Urban Archaeology of Honolulu, Part II

A quick tour through the highs and lows of post-World War II Honolulu planning.

As World War II wound down in late 1944, Hawaii Gov. Ingram Stainback, responding to the wartime housing shortage, released a report assessing the need: 56,000 Hawaii residents lacked adequate housing, 30,500 new private dwellings were needed, but only 780 units were planned. Things got so bad in Honolulu that Thomas Square, Kapiolani Park and two private golf courses were considered as sites for emergency housing.

Meanwhile, the city squabbled with the territorial government over highways to the Windward Side, with Honolulu Mayor Johnny Wilson preferring a tunnel route up Kalihi valley, and the Territorial government, armed with federal funds, preferring to tunnel and improve the old Pali highway through Nuuanu. This argument lasted until both tunnels and two modern highways were built in the late 1950s.

The tunnel arguments merged into another city/state standoff, this one over the so-called mauka arterial. The city wanted four lanes, the state six. The six-lane mauka arterial was carved through downtown in 1953; with statehood, it became H-1, aka the Lunalilo Freeway.

The makai arterial, Nimitz Highway-to-Ala Moana Boulevard, was completed in the mid-’50s.

“Room for development” reads the caption on this 1952 Honolulu Star-Bulletin photograph, now in the collection of the Hawaiian Historical Society. Taken near Piikoi Street looking makai toward the recently completed Hawaiian Life Insurance building on Kapiolani Boulevard. Courtesy Hawaiian Historical Society

As of 1955, Honolulu’s population was 353,000. The City and County of Honolulu employed 4,157 with an annual budget of $25 million. Civil service workers had become their own political interest group, as UH historian Donald Johnson pointed out in his thorough history, The City and County of Honolulu: A Governmental Chronicle, in 1991.

Housing tracts bloomed deep in the valleys and up the ridges and on the windward side, creating an insatiable demand for stretched-thin city services, while multi-unit walk-ups — or “motel housing” — spread across central Honolulu, still technically a garden city.

A Standard Oil refinery proposed for Honolulu harbor atop Sand Island illustrates the comparative governmental brutishness of the time. Republican Mayor Neal Blaisdell, in office from 1955 to 1969, supported the plan, which, astoundingly, cleared the City Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. But the community rose up, and debate raged for three years. Lewis Mumford, author of the 1938 critique called “Whither Honolulu,” wrote from New York that Oahu residents ought to have their heads examined if they allowed such a thing, while Democratic mayoral candidate Frank Fasi made a name for himself opposing it. Finally, in 1957, Standard Oil decided to locate its $40 million refinery far off to the west, way downwind of town, at Campbell Estate’s new industrial park in Kalaeloa.

Powerful residents again rose up when high-rise hotels threatened to march nearly to the Diamond Head lighthouse. And again they prevailed.

Public concerns about air pollution, slum clearance, traffic, sewage and chaotic planning led Oahu voters to approve a new City Charter in 1959. The charter created a four-year-term legislative City Council out of the old Board of Supervisors.

With statehood, Elvis and five-hour jet service from the West Coast, Waikiki — and Honolulu — was ready to soar.

Quickly and without much deliberation, the newly constituted council approved Waikiki’s first true skyscraper, hotelier/architect Roy Kelley’s 23-story Reef Towers on Lewers Street. Other towers followed, prompting concerns about “concrete canyons” in Waikiki. “The sky’s the limit,” observed skeptical editorialists at the Honolulu Advertiser, catching the zeitgeist. With statehood, Elvis and five-hour jet service from the West Coast, Waikiki — and Honolulu — was ready to soar.

The new charter also called for a general planning document for all Oahu, finally adopted as the Oahu General Plan in 1964, after a court order forced the city to act. Quickly cobbled together out of 55 regional plans by the administration of pro-growth Mayor Blaisdell,  the plan was criticized for codifying the “spot zoning” so typical of Honolulu governance. It included outlandish ideas like a string of artificial parklands built on reefs, a deep-draft harbor and power plant at Kahaluu, and 350-foot height allowances all over the island.

To combat the city’s worsening traffic, Blaisdell began to look beyond the already deployed tactics of street-widening, one-way streets, more parking lots, etc. Talk about mass transit began in the mid-’60s, about a transit line running from Pearl Harbor to Waialae and beyond, as suggested in the Oahu Transportation Study.

Weak and uneven enforcement of the city’s patchwork of building and zoning codes led to widespread abuse. Mayoral candidate Fasi decried corruption among bureaucrats, “pay-to-play” entered the lexicon and the city carried on with no major prosecutions of anyone.

Blaisdell’s mayoralty was capped by passage of the Comprehensive Zoning Code of 1968, a good example of what is called Euclidean, or single-use zoning, wherein different land uses are separated from each other, and grouped together by use. The CZC and its successor, the Land Use Ordinance, are why there are still no supermarkets near that big pile of residential towers at Kapiolani and Date, and why suburban Hawaii Kai, Mililani and Kapolei make no effort to promote walkability. Like Los Angeles, Honolulu’s genetic mother ship, the automobile ruled — and rules — the place.

Right before the CZC was enacted, developers and individual landowners, anticipating new restrictions on what they could build, made a mad dash to secure building permits. This explains the haphazardness of high-rise/low-rise neighborhoods in Moiliili, Makiki, Punchbowl, the Kinau corridor and Waikiki.

