The Battle for Kawākiu


Residents are asserting their rights as Native Hawaiians to subsistence hunt and fish on land owned by Molokaʻi Ranch

Photo: Protestors gather on Molokaʻi
More than 100 Molokaʻi residents gathered on May 6 to protest the installation of a locked gate that blocks vehicle access to Kawākiu Beach. The land is owned Molokaʻi Ranch and the locked gate was installed by Molokaʻi Ranch lessee Kaluakoʻi Outfitters which operates for-profit deer hunting excursions. But for residents who live a subsistence lifestyle, Kawākiu is a traditional fishing and hunting area. – Photo: Courtesy of Walter Ritte on Facebook

On May 6, 2023, more than 100 Molokaʻi residents gathered on Kawākiu Access Road to protest the recent installation of a locked gate blocking vehicle entry onto the dirt road. Protesters cut the locks, took down chains, removed the gate and marched down to Kawakiu Beach.

The battle for access to the Kawākiu shoreline was a back to the future moment for these residents. In the 1970s, the group Hui Alaloa, led by activists Walter Ritte, the late George Helm, and kūpuna leaders, fought for the protection of Native Hawaiian rights that allowed for subsistence, cultural and religious exercises on these lands.

In 1975, Maui County Mayor Elmer Carvalho joined the community in opening the locked gate, saying “may this gate never be locked again.” The fight for access during that time had far-reaching effects, including constitutional protections for Native Hawaiian rights that were affirmed during Hawaiʻi’s 1978 constitutional convention.

The gate had remained open since 1975, until recently.

The land is owned by Singapore-based Molokaʻi Properties Limited (MPL), also known as Molokaʻi Ranch, which encompasses some 56,000 acres on the island. The land where the gate is located is part of a 3,000-acre chunk that the ranch has leased to Kaluakoʻi Outfitters, which – according to its website – is offering private and exclusive, guided deer-hunting trips on “beautiful, untouched land.”

The foundation for Native Hawaiian rights has its origin from the traditional, pre-contact ahupuaʻa-based, Hawaiian communal land tenure system when makaʻāinana were assured access along traditional trails and possessed rights to gather water and other material necessary for survival.

These unwritten laws were codified by the kingdom, especially during the Māhele, and survived into statehood. Activist leaders emerging from the Aloha ʻĀina movement strategically positioned themselves as delegates to the 1978 constitutional convention.

“Their advocacy had the effect of elevating Native Hawaiian customary and traditional subsistence and religious practices as fundamental rights subject to reasonable regulation by the government,” said Malia Akutagawa, an associate professor of law and Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge and the William Richardson School of Law – Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law.

Akutagawa detailed a case on Kauaʻi where a Native Hawaiian kuleana landowner and hunter from Hanapēpē was exonerated from a criminal trespass violation for hunting on private lands within his ahupuaʻa for subsistence purposes. The court cited committee reports from the constitutional convention which specifically pointed out the need to protect hoaʻāina from private landowners seeking to block access for subsistence hunting.

Akutagawa said that in a number of seminal cases, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court has made it clear that native rights are especially protected on “undeveloped, or less than full developed lands” and that government cannot regulate native rights out of existence.

Akutagawa cited the 1994 Molokaʻi Subsistence Study that found that 28% of the average Molokaʻi family diet comes from subsistence including hunting. That average climbs to 50% when calculating the average for Hawaiian families on Molokaʻi.

“People especially of Kaluakoʻi/Maunaloa area have rights to hunt. Previous court cases also recognized that people have a right to access these trails. The law is subject to reasonable regulation, but it’s not for private landowners to step into the role of the state – they really need to make sure that these rights are being upheld,” Akutagawa said.

For its part, MPL said the main issue is safety and issued this statement in response to the May protest: “The gate is in place to deter unauthorized hunting vehicles from accessing the lands in potential conflict with ongoing, registered hunts. Allowing unregulated use of firearms would pose a serious safety risk. There is an open mechanism where visits to cultural sites and community hunting can be requested and arranged in advance. MPL also provides locations for community subsistence hunting outside of the lands being leased by outfitters.”

“Kawākiu has always been a place where the people of Molokaʻi migrated to in certain seasons as the fishing and hunting grounds have always been abundant,” said Hawaiʻiloa Mowat, who described himself as a subsistence hunter/fisherman. Mowat said that Ritte and other Molokaʻi kūpuna, including his parents, have heavily influenced his life and taught him to stand up for his rights.

“The protests in the 1970s proved that we have rights as Native Hawaiians to access Kawākiu and the surrounding areas. We need large landowners and the State of Hawaiʻi to recognize the laws that have already been created for the Native Hawaiian people,” Mowat said.

“Kaluakoʻi Outfitters has taken thousands of acres and locked out the Molokaʻi community to serve nonresidents for profit making. This is not about protecting Kawākiu from locals destroying Kawākiu. It’s about privatizing Kawākiu for commercial hunting and profit.”

Mowat said the gate was removed during the protest, but the gate has since been put back up and reinforced with steel plates to make it harder to be removed again. The gate has once again been locked.

“It’s their hope that making our local community walk will discourage visits,” Mowat said. “They are trying to make it hard for us to utilize Kawākiu. Both Molokaʻi Properties Limited and Kaluakoʻi Outfitters know the rights of Native Hawaiians, so they are trying to discourage us without overstepping the law.

“This story is not just Molokaʻi’s story. This is going on around Hawaiʻi and the world. Natives are losing their traditional places to foreign entities and investors. We need to continue supporting each other’s access battles, and not allow these outsiders to come in and push us out.”

Kaluakoʻi Outfitters President Cathleen Shimizu told Civil Beat that “the necessity of the installation and closure of the gate was to stop the illegal entrance of people continually breaking the law by poaching and putting the public at risk on our leased area.” Shimizu said Kawākiu can still be accessed by way of hiking the coast or by boat, and she cited damages caused by driving on the beach as supporting the decision to close the gate.

“To me, they are not just doing this for safety. There is a prioritizing of commercial hunting over subsistence. That’s what I think is going on at Kawākiu,” Akutagawa said. “Everybody on the west side living in Maunaloa hunts for subsistence; but increasingly, more people are leasing land for game hunting on the west end, and it’s cutting off the subsistence hunters of this westside community from hunting.”

Akutagawa, born and raised on Molokaʻi, said her mother died when she was just 4 years old.

“My dad is a hunter, my brother is a hunter, and we also fish. My dad was in and out of jobs, and he supported me and my brother by hunting and fishing in our ahupuaʻa. If we were denied access to our native land to do those things, we would have starved,” she said.

“People need to understand that this access is life and death for families here, because most ʻohana don’t have the money like people who live on Oʻahu and other islands do. There’s not as many jobs here as on the other islands. We have held the line to protect our resources because we know what feeds us. If we lose the ʻāina that feeds us, we die as a people. That’s the main thing we’ve got to think about.”