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Native Hawaiians fear Maui wildfire destruction will lead to their cultural erasure

August 17, 2023

‘This is, for us, genocide,’ says community leader Keʻeaumoku Kapu

Keʻeaumoku Kapu stand with his eyes closed at a distribution centre in a parking lot in Lahaina.
Keʻeaumoku Kapu is a Kanaka Maoli community leader in Lahaina, and head of the Nā ʻAikāne o Maui Cultural Center — which was destroyed by the fire that ripped through Lahaina.  (Andrew Lee/CBC)

CBC News: Keʻeaumoku Kapu has been handing out water, clothes, and emergency supplies to families in need out of the Walgreens parking lot in Lahaina, Maui. He said it is a way to keep himself occupied while he grieves the losses of his community. 

“I’m afraid we’re not going to recover from this,” said Kapu, speaking to CBC from his cellphone at the distribution centre Monday. 

Kapu is a Kanaka Maoli (a Hawaiian word for their Indigenous people) community leader in Lahaina, and head of the Nā ʻAikāne o Maui Cultural Center — which was destroyed by the fire that ripped through Lahaina. 

While members of the community are still grappling with their immediate needs and the death toll from the fire is still being counted, Kapu said he is “frantic” to make sure he is included in the conversations that are happening about what is next for Lahaina. 

“I’m hoping that we can get over this hurdle, but at the same time the fear of being erased …” said Kapu.

“Because our island is now turned into a cheaper commodity because there’s nothing more important to save here, you have people coming in willing to buy burned-out places.” 

Maui land grabs 

Kapu said his family and other members of his community have been contacted by realtors asking to buy their burned-up property. 

The office of the governor of Hawaii released a statement warning Maui residents about predatory buyers trying to capitalize on their fear and the financial uncertainty for those who have lost their homes.  In a press conference Wednesday, Governor Josh Green said he is working with the attorney general to put a moratorium on property sales in West Maui. 

Social media posts from residents are pleading with people to not sell their properties to these realtors, fearing it will lead to Native Hawaiians being displaced from their homelands. 

A person squats on a branch of a charred banyan tree.
A man reacts as he sits on the Lahaina historic banyan tree damaged by a wildfire on Aug. 11 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

A non-profit organization called Hawai’i Alliance for Progressive Action has started an online petition to call on governments to use their powers to stop Maui land grabs, support displaced families and ensure decisions are made with Native Hawaiians at the table. 

Kapu is urging people not to sell but is worried that people’s fear and desperation may drive them to accept these offers. 

“You’re gonna make our children tomorrow orphans within their own land,” said Kapu. 

Lahaina holds deep cultural significance to the Hawaiian people and was once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. The city is where King Kamehameha III had his royal residence, and unified Hawaii under a single kingdom by defeating the other islands’ chiefs. 

Many Hawaiians still recognize it as the original capital today, long after the capital was moved to Honolulu in 1845. 

Keʻeaumoku Kapu stands in front of pop up tents and piles of suplies in a parking lot. He wears jeans, a black t-shirt and cap with red writing.
Keʻeaumoku Kapu has been handing out water, clothes, and emergency supplies to families in need out of the Walgreens parking lot in Lahaina. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

The fire destroyed Lahaina’s historic Front Street, where the cultural centre Kapu ran was located. Inside, the building held many cultural artifacts, like feather capes and helmets, implements, maps and documents. 

They were all destroyed. 

“Our place was a living place, it was a living museum. It was things that you could actually touch, books that you could actually read, maps that showed a lot of families where they originated from,” said Kapu. 

But the loss is bigger than that. 

Kapu describes the centre as a gathering place for Indigenous people internationally, where culture was shared for the next generations and people could learn from each other. 

A burned building in the distance with a blue sky in the background.
The burned-out Nā ʻAikāne o Maui Cultural Center on Front Street in Lahaina. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Kapu is heartbroken over the loss, and holds himself responsible for the care of the objects inside, though he barely escaped trying to save it, only having time to grab his laptop as he ran out.  Ten minutes later the building was engulfed in flames. 

“For Lahaina, I’m afraid what this place can turn into now,” said Kapu, who worries the historic buildings that have been lost could be replaced by private development.  “This is, for us, genocide.” 

Maui fires linked to colonization 

The devastation of the Maui fires is directly tied to colonial greed, said Uahikea Maile, who is Kanaka Maoli from Maunawili, Oahu, and an assistant professor of Indigenous politics in the department of political science at the University of Toronto. 