The “makai arterial” takes shape in 1951 as old harborfront Queen Street is transformed into Ala Moana Boulevard. Courtesy Hawaiian Historical Society

Fasi, a brash renegade in Hawaii politics, served Honolulu as mayor for 22 years in two separate stints: 1969 to 1981 and 1985 to 1994. As much as he presided over the two biggest building booms Honolulu had ever seen, in the late-‘60s/early-‘70s and in the late-‘80s, he had a big impact. He got the windward wetlands of Kawainui and Heeia protected from the feverish imaginings of the ’64 General Plan and cancelled the industrial designs on Kahaluu. He built the controversial, 900-unit Kukui Gardens affordable rental complex downtown.

Revisions to the city’s charter under Fasi carved Oahu into eight districts with each district having its own “development plan.” Localized zoning and subdivision laws had to comport with a district’s development plan, just as a development plan has to comport with broad policy objectives laid down in the general plan. To this day, public review and revision of the development plans, now called “sustainable community plans,” are subject to seemingly constant tactical battle; exemptions are the rule rather than the exception.

Additionally, Fasi designated six special districts within Honolulu requiring special care and special rules: Chinatown, the Capitol District, Punchbowl, Thomas Square, Waikiki and Diamond Head. The goal was to set building height limits to protect view planes, protect historic sites and establish streetscape and architectural guidelines that will preserve the inherent qualities of the districts.

The ramshackle warehouse/residential quarter at Kakaako was an unimproved hole in the middle of Honolulu that was slated to get special-district status during Fasi’s tenure. A city ordinance was enacted calling for thousands of housing units, low-rise and high-rise, with about 80 percent of the district’s sprawling acreage to be somehow reserved for low-, moderate-, and middle-income households in a mixed-use plan. But in 1976, the state abruptly stepped in and transferred Kakaako planning and development over to the state’s own newly formed agency, the Hawaii Community Development Authority, and we now have what we now have.

In 1977, the city designated the Ewa Plain as the site of Oahu’s “second city” on lands owned by Campbell Estate, which finally broke ground as the City of Kapolei in 1990. The land trust was required by law to liquidate in 2007.

Mayor Frank Fasi designated six special districts within Honolulu requiring special care and special rules: Chinatown, the Capitol District, Punchbowl, Thomas Square, Waikiki and Diamond Head.

Another successful grassroots revolt, this one led by bodysurfers and housewives, occurred in the 1980s at Oahu’s southeastern corner, where landowner Bishop Estate had city-backed plans to build a resort and suburbs along what has become known as the Ka Iwi coast, now beloved for its wildness.

Fasi’s managing director, Jeremy Harris, a former Kauai County councilman, automatically became mayor when Fasi resigned to run unsuccessfully for governor in 1994. Subsequently elected mayor three times, Harris became a lightning rod for public frustration about mismanagement in city government.

Plagued by scandal early in his term and mercilessly teased for his attempts to prettify Waikiki by widening sidewalks, installing vintage-looking street lamps, and sprinkling the area with bronze sculptures picked from a catalogue, Harris nevertheless had some good ideas and a messianic zeal for his city that he pulled together under a process he called “envisioning.”

His administration imposed “urban growth boundaries” to stop sprawl and protect most agricultural lands — except for those that had already been indicated for future development by landowners. Harris led the ongoing efforts to revitalize Chinatown and pushed for more “mixed-use” zoning.

About a thousand people showed up on a Saturday night in November 1998 at the new Hawaii Convention Center for Harris’ open-call conference called “21st Century Oahu: A Shared Vision for the Future.” The turnout alone was remarkable, showing that Oahu residents actually cared about planning their city. Out of the conference 19 volunteer “visioning groups” were spawned around the island. City planners asked them to come up with local improvement projects that might help enhance their communities — and awarded them each $2 million from city capital improvement funds to pay for them.

Initial results — new canoe halau, new signage, beautified community gateways, a string of coconut trees planted all along the Waianae coast — were cosmetic if not transformative, and some community activists resented the additional work, the endless meetings and the overlap with the existing Neighborhood Board system. Harris’ ambitiously planned and finely detailed, mid-density, mixed-use ideas for the central King/Young/Beretania spine of central Honolulu — to be served by a bus rapid transit (BRT) system he proposed — ran up against the dense checkerboard of private ownership and feisty homeowners in the area and went nowhere. (The majority of Honolulu house lots are very small, under 10,000 square feet.)

The reign of Mayor Mufi Hannemann (2005 to 2010) and his successors — Peter Carlisle in 2010 and Kirk Caldwell (2013 to present) — has been chiefly marked by an effort finally to bring mass transit to south Oahu in the form of heavy elevated rail.  The project has sucked all the air out of the planning room as the city pursues transit-oriented development, diverting most planning and development energies into the installation of a wholly new linear city composed of high-density nodes at key station stops along HART’s 20-mile route from Ala Moana Center out to open fields east of downtown Kapolei.

It’s a completely new paradigm.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Kirk Caldwell took office in 2010. In fact, Peter Carlisle was mayor from 2010 until defeated by Caldwell in the 2012 election.

