Kanaka can Destroy, Kanaka can Heal


By Marcus Kawika Iwane, MD

Hawaiian music plays softly in the background. I can smell grandma’s beef stew cooking. The sun warms my back as I strip the scales off an ʻōʻio (bonefish) with my dad on Molokaʻi.

Suddenly, there’s a distant rumble like nothing I’ve ever heard – the kind of unearthly sound that makes you second-guess that you heard it. Bothered by the noise, but hungry for dinner, I return to cleaning my fish and try to ignore the sonic distraction.

Fifteen years later, as a college student, I’m sitting in Dr. Emmett Aluli’s office at Molokaʻi Family Health Center, looking up at a beautiful painting on the wall. It’s an unrecognizable view of an unfamiliar place I would later know as Moaʻula Iki, Kahoʻolawe.

In time, I pieced together that the rumble I heard as a child was an explosion on Kahoʻolawe. The unnatural resonance of that noise still haunts me today – reverberations of a struggle still painful for many Kānaka.

The bombing and destruction of Kahoʻolawe is a powerful metaphor for the profound health disparities suffered by Native Hawaiians.

The takeover and prolonged bombing of the island by the U.S. Navy added to the pain, repression, and historical trauma experienced by many Native Hawaiians estranged from their land and culture through colonization. This collective trauma has echoed through time – as research suggests it’s a pivotal contributor to Native Hawaiian health disparities in this century. In addition, studies from several Indigenous communities demonstrate the profound connection between the health of the land and the health of its people.

Now, we face a new threat. Human- triggered climate change is the latest environmental injustice Native Hawaiians must overcome.

While climate change affects everyone, specific populations with greater socioeconomic barriers are more vulnerable and less adaptable to recovering from extreme weather events and other climate threats. Rising average temperatures, diminishing trade winds, higher sea levels, droughts impacting once rain-soaked geographies, heavier precipitation flooding traditionally dryer biomes – the increased frequency of subtle and severe weather events will continue to affect the physical and mental wellbeing of Native Hawaiians, especially those who farm and fish for both livelihood and subsistence.

The desecration, destruction, and devastation of Kahoʻolawe left deep wounds. Hawaiian tradition teaches that Native Hawaiians descended from nature gods; thus, to heal Native Hawaiians, it’s imperative to heal the ʻāina that sustains us. Like our connections with those who love and nurture us, our relationship with ʻāina dramatically influences our overall health and wellness. Kahoʻolawe has taught us how to pray, work and take political action together to fulfill our kuleana to heal and protect our sacred places.

Kahoʻolawe’s story is one of empowerment and hope through the triumph of the human spirit, exemplified by a group of Native Hawaiians who, against all odds, were able to stop the bombing through protests and advocacy. We must channel this same effort and energy into addressing this new threat before climate change changes us permanently. Let’s be the ones to create a climate for change.

Dr. Marcus Kawika Iwane of