WAIMANALO, Hawaii—From Honolulu, it takes an hour to drive here, heading north over dagger-like mountains and then east through rolling farm country to the outermost corner of the island known by some as the Hawaiians’ Hawaii.
Tour buses circling the island don’t stop here except to gas up.
Those who step off the bus won’t find hula dancers greeting them with leis, or five-star hotels, or even two-star ones. They’ll find a sleepy, rough-edged, working-class town of 10,000 people, some of whom don’t like tourists and don’t mind saying so.
“Haole, go home!” and variations of whites-aren’t-welcome are occasionally shouted from front porches as a reminder that this isn’t Waikiki. It’s a different world. Locals rule here.
Half the residents are native Hawaiians, and many more are part Hawaiian. This is a place where Hawaiian is taught as a first language in some schools and spoken among neighbors, a place where it is widely held that Hawaii was stolen by the United States and that someday these lands will return to the Kanaka Maoli, the ancient Polynesians who settled the islands.
Scattered throughout Waimanalo’s neighborhoods are state flags hanging upside-down, a symbol of defiance. In this corner of Oahu, Hawaiian sovereignty—a government of Hawaiians for Hawaiians—isn’t just a tropical dream. The people have seen a version of it materialize before their eyes.
In the foothills above town, there is a village unlike any other in Hawaii. It’s called Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo (“Refuge of Waimanalo”), a community of 80 native Hawaiians living communally on 45 acres. If Waimanalo is a stronghold of Hawaiian sovereignty, the village is its spiritual center.
Some people refer to it as “Bumpy’s town,” named after the 300-pound, tattooed, activist ex-con who negotiated the village into existence—wrangling with the state’s most powerful politicians—more than a decade ago.
Kanahele is a folk hero in these parts. He did what no other Hawaii activist had done: carved out a little kingdom within a kingdom, allowing natives to live by their own rules and revive the ways of the Kanaka Maoli. For many locals, the village represents the most tangible gain in more than 30 years of agitating for Hawaiian sovereignty.
The idea of sovereignty has become part of Hawaii’s mainstream consciousness, with the state’s most powerful political leaders—Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and Democratic Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka—supporting some version of it.
The U.S. Senate is considering a Hawaiian sovereignty law known as the Akaka bill, named after its chief sponsor and the first native Hawaiian in Congress. The bill, which has stalled in the Senate the past five years, was blocked again Wednesday by a Nevada senator concerned that it might encourage Hawaiians to build casinos. Both Hawaii senators said they had secured enough support to pass the bill if it ever made it to a vote. The House passed an earlier version.
By that time, Kanahele had a following, many of them friends from Waimanalo. In the spring of that year, he and about 50 protesters took over a former Coast Guard station and the surrounding 300 acres at Makapuu Lighthouse, the easternmost tip of Oahu. The acreage, owned by the state, was part of what Kanahele called “the stolen lands.”
Kanahele’s group occupied the site for two months. During one confrontation with police, Kanahele pulled out a shotgun. He was arrested and served 14 months in state prison. It turned out to be a fruitful time.
“Most of the people in there were brothers,” Kanahele said, fellow native Hawaiians “who were caught up.” He proselytized and recruited and, upon his release, had a new army of followers who eventually joined him.
In 1993, the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. takeover of the islands, Kanahele led 300 people in an occupation of Makapuu Beach, a short drive from Waimanalo.
News cameras captured images of Kanahele armed not with guns but copies of President Clinton’s newly signed “Apology Resolution,” which acknowledged the U.S. role in overthrowing the monarchy.
The political climate had shifted. John Waihee, then the state’s governor and the first of Hawaiian ancestry, had recently told constituents that sovereignty was only “a matter of how, when and in what form.”
Polls showed that three out of four Hawaiian residents supported sovereignty, and Kanahele—the most militant of the activists—gained a reputation as a thug-hero. Arresting him could have stirred the 40 other Hawaiian sovereignty groups to join the occupation.
Kanahele began building houses on the beach. After 15 months, Waihee finally intervened. The governor’s office proposed a deal: If Kanahele and his group vacated the beach peacefully, the state would give them a 45-acre parcel above Waimanalo in the foothills of the Koolau Mountains.