About the Author

  • Curt Sanburn
    Journalist Curt Sanburn has written about Hawaii affairs for over 20 years. Raised in Honolulu, the Iolani School grad (’73) lives near Land’s End in San Francisco but returns to his home state frequently.

The Urban Archaeology of Honolulu

To understand where Honolulu is going, it’s helpful to understand where it’s been — and what its chronic problems look like.

In the early part of the 20th century the seaport of Honolulu, capital of the American Territory of Hawaii, Queen of the Pacific, was more substantial than a town — but less so than a city.

Lewis Mumford, the architecture critic for New Yorker magazine, was unimpressed. After a visit in 1938, the 41-year-old, who went on to become an internationally known cultural critic, ascribed no rhyme or reason to Honolulu. Its arrangement of streets and houses was “higgledy-piggledy” while its growth pattern was “spotty and erratic,” he wrote.

Picture it: Just after World War I, downtown Honolulu and Chinatown bustled next to the steamship-clogged harbor where sugar and pineapple were shipped off to the mainland, swapped for lumber, machinery and everything else the Territory needed. Nuuanu stream was an open sewer, and outward urbanization was an unsupervised and unplanned free-for-all; Honolulu home rule, in the form of a city/county government and a mayor, was just a decade old.

Queen Street, 1920s
On the waterfront: Queen Street (now Nimitz) at Nuuanu Avenue, 1920s. Courtesy Hawaiian Historical Society

Stream-fed and tidal wetlands dominated much of the lowland plain between Punchbowl and Diamond Head. The only public parks of any note were Aala and Kapiolani, and Thomas Square. The elite sought out the cool mauka comforts of Nuuanu, Makiki and College Hill, while poor farmers crowded into Kapalama and Kalihi. Middle-class subdivisions were popping up in the Pawaa, Sheridan and McCully tracts along the high ground of King and Beretania streets, serviced by electric trolley cars of the Honolulu Rapid Transit company.

The old royal estates at Waikiki were subdivided into cottages and small hotels. Many Hawaiians huddled in Kakaako. In the far-off east, a sprawling grid of streets and small residential lots, slowly filling with houses, stretched from Kapahulu up and over Kaimuki’s hump all the way to Waialae, while a few villas clung to Diamond Head.

Anticipating the eventual completion of the wetland-draining Ala Wai Canal in 1928, the advisory City Planning Commission mapped out a wide boulevard looping from downtown southeast across the vacant lowlands to the intersection of Kapahulu Avenue and Waialae Road. Suggestions for the roadway’s name included “Missionary Highway” and Kapiolani Boulevard, according to historian Donald Johnson in his panoramic history, The City & County of Honolulu: A Governmental Chronicle (1991).

Along with the new roadway, the commission mapped in most of central Honolulu with neighborhoods hewing to regular gridded street patterns. The map included a new waterfront park, Ala Moana, to replace the scrappy shore between Waikiki and Kewalo Basin and opened in 1934. Another park was sketched in for the mauka side of the Ala Wai Canal. The map was approved by the Honolulu Board of Supervisors in 1923. Still, speculators and landowners, particularly the big land trusts, made a mockery of the city’s unenforceable best-laid plans: streets were often narrowed and bereft of sidewalks or drainage. When storms hit, many low-lying neighborhoods became mud puddles.

The global depression of 1929 put the brakes on the Territory’s economic growth and quickened the population drift from the fields into town. As in the plantation camps, city neighborhoods defined themselves ethnically, and housing often mimicked familiar plantation cabins. A homeless encampment at Kewalo Basin was called “Squattersville”; a tourism executive suggested it be turned into a tourist attraction, a “typical Hawaiian village.”

The later 1920s and 1930s saw several prestige building projects completed — Aloha Tower, the U.S. Post Office and Federal Building, Honolulu Hale, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the Alexander & Baldwin, Dillingham and Theo H. Davies headquarters downtown; the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki; a Beaux-Arts quadrangle at the University of Hawaii; and McKinley, Roosevelt and Farrington high schools.

Horseback riders of the Honolulu Hunt Club on a riding course along the Ala Wai Canal, circa 1930s. Hawaii State Archives

In 1938, the Honolulu Board of Parks invited Mumford to travel from New York to Honolulu to survey the burgeoning port and make recommendations. The critic wrote up his thoughts in the pamphlet “Whither Honolulu?” Packed with earnest, sometimes obvious bottom-line prescriptions, it remains a touchstone document in Honolulu’s urban archeology.

After praising Honolulu’s “unrivaled situation” and describing it as a “stage for a complex and beautiful human drama,” Mumford reassured his readers that one of the good things about “overgrown” Honolulu was that it had not gotten “out of hand.” Most of the city was made out of wood, he consoled, so it could be altered and modernized relatively easily. Faint praise.

Mumford forcefully condemned Honolulu’s lack of orientation toward the ocean and lack of public access to it. He blamed the city’s street layout — that hasn’t changed a whit since. He called out the city’s ineptitude for its failure to exploit the trade winds in both building siting and street layout, for the overcrowding in filthy slums in central areas, and for its “ill-kempt” development patterns.

“No systematic attempt has apparently been made, during the last 30 years, to correct the haphazard methods by which the land has been platted and connected together,” he wrote.

