Lā 285: Curt Sanburn: A Story Too Important To Forget.... Forty years on, the saga of Kahoʻolawe highlights the long struggle to defend the Hawaiian way.

Honolulu Civil Beat  January 4, 2016 By Curt Sanburn

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Four decades ago, two young men from Molokai met history. One of them, George Helm, died heroically and became a Hawaiian martyr. The other, Walter Ritte, now 70, has been on the front line of Native Hawaiian activism ever since.

The compelling arc of the two men’s story aligns with the arc of recent Hawaiian political and cultural history. Both arcs continue today, stronger than ever.

Exactly 40 years ago, on Jan. 4, 1976, in the early morning hours, a small boat carrying seven men and two women slipped through a U.S. Coast Guard cordon and landed on the off-limits island of Kahoolawe, eight miles off the south Maui coast.

(Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind was one of the Kahoolawe Nine. Read his retrospective, “Kahoolawe 40 Years Later.”)

Their cause was to rescue the dry little island, huddled in the rain shadow of massive Haleakala, from the clutches of the U.S. Navy, which had been using it as a practice bombing range since 1941. The rescuers were deliberate trespassers on the profoundly disfigured “target isle” — and were summarily detained and escorted back to Maui by federal marshals.

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George Helm Jr. in 1973  Photograph by Ed Greevy

The news-making landing and arrests were the first of many such landings on Kahoolawe in quick succession, all of them guided by the basic Hawaiian concept of aloha aina (love for the land) and spearheaded by the then-newly formed Protect Kahoolawe Ohana.

Among the band of first trespassers were George Helm Jr., 25, and Walter Ritte Jr., then 30 years old.

The son of a Kalamaula homestead farmer, Helm was a musician and charismatic deep thinker who made aloha aina his credo. He once said that Kahoolawe was a symbol of the many wrongs afflicting Hawaiians, and that it could be a catalyst for solving them.

A year after that first landing on Kahoolawe, Helm would lose his life at sea along with kalo farmer/football player Kimo Mitchell of Maui, when the two men attempted a desperate rescue of comrades Ritte and Richard Sawyer of Oahu, who had gone missing on Kahoolawe during a daring, month-long, fourth trespass.

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Walter Ritte in 1977  Photograph by Ed Greevy

The drawn-out manhunt for Ritte and Sawyer provoked another round of daily headlines and intense, statewide debate about the treatment of Hawaiian lands and, by extension, treatment of the Hawaiian people themselves.

The martyrdom of Helm and Mitchell made the drama visceral. Books and songs were written in tribute to the two heroes lost at sea. After Helm’s death, this line was found in one of his many meticulous journals: “Faith is the bud that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”

After 35 days on the island, Ritte and Sawyer turned themselves in and spent six months in jail. They emerged as folk heroes.

The earnest, David-and-Goliath struggle of the PKO campaign brought the public around to Kahoolawe’s cause and finally, in 1993, convinced the U.S. government to stop the bombing and agree to transfer control of the long-suffering island back to the state.

I retell this story on this day because it’s too important to forget. The tale has too many vibrations, too many ramifications that continue to play out, even though the through-line is little understood by the casual observer.

The Kahoolawe saga not only girded the proud Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the late 20th century, but it also caused a wholesale political reconsideration of Hawaiians’ place in Hawaii, a reconsideration made into law in 1978 by the sweeping “Hawaiian package” of amendments to the state Constitution. The Hawaiian package now protects by law traditional religious, gathering and access rights, and enabled the creation the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency charged with bettering the conditions of Hawaiians and funded by a mandated 20-percent share of income from the state’s ceded land trust.

The amendments were hammered out during the 1978 State Constitutional Convention by, among others, future governor John Waihee, Adelaide “Frenchy” DeSoto, Mililani Trask, Winona Rubin, Francis Kauhane … and Walter Ritte. In November of that year, the amendments, approved by the convention, were submitted to state voters and ratified.