Uahikea Maile stands in front of a book case looking at the camera in white button up shirt, and grey pin stripped blazer. He has thick framed round glasses and black hair in a bun on top of his head.
Uahikea Maile, is Kanaka Maoli from Maunawili, Oahu, and an assistant professor of Indigenous politics in the department of political science at the University of Toronto. (Submitted by Uahikea Maile)

Maile said pre-colonial Lahaina was a wetland ecosystem abundant with life and that was one of the reasons it was chosen for the royal residence. But Maile said in the late 19th and early 20th centuries white-owned sugar plantations on Maui started to illegally divert water to their crops, drying up the wetlands. 

“It’s really devastating to think about the situation that over time transformed this place because it was strategically and purposefully altered to feed colonial forms of profiteering and wealth accumulation and greed,” said Maile. 

These plantations also introduced non-native plant species for animal grazing that have helped fuel the Maui fires, said Maile.  “The question of what to do next? How to heal? How to regenerate? And how to rebuild? Is a really crucial one that is on the minds of everyone,” said Maile. 

The roof of a building is seen engulfed in flames.
The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street on Aug. 8 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Matthew Thayer/The Maui News/The Associated Press)

Maile can see the island’s colonial history repeating itself with realtors exploiting the wildfire devastation to generate future wealth.  “It’s a really important time in Hawaiian history to ensure that our people have a say in their own lands,” said Maile. 

An aerial view show both the smokey harbour area and Lahaina town, in the aftermath of a wildfire that destroyed the town.
An aerial image taken on Aug. 10 shows destroyed homes, buildings, and the harbour area burned to the ground in Lahaina in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui, Hawaii. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)

Native Hawaiian land control 

But how much control Hawaiians have over their land can be a complicated question. 

The first concept of private land ownership in Hawaii can be traced back to the Mahele, or division of lands, in 1848, where King Kamehameha III divided the land into three categories: Crown, government, and lands for the Hawaiian chiefs.

Lance smiles at the camera in a button up shirt.
Lance D. Collins is a private practice attorney in Maui who researches Hawaiian law during the American colonial period.  (Submitted by Lance Collins )

Lance D. Collins is a private practice attorney in Maui who researches Hawaiian law during the American colonial period.  Collins is also Kapu’s attorney, representing him in cases to show his family’s claim to their ancestral land in Kaua’ula Valley. 

Through the Mahele, about one-third of the land was given to Hawaiian families. That land has been passed down, usually to a person’s children, but after several generations and for those without children it has led to confusion over who has interest in the land, said Collins.  “Most Hawaiians know which lands they have an interest in, but as long as there’s no contest over use, there’s no issue,” said Collins. 

But sugar plantations have taken advantage of this by stealing land or finding a family member with an interest and getting them to sell that interest, leaving other family members with interest without a way to contest the use, said Collins. 

The other two-thirds of the land in Hawaii — government and Crown lands — is also disputed. 

These lands were transferred to the U.S. government when the military overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom. But they were not transferred by the monarch, who held title to the lands, leaving a dispute over the lawfulness of the transfer. 

Collins said the historic buildings in Lahaina had a layer of protection under preservation laws, acting as a kind of barricade and a type of resolution of land disputes by putting large-scale developments on hold in the community. 

“So now that everything is gone, those barricades are no longer there. There should rightfully be a huge concern about Lahaina town being redeveloped in a way that will just completely erase Hawaiian history, Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian identity,” said Collins. 

Collins said many of the homes that burned in the fire were housing projects or neighbourhoods of working class families and he worries that gentrification when the town is rebuilt could push these people out. 

But there is an avenue Native Hawaiians can take to assert their rights. 

Individuals in helmets and masks stand atop burned out debris
Combined Joint Task Force 50 (CJTF-50) search, rescue and recovery personnel conduct search operations of areas damaged by Maui wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Aug. 15. (U.S. Army National Guard Handout/Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Foster/Reuters)

The state is obligated to preserve and protect Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights. Meaning if a private development was proposed on a parcel of land that was used for traditional practices, this right would limit the developers ability to exclude Hawaiians from the land. 

“There is a tremendous amount of opportunity for the Hawaiian people and for the Lahaina community, and there’s also grave, grave danger,” said Collins. 


Jackie McKay, Reporter

Jackie McKay is a Métis journalist working for CBC Indigenous covering B.C. She was a reporter for CBC North for more more than five years spending the majority of her time in Nunavut. McKay has also worked in Whitehorse, Thunder Bay, and Yellowknife. Follow her on Twitter @mckayjacqueline.