A true progressive, he defended the rational use of land-use police powers by a municipality: “The American city has ample constitutional means for controlling the density of population and extent of land coverage in the interest of public health and hygiene.”

But, then as now, variances and exemptions to feeble plans and land-use laws the government did manage to enact were the rule and not the exception. Corruption was pervasive. The Board of Supervisors (today’s City Council) was nicknamed the “Board of Subdividers,” much like today’s city Department of Planning and Permitting is sometimes called the Department of Permitting and Permitting.

Another parallel: Mumford bemoaned the “hideous bottle-neck of congestion” between east and west parts of the city whose cause he imputed to simple bad planning.

Analogizing Honolulu as a beautiful woman, Mumford observed that she “relies on her splendid face and body to distract attention from her disheveled hair, her dirty finger nails, or her torn skirt.”

One of Mumford’s most seriously wrong predictions in “Whither Honolulu?” was that the city’s population, which had more than quadrupled between 1900 and 1940 from 39,000 to 179,000, would start to stabilize, due, he argued, to the dampening effects of the economic depression, the looming threat of war, and advances in contraception. The stipulation justified his opposition to wasteful suburban sprawl and to the “reckless fantasies,” “makeshift planning,” “jerry building,” and “amateurish improvisation” that go with it.

Rather than sprawl, the city must renovate itself, Mumford urged, make itself “permanently attractive as a human home.” In defense of the rural Windward Side, Mumford opposed the much-dreamed-about Pali highway/tunnel project, which didn’t get going until the late 1950s in any case. In anticipation of tourism’s growth, he endorsed the idea of a regional planning authority.

And always, Mumford promoted parks as the “very spearhead of comprehensive urban planning.” Parks as district-defining greenbelts, parks as linear oases to revive the city’s abused and channelized streams. He advocated for playground parks, wild parks, primeval parks, formal-garden parks, “Oriental” parks. Parks are, he noted, great and healthy places for “amatory explorations for young lovers.”

Furthermore, he urged that allowances be made at some beaches for nude swimming, as in England. “One of greatest delights of bathing in the sea or the sun is the enjoyment of the untrammeled contact with these elemental forces.”

Diamond Head 1920s
Diamond Head from Round Top with College Hill in the foreground and the University of Hawaii campus in the middle, 1920s. Courtesy Hawaiian Historical Society

Mumford concluded his report with this: “Out of the shabbiness and messiness of the present city, a new order may emerge; and out of its natural charm, a maturer beauty — more deeply humanized, more friendly to human desire — may be constructed. Only two things are lacking: not the power of execution but the imagination to conceive and the courage to desire.”With the trauma of Pearl Harbor and World War II, Honolulu’s sloppiness got worse, not better. Oahu’s wartime population doubled. Then, in late ’45-early ’46, everyone just as quickly left, abandoning mountains of surplus. According to Johnson, the military released countless temporary buildings of all types for repurposing. With lumber and other materials scarce, “people bought them, moved them, and began using them for homes and storage facilities throughout the city,” Johnson wrote. The Territory packed Iolani Palace’s grounds with wartime sheds that, as offices, lasted through the 1950s. Quonset huts were ubiquitous on Oahu well into statehood as a kind of shabby chic…but then, Honolulu had always been a no-need kind of place.

In the similar, disapproving phrases of Mumford and Johnson — “lack of courage,” “lack of vision,” “amateurish improvisation,” “reckless fantasies,” “no great imagination,” “haphazard residential development,” “higgledy-piggledy” — we hear a few simple facts: the first edition of the Oahu General Plan wasn’t adopted until 1964, and the City and County of Honolulu did not have a comprehensive zoning code in effect until 1968.

About the Author

Curt SanburnJournalist Curt Sanburn has written about Hawaii affairs for over 20 years. Raised in Honolulu, the Iolani School grad (’73) lives near Land’s End in San Francisco but returns to his home state frequently.

Standing Up to the US Government

Today I received this mail from my Hawaiian friend Leon Siu, Minister of Foreigne Affairs, of the Hawaiian Kingdom, with three pdf as an attachment. These lines are so impressive that I want to share them with you. The perseverance, the peacefulness and the friendliness with which the Hawaiians fight for their right to become an independent state again is impressive. Hawaiian history is so exciting, compressed into such a short period of time, which also influenced world history. Be it in politics or in the technical future. Hawaii had electric lights and a telephone early on, where we still had candles and message runners in Europe and the USA. The history of Hawaii has fascinated me for 10 years and I am very interested in it. I go to some archives in Europe, the USA or even in Hawaii. I see a lot of documents, but so far I haven’t seen a single document where the Hawaii Kingdom has agreed to be part of the United States. I only see writings where they are constantly defending themselves, including writings from the USA itself, where it is described that what they have done is not correct and not legal. But the US has always shifted its border a little in its favor. It is obvious everywhere, only the other states are silent, because they could fall into the reprisals of the USA. I haven’t read everything yet, but a very exciting book that I found in Amsterdam is: „American Empire a global History“ by A.G. Hopkins, ISBN: 978-0-691-19687-9.

Read American Empire Online by A. G. Hopkins | Books

I don’t want to advertise books, but I find it very exciting and enriching. If you also look at the old PUCK drawings, you can see how Oncel Sam looked pretty good for himself, regardless of what the other states said or thought.