Brothers in arms, George Helm and Walter Ritte actually began their paths to leadership the year before Kahoolawe, when they organized a group called Hui Alaloa on their home island of Molokai. For the first time in Hawaii, they raised the issue of traditional Hawaiian access rights to fishing, hunting and gathering grounds across private lands. Scores of islanders ignored “No Trespassing” signs and marched. They negotiated, and they won when landowners relented and allowed limited access to whole coasts and forests that had been fenced and off limits for a century.

Ritte, a star athlete and 1963 graduate of Kamehameha Schools, hasn’t stopped since. After Kahoolawe and jail, he used his new-found notoriety to help draft and champion the Hawaiian package. Two years later, he was the top vote-getter when Hawaiian voters went to the polls to elect OHA’s first nine-member Board of Trustees. As a trustee, Ritte vociferously fought state legislators and then-Gov. George Ariyoshi to secure OHA’s rightful share of the ceded lands income. (It wasn’t until in 2011 that the state finally settled with the agency.)

Ritte made political enemies, and, after a firearms felony violation on Molokai and speedy conviction, the lifelong deer and pig hunter was forced out of his OHA trusteeship in 1984, amid charges that he was framed. Within months, the Hawaii Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but it was too late, and Ritte withdrew from statewide politics and returned to Molokai, where he raised four children with wife Loretta and threw himself into the monumental task of restoring some of the island’s ancient, stone-walled fishponds.

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Walter Ritte speaks to demontrators outside Governor Ige’s office at the Capitol. 21 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Native Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte has never quit working for Hawaiian rights. In April he demonstrated outside the governor’s office in protest of Nai Aupuni, a controversial process to organize a Hawaiian convention that is slated for February.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat

With a cadre of kupuna and young warriors, Ritte led Molokai’s successful efforts to defend its humble Hawaiian way against various developers and cruise ship operators. In 2008, he used Molokai’s stressed water resources to convince the state Land Use Commission to block a much-ballyhooed plan proposed by the island’s largest private landholder, the Singapore-owned, 65,000-acre Molokai Ranch, that included an ultra-luxury oceanfront subdivision at remote Laau point and expansion of its existing resort facilities.

Meanwhile, he mobilized young Hawaiian students to convince the University of Hawaii to release its patents on genetically modified strains of kalo, which it did.

“If you understand the Hawaiian point of view,” Ritte said at the time, “then maybe you will understand why life forms can’t be owned.”

Now a kupuna, Ritte is an advisor to a new generation of warriors, men and women who speak the Hawaiian language and know the history of what happened to the constitutional monarchy that was the Kingdom of Hawaii.

In a phone interview, Ritte likens the heated controversy over the Three Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea to the flashpoint that was Kahoolawe.

“TMT woke everybody up,” he says. “Next step, they’re going to have to reprocess their permits, and we made sure the process includes us, the Hawaiians, unlike last time, when we were ignored.”

“2015 was a good year for Hawaiians,” he says, listing the court rulings against TMT and against the Nai Aupuni process that would have subsumed, some say, the Hawaiian people into a federal tribal arrangement. He includes in his list Gov. David Ige’s high-pressure decision to reconsider and pick an actual land manager, Suzanne Case, to run the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

I ask Ritte what his next step is. “Nation building,” he says simply.

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Old military ordinance is on display at Honokanai’a base camp on Kahoolawe. Efforts are still ongoing to restore the island. PF Bentley/Civil Beat 2014

As much as the Hawaiian movement gets bogged down in divisive in-fighting, differences of opinion and strategy, and mind-numbing court cases, it’s not a sideshow, and it never has been. Straight through from Kahoolawe 40 years ago, there has been a consistent commitment to defending aloha aina and the Hawaiian way against all sorts of impositions. As they say, the arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.

The late Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. of Maui organized the first Kahoolawe landing. It was he who invited Helm and Ritte to come aboard because of their Hui Alaloa work on Molokai.

Speaking retrospectively about Kahoolawe to a reporter 10 years ago, Maxwell explained Hawaiian resolve this way: “We’re fighting an uphill battle, yet we always maintain that we are sovereign within. We own the land, not in a Western sense, but spiritually, culturally. The gods gave us the right to be here.”