 400 million in funds to remove surface ordnance and clean the island. The clean-up will take at least ten years , and despite these efforts, the island will never be safe for human habitation. Future use of Kaho‘olawe is uncertain. The island will likely serve as a cultural reserve and be held in trust until such time that a sovereign Hawaiian nation is established and recognized. In May 1994, Kaho‘olawe was finally returned to the State of Hawai‘i in a moving beach-side ceremony on Maui, overlooking the former target isle. In recent months, revegetation efforts and ordnance removal has begun.

The most ancient name of Kaho‘olawe is Ka Mokopuni O Kanaloa, the island of Kanaloa, the god of the sea, representing the many life forms that nourish and sustain life. The island offers great contrasts, between the ancient cultural sites and modern man’s weapons of death and destruction. Through it all, Kaho‘olawe’s power to sustain its people remains intact, and it now serves as a “place of refuge and cultural rebirth” . The struggle for the return of Kaho‘olawe and the recent interest in Pacific voyaging are widely believed to be the seminal forces in the revitalization of the Hawaiian culture today, and represent a significant step toward Hawaiian sovereignty.

In 1993, three Hawaii-based photographers and an archaeologist/guide were commissioned to photograph on Kaho‘olawe for the book, Kaho‘olawe: Na Leo o Kanaloa, and traveling exhibition, Kaho‘olawe: Ke Aloha Kupa‘a I Ka ‘Aina (steadfast love of the land). We were asked only to experience the island, spend time within its shores, explore its different sides, participate in the activities of both the ‘Ohana and the US military explosive ordnance teams, and to generate visual images in accord with our own observations. We were given a rare opportunity — and a great responsibility. For the entire photographic team, the project proceeded as a collaborative effort involving many members of our island community and assumed the character of a profound learning experience. Due to its continuing danger, relatively few people will have the opportunity to visit the wealth of resources that Kaho‘olawe offers. It is our kuleana (privilege, concern, responsibility) that something of the island will be translated to others through our eyes.

David Ulrich
October 1995