Back to my mail received today:

Aloha Friends,

Hope you are all faring well.  Our campaign to Free Hawaii is progressing very well. There is a lot of excitement and optimism as the campaign grows and people become more engaged with moving our nation forward.

You may find this of interest. It is just one of the many actions our people are pressing on a daily basis.

We knew that President Bidenʻs administration would be likely renew the Federal Governmentʻs efforts to scuttle our independence movement by “granting” “Federal Recognition” of Hawaiians as an indigenous American Indian tribe. Having successfully defeated Washingtonʻs many schemes to “tribalize” our people for more than 20 years, we began planning on how to do it once again.

Sure enough, two proposals were floated soon after Bidenʻs inauguration, but we were able to shoot them down. Then, with much fanfare, it was announced that US Representative Deb Haaland, a Native-American woman, would be the new US Secretary of the Interior. That is indeed good news and cause for celebration for Native Americans… but not so much for Hawaiians as there is a sinister scheme to try to subjugate us into US citizenship. However, we see this as a great opportunity to emphatically remind Washington and the world that WE ARE NOT AMERICANS… native or otherwise.

About three months ago, I asked the most senior elder/leader of the protectors of Mauna Kea if he would speak to the other elders (kupuna) about sending a letter warning Secretary Haaland (and others in Washington) not to even try to tribalize the Hawaiian people.

The elders came through with not just a letter to Secretary Haaland (ccʻd to many US leaders), but a great press release and a story in Indian Country Today… all coordinated to “drop” on the same day. PDFs of the three items are attached.

A hui hou, Leon

PDF – 1

Debra Haaland
Secretary of the Interior
United States Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W. Washington D.C. 20240
Re: Native Hawaiian rights
March 15, 2021

Aloha Pumehana Secretary Haaland:
We send our deepest aloha and prayers for your success in your newly appointed position. The many tasks ahead for you will be challenging, so, we pray the mana (strength and power), hopes, and faith of your ancestors, and those of many Indigenous nations in North America and other parts of the world, go with you. Congratulations and blessings as you embark on a monumental, historic undertaking.
I am Kealoha Pisciotta, Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) cultural practitioner and spokesperson for three Hawaiian groups (Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, the Mauna Kea Hui and the Mauna Kea Aelike/Consensus Building Ohana) that stand for the protection of Mauna Kea, the Hawaiian people and our culture. Although the work many of us do is regarded primarily as traditional and cultural, in Hawaii, protection of sacred sites and practice of traditional ways overlap with our struggle to survive. And by necessity, our work is also political, because the matter of Hawaiian sovereignty is central to that struggle.
It is in this capacity that I reach out to you. As you see, President Biden and others in his administration, the Hawaii congressional delegation, and the United Nations have been copied on this communication. I trust that you will receive this letter in the spirit it is intended, as it is in advance of you potentially enacting processes in the Department of Interior (DOI) regarding policies that impact Native Hawaiians. We believe that to be a precarious venture at best and a continuation of the long litany of U.S. violations against Native Hawaiians and our country.
The groups I am speaking on behalf of, and many Hawaiians who are not affiliated directly with specific Hawaiian groups or organizations, are aware of Congressmen Ed Case and Kai Kahele’s intention to seek reparations for the Hawaiian people. We are also concerned that there may be another attempt to create a Native Hawaiian federal entity similar to the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization legislation, known as the Akaka Bill. So, it is incumbent upon us to seek intervention in order to protect our rights and offer you at least a modicum of historical and cultural knowledge about us and our struggle for sovereignty. We have considered the possibility that our actual history, our truth as a people and a nation, has been excluded from what you have been told. If that is incorrect, and you are cognizant of all that is contained herein, I apologize for the presumption. However, we thought it best to err on the side of caution because of our nearly 130-year long experience with the United States government.

Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻaina i ka pono means the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. That is the motto our ali‘i (king) uttered as both a divine prayer and a decree, at a time when more than 90% of our people were being killed off by Western diseases. Every Hawaiian living today is a descendant of the 40,000 who survived the massive changes and varying forms of colonial violence during the 19th century, including the U.S. backed overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and the Hawaiian Kingdom’s government, and the U.S. takeover and occupation of our country that began in 1898. The theft of our land and sovereignty has been ceaseless since 1893, and has come to include mass desecrations of our burials and sacred sites.
We write to you, not just because you are the Secretary of the Department of Interior, but because you are an Indigenous woman from a community with firsthand knowledge of devastating acts perpetrated against Native peoples by the United States.
What follows here is a partial list of acts committed against the Hawaiian people, with the intention of either dispossessing us and extinguishing our sovereign rights, or covering up the theft of those rights. We offer it here so that you have the Indigenous, cultural Hawaiian and national Hawaiian experience of our history and what has brought us to where we are today.
1893 – U.S. backed overthrow
1895 – Hawaiian language banned from schools and government buildings
1898 – U.S. annexation
1959 – “Statehood” vote and Admissions Act *1
1978 – Creation of Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA)
1993 – Apology Resolution
2000 – Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act (Akaka Bill)
Secretary Haaland, the suffering of Native Hawaiians, which includes shorter lifespans, terrible health and education statistics, a 50% diaspora, an outrageously disproportionate number of incarcerated and impoverished, all of these have been used against us. Whether by state or federally employed Hawaiians or non-Hawaiians, the dire circumstances endured by Hawaiians because of the settler-colonial reality we exist in has been promoted as a reason to create a formal federal entity. But the harm done to us is because of the theft of our rights, which began with the overthrow, a crime the United States admitted to in the 1993 Apology Bill.
We, the Hawaiian people, have never relinquished our claims to our land, our nationhood and our right to live, die and be buried in our homeland. We have, in fact, protested against the American takeover since before it was formalized; one of the clearest examples of our ongoing resistance is the 1897 Ku‘e Petitions signed by more than 90% of our population. Yet, our rights are violated daily, our graves and sacred sites are destroyed, our culture and land are exploited for profit; every large industry in Hawaii is here at our expense, while we are forced out.

*1 Both the Apology Resolution (Public Law 103-150) and the Admissions Act of 1959 (Public Law 86-3) are admissions against interest or to put another way these U.S. documents continue to affirm (1) that Native Hawaiians never relinquished our title and claims to our lands as Subjects of the Hawaiian Kingdom and (2) that the Admissions Act affirm that the title to our land is only held in trust by the State of Hawaii for the purposes of the BETTERMENT OF THE CONDITIONS OF NATIVE HAWAIIANS and the General Public. This means Native Hawaiians continue to be the right holders of all the lands of Hawaii.

You may recall the mass protests that took place in recent years for the protection of our most sacred site, Mauna Kea, from the astronomy industry, specifically the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Secretary Haaland, there are hundreds of instances just during the 21st century, wherein Hawaiians have had to fight in and out of U.S. courts to protect our culture and our rights.
We urge you to take a much needed and long overdue closer look at the Hawaiian reality. During the 2014 DOI hearings in Hawaii, thousands of Hawaiians testified in person and were opposed to becoming a tribe, like our kupuna who signed the 1897 petitions were opposed to becoming American. Our real history is not what is portrayed by the United States government and media. We are a people who have always protested the U.S. occupation of our country. And we have the right to self-determination as an Indigenous people and as the heirs to the nation that was wrongfully taken over by the United States.
We, the Hawaiian people, have never consented to the U.S. occupation of our beloved country.
Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻaina i ka pono was appropriated by the so-called State of Hawaii, along with our land and culture. But that does not change the meaning of it. The ʻaina isn’t just land, it is that from which we Hawaiians are born, it is that which feeds us, it is that which we will return to when we walk on to the afterlife. The land is our sanctuary, our source of life. We are the land, and the land is us.
Secretary Haaland, I thank you very much for your time and attention to this critical issue in this most critical time in our history. An electronic copy of this letter has been sent to your office so that the hyperlinks are easily accessible; all associated web addresses are listed below. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly with any questions. I am willing and grateful to be of service in helping you understand the plight of Hawaii and her Native people.
In Aloha We Remain,
Kealoha Pisciotta
On behalf of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, The Mauna Kea Hui and Mauna Kea Aelike/Consensus Building Ohana

  • President Joseph Biden
    The White House
  • Ilze Brands Kehris
    Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
    OHCHR in New York
    UN Headquarters
  • Antony Blinken
    Secretary of State
    United States Department of State
  • Merrick Garland
    Attorney General
  • Senator Brian Schatz
  • Senator Mazie Hirono
  • Congressman Ed CaseCongressman Kai KaheleGovernor David Ige
  • Scott K. Saiki
    Speaker of the House
  • Ronald D. Kouchi
    President Hawai’i Senate
  • Carmen Hulu Lindsey
    Chair, Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Web addresses for hyperlinks referenced above in the letter:
U.S. backed overthrow:

Hawaiian language banned from schools and government buildings:

U.S. annexation:

“Statehood” vote and Admissions Act:

Creation of Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA):

Apology Resolution:

Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act (Akaka Bill):

1897 Ku‘e Petitions:

Hawaiian burials:

Exploitation of Hawaiian land and culture:

Mass protests:

Mauna Kea:

Thirty Meter Telescope:

Response from United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) verifying Hawaiian allegations:

2014 DOI Hearings in Hawaii:

United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

U.S. occupation of the Hawaiian Kingdom:

Testimonies to the U.S. Department of Interior Eerily Similar to Voices of the Past


DATE: March 16, 2021

Hawaiian cultural practitioners, community leaders and activists who speak for Hawaiian rights and the protection of Mauna Kea, send letter to Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, in advance of a congressional proposal for Hawaiian reparations.
Media Contact: Jazzmin Cabanilla
Email: kekaiolena@gmail.com

In a letter to Secretary Haaland, Kealoha Pisciotta, a cultural practitioner who, for more than two decades, has led efforts to stop new construction of telescopes on Mauna Kea, congratulated Haaland for her historic role at the Department of Interior. The letter also addressed Hawaiian trepidations over federal legislation to be proposed regarding the Hawaiian people. Issues raised stem from reports in the press that Congressman Kai Kahele, along with Congressman Ed Case, plan to seek reparations for Native Hawaiians. Many, including Pisciotta, view this move as another way to enact legislation similar to the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, known as the Akaka Bill.
Written on behalf of several Hawaiian rights groups, Mauna Kea Moku Nui ‚Aelike/Consensus Building ‚Ohana, Mauna Kea Anainahou, and the Mauna Kea Hui, the 6-page long letter calls upon Haaland to take a deeper look at the Hawaiian people’s history.
It states, “The theft of our land and sovereignty has been ceaseless since 1893,” and includes a list of historical events that have been detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the Hawaiian people, starting with the U.S. backed overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The list also includes the 1959 “statehood” vote and the 1993 Apology Resolution, and mentions the Obama Administration’s 2014 DOI hearings in Hawai‘i, when “thousands of Hawaiians testified in person and were opposed to becoming a tribe, like our kupuna who signed the 1897 petitions were opposed to becoming American.” The Kūʻē Petitions were signed by more than 90% of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s citizenry, and successfully helped Hawaiian advocates in Washington, DC stop the second attempt to pass a Treaty of Annexation through the U.S. congress.
Ku Ching, a Hawaiian kupuna, lawyer, and longtime activist, who is also a member of the Mauna Kea Moku Nui ‘Aelike/ Consensus Building Ohana, was asked why the petitions matter. He said, “Hawaiians never agreed to be part of the United States or become American citizens. The Hawaiian Kingdom was an internationally recognized nation on par with the U.S. Although the U.S. took control of our country in 1898, they did that against the will of the people. Those petitions are proof of that. There never was a Treaty of Annexation, and under international law, that means Hawai‘i remains an independent nation that is illegally occupied by a foreign power.”
Hawaiian challenges to U.S. claims of jurisdiction over Hawai‘i date back to when the U.S. took control, but have been taken to the United Nations and The Hague in recent decades. And the question of whether or not Hawai‘i is an occupied State or part of the U.S. has been a main component of the sovereignty movement during the 21st century. It is a serious issue for Native Hawaiians, who face federal and state attempts to erode their rights and find themselves embroiled in political and legal battles over the Crown and Government lands of the kingdom. Many of the sacred sites that people, like Pisciotta, spend their lives protecting, such as Mauna Kea, are part of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s Crown and Government lands.
When Pisciotta was asked why she thought sending a letter to Haaland now, instead of after Kahele and others propose legislation, she answered, “If it were only that simple. But it is anything but [simple] because
Hawaiians are inundated with state and federal attacks on our sovereign rights as a Native people, and as a nation, with every successive administration. And Kai [Kahele] isn’t in Washington, DC, to represent the lahui (Hawaiian Nation). He is there as an American who is of Hawaiian ancestry, not as a Hawaiian national. Our rights to self-determination are directly related to our rights to be our own nation. We are Indigenous, yes, but we are also descendants of kingdom citizens. Congressman Kahele swore an oath to the U.S. constitution, not the Hawaiian Kingdom. But more than that, so many generations of Hawaiians have spent their lives fighting, whether to protect our sacred sites or to stop the American government from enacting legislation aimed at dissolving our aboriginal title to our land base. So, the groups I am speaking for thought it best to be proactive rather than reactive. We know what is coming because Congressmen Case and Kahele said as much in the press.”
Pisciotta’s sense of urgency echoes an attitude that is prevalent among many Hawaiian activists. After years of protests and court battles to stop the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) from being built on Mauna Kea, Hawaiians are weary of the government’s refusal to acknowledge their rights. Citing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Pisciotta said, “The United States is a signatory on the UNDRIP. The U.S. also knows that it has no provable legal jurisdiction over Hawai‘i or the Hawaiian people, because if that country did have jurisdiction it would provide us with a copy of documentation proving it. Now is the time for Hawaiian rights to be acknowledged and respected, not covered up with more federal and state so-called legal machinations, like the fake annexation. Hawaiians cannot afford to wait and see what the United States is going to do. We need to decide what is best for us. It is our deepest, most humble hope that because Deb Haaland is a Native woman, she is willing to hear the truth about what has happened to Hawai‘i and the Hawaiian people.”

For more information go to:

Mauna Kea Anaina Hou:

‚Aelike/Consensus Building Ohana:
https://www.facebook.com/protectmaunakea/posts/d41d8cd9/3284922808243476/ Mauna Kea



For stories of people, places and events of interest in Indian Country – California Valley Miwok Tribe

Native Hawaiians to Deb Haaland: 'We're not Native Americans' - Indian Country Today
Honolulu march against TMT – July 21, 2019 – photo credit Laulani Teale
Native Hawaiians to Deb Haaland: ‚We’re
not Native Americans‘

As Native Hawaiian people, ‚We are the navigators‘
Anne Keala Kelly
Apr 12, 2021

“Aloha Secretary Haaland, and congratulations on your historic, groundbreaking position at the
Department of Interior as the first Native American to hold a cabinet seat. Now that we have
dispensed with the pleasantries, allow me to introduce myself. I am Kanaka Maoli, and I’m
writing to remind you that the United States of America has been holding the Hawaiian Nation
hostage for over a century. So, please don’t explore ways to further the cover-up by paying us off
or racializing us into becoming a tribe. We want to exercise our rights through selfdetermination,
not American pre-determination.”
Okay, that isn’t how Hawaiian activist, Kealoha Pisciotta, actually worded her letter to the new
head of the Department of Interior. But that might be how it came across when Haaland finished
reading it.

