(Edited on July 10, 2014. I’ve put brackets around the information I added after the original posting, on July 2.)
On Sunday, June 22nd, we had a very special opportunity to learn about a contested place on the island of O’ahu, and meet the people who are helping to take care of it.
John Martin, a friend of David Soliday’s (see the acknowledgements! yay!) from seminary, invited us to join him and a group called Malama Makua (taking care of Makua) who visit a site called Makua Valley twice a month. Visiting Makua Valley gave me some insights about the matrix of interests who have a stake in what happens to land in Hawai’i, and why.
Let me give you a sense of what’s in that matrix:
— The U.S. military. The military owns the site, and uses it for training. As you can see in the photos, the hills around the valley are steep; the footing can be challenging, and some of the vegetation gives soldiers the experience of working in a semi-tropical environment. [Because the site belongs to the military, entry is restricted, and the grounds are enclosed by high fences. Security is tight.]
— The tourism industry. The valley is on the leeward side of the island, which means the weather is less rainy than the windward side, which translates into more sunny days for tourists. There are major highways that go to the area, so it’s accessible from the airport in Honolulu. While there is no development at Makua Valley itself, when you travel to it you can see high-rise condos in the near distance on both sides. And there are expensive apartment/condo buildings that have been built in the area around Waianae, the main town near Makua Valley. All of this means that the residents of Waianae have a very difficult time finding affordable housing. John told us that lots of houses have two families in them because that’s the only way they can pay the rent. So, because of land values, which have gone up exponentially because of the tourism industry, the people who live there are financially pressed.
— The Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Native Hawaiian people have questioned the relationship between their kingdom and the U.S. government for a long, long time; in the 1970s, a groundswell of people became activists to reclaim their power over themselves and their land, and revitalize their language and cultural practices. Part of the movement’s focus was to reclaim lands that have been used by the military, and Makua Valley is one of those places.
Our day started with a visit to a heiau–a structure built for ceremony–near Waianae [just east of Makua Valley]. There are heiaus all over Hawai’i, some of them noted by roadside markers, some of them in out-of-the-way places, some of them now in people’s back yards. Some are large, some are small. The one at Waianae is large, and what remains are low rock walls, built without mortar. It sits on a piece of land that juts out into the ocean between two beaches. It was easy to see why such a beautiful and awe-inspiring place would be perfect for ceremonies.
panorama at the heiau, looking mauka–toward the mountain
looking makai–toward the ocean–from the heiau
After a meal of local foods at a restaurant in Waianae (including lau lau pork, kalua pork, poi, rice, and macaroni salad, all YUM), we visited a cave between Waianae and Makua Valley. John told us that this was the site of the first human habitation on O’ahu; when people arrived here, they lived in the cave before they built places to live in the valley. It had access to fresh water, to fish (in the ocean) and plants, and served as a shelter. When we went into the cave, we saw that visitors have left offerings–including a braid of sweetgrass!
going into the cave
offerings inside the cave
looking out from the cave
There was a beach nearby, and lots of families were out, spending their Sunday having picnics and enjoying the ocean. It was wonderful to think of this place inviting humans to be here for many centuries.
After visiting the cave, we went on to the valley… and things got a little bit more complicated. Because it’s a military site, we had to go through a gate and gather at a pavilion where our IDs were checked and we signed release forms. We were given an orientation by three people representing three separate entities, all of which are involved in maintaining the site [and all of which are contractors hired by the army], noting archaeological artifacts and protecting them from people, and protecting visitors from UXO, unexploded ordnance. (From the 1940s to 2004, soldiers who were trained in the valley used live ammunition, which means that there are artillery shells, grenades, and bullets in the area; most of it has been removed, but there’s still a possibility something could be there. Here’s a link to a story from 2011 about live fire exercises being discontinued at Makua Valley. But that may be changing as well; more below.)
More visitors joined us, and things got simpler, more comfortable. There were “regulars” from Malama Makua who have been coming there for years, and people who joined more recently. There was a young Native Hawaiian woman visiting the site for the first time, though her family has been living in the area for a long, long time; her last name is Makua!
pausing at the ahu, after prayers
Leandra sang the chant asking permission to enter a place, and we walked to an ahu–an altar–and gave thanks and left offerings. [The ahu was built by people from Malama Makua who have been visiting the site and trying to honor it as a special place to Hawaiians despite the fact that it’s being used as a military training ground.] (The folks from Malama Makua had brought rain water–a special form of water for ceremony because it has not yet touched the ground–and a lei made of Spanish moss.)
Then the kapu was over and we could be more casual. We walked on the grounds, chatting and sharing stories (olelo) and taking pictures and being awed by the views. It felt especially appropriate that our group was a mix of ages and ethnicities. One of the army contractors accompanying our group joined in, walking with us and sharing olelo and telling us about growing up in Waianae.
walking and sharing olelo
sharing olelo with the archaeological officer!
walking and taking pictures
Leandra and Fred shared a lot of information about the history of the place, both ancient and recent. One of the highlights was a small cave where a spring once flowed.
But we were not able to go to some places on the grounds that the Malama Makua folks usually visit, including a site where there are ancient petroglyphs. (As you can imagine, I was especially disappointed about not being able to see them.) As it turns out, the agreement between the military and Malama Makua is under negotiation; as part of that agreement, the military mows the grass and maintains the roads in the valley. Malama Makua refused to sign the new agreement, as it [includes language that says the army may resume using live ammunition at the site in the future. Malama Makua does not want to open the door to that practice being resumed, so they won’t sign the agreement].
But because the agreement has not been signed, the military has not mowed the grass; and because the grass is tall, the ground is no longer visible; and because the ground is no longer visible, the danger of encountering UXO is too high; and because of this, visitors are not allowed to go to where the petroglyphs are.
the valley, and my shadow
I have so many mixed feelings about this situation! Of course, it’s all logical and reasonable, on the surface. We don’t want visitors to be injured, of course. But it also feels like one side is sticking to the letter of the law so that the other side feels pressured to sign the agreement. And it also feels like Native Hawaiians are being denied access to a sacred site, important to the history of the land and its people, by a colonizing force that found a loophole that gives them a bit more power.
Negotiation of the new agreement is likely to take a long time. Everything has to be reviewed by people in the Pentagon–a place that feels impossibly far away from here, and so separated from the concerns and values of the local people–the people who belong to this ‘aina (land), and who have been sustained and fed and nurtured by it for so long, and who continue to take care of it as best they can [given their limited access to it].
evening light at Makua Valley
sunset light on the mountains, Makua Valley
This is just one tiny piece of the larger picture of places in the Pacific Islands being used by U.S. and European military forces, which we found reflected in much of the literature we read in our independent study. Here’s a link to a recent article written by Craig Santos Perez, a Chamorran poet living in Hawai’i whom we met on our second day of the trip.His home island of Guahan (Guam) is being considered for major military buildup, including using a sacred site for exercises.
I’m not sure how to end this post except to say that Makua Valley was so beautiful and felt very special, a place where people have been taken care of by the land for so long. It’s hard for me to imagine setting off bombs in that place.