Native Hawaiians to Deb Haaland: 'We're not Native Americans' - Indian Country Today
Kealoha Pisciotta on Mauna Kea

My irreverent humor aside, Pisciotta’s letter is an important communication for Haaland to
receive for some really good reasons, one being that it advocates for Hawaiian rights, something
that has been denied us since the U.S. takeover. Another is that it came from a Hawaiian leader
who is not employed by the state or federal government. There is a line between Natives who
work for the government and those who do not.
Haaland is on the other side of that line, and boy does she have her work cut out for her.
She now runs an agency that is one-part protection, and three parts exploitation and destruction.
The DOI has been the delivery system for some really nasty laws and policies that have been
anti-Native and anti-Mother Earth.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (previously known as Office of Indian Affairs, that was originally
part of the War Department), the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy
Management and nine other land and resource-related bureaus are DOI’s responsibility. Most
federal leasing of land and water for extraction by the energy industry is through the DOI. And
now that Americans are ravenous for green-renewable energy, lithium is the new gold and
mining is a priority. Elon Musk and other billionaires are enormously grateful, but I digress.
Many Natives, myself included, hope that Haaland, being a Native woman, can take some of the
edge off that bloody blade white people have been carving up Turtle Island with since the
Mayflower docked.
But Hawaiians, as a people, need to keep expectations real. Deb Haaland is eighth in line to the
oval. She is a key player in the American business of government, not the Hawaiian struggle for
self-determination, which is the focus of Pisciotta’s letter.
Sent to Haaland on behalf of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, the Mauna Kea Hui and the Mauna Kea
‘Aelike/Consensus Building Ohana, three groups composed of cultural practitioners and
activists, Pisciotta also cc’d some heavies in the letter. At the top of that list are President Biden
and the UN’s Secretary-General. Talk about putting it out there.

Native Hawaiians to Deb Haaland: 'We're not Native Americans' - Indian Country Today
Kealoha Pisciotta delivering petition against the TMT; more than half a million people have signed it; (Photo: Laulani Teale)

The letter highlights some often-cited historical wrongs committed by the U.S. against
Hawaiians, starting with the U.S. military coup of 1893 that ousted Queen Liliuokalani.
Then it winds its way to, “You may recall the mass protests that have taken place in recent
years.” And don’t forget the 2014 DOI hearings when “thousands of Hawaiians testified in
person and were opposed to becoming a tribe, like our kupuna who signed the 1897 [Ku‘e]
petitions were opposed to becoming American.”
To further emphasize what the U.S. pretends not to know, Pisciotta added a truth-bomb cherry to
that sundae, with “We, the Hawaiian people, have never consented to the U.S. occupation of our
beloved country.”
But Pisciotta’s motivation for presenting Haaland with the skinny version of “Hawaiian
Sovereignty 101” is as important as the letter’s content. She wrote it because Congressman Kai
Kahele, who was sworn into office with his hand on Senator Akaka’s bible, said that he and
Congressman Ed Case will push for reparations.
One can only speculate how absurd the dollar amount will be when geniuses in DC calculate
“fair” compensation for the theft of our nation-state, our land, our rights and our dignity. And
any deal would reanimate the Akaka Bill or manufacture something else like it, resulting in
pseudo federal recognition of Hawaiians, and more false justification for keeping the Hawaiian
nation in chains.
Although reparations aren’t the same as a lawsuit, the idea of paying off Hawaiians brings to
mind the pitiful settlement from Eloise Cobell’s monumental case against the DOI.
When it comes to Indigenous peoples, the American tradition has been to withhold as much
justice as possible, and then lie about it. With regard to Hawaiians, the goal of the U.S. hasn’t
changed one iota since the first criminal act it perpetrated in 1893. And it is not likely to change
now because a new Hawaiian is in congress or a Laguna-Pueblo is running the DOI.
Pisciotta and others are standing at the frontline in advance of another attempt by the U.S. to
extend generations of injustice into an eternity of injustice.
Collectively, as a force of one, those Hawaiians are proof that we don’t have to wait for, and then
react to, the American agenda.
We can assess the threat and acknowledge the urgency without waiting for validation from the
state or the media. We can practice self-determination now, use the wisdom of our experience
and take evasive action before the axe is swung.
Hawaiians have been on the receiving end of nearly 130 years of American aggression. There
have been some very dark times, and there will likely be more. But we have the mana of
ancestral memory to draw from. We can look at the horizon with eyes and minds that hold
generations of knowledge about the winds and the currents. Our people used to navigate by the
stars from the deck of a canoe in the middle of the largest ocean on earth with no canned food or
electronic gadgetry. And the darker the night the better they could see their way.
That’s us guys. We determine our own fate. We are the navigators.

anne keala kelly
By Anne Keala Kelly

Anne Keala Kelly is a filmmaker, journalist and writer. Her articles and op-eds have appeared in the
Honolulu Star-Advertiser, The Nation, Honolulu Weekly, Honolulu Civil Beat, Hana Hou! Magazine, Big
Island Journal, and Indian Country Today. Her broadcast journalism has aired on Free Speech Radio
News, Independent Native News, Al Jazeera English, The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Democracy Now!,
The Environment Report, and more. And her film, „Noho Hewa: The Wrongful Occupation of Hawai’i“
has received international film festival awards. (annekealakelly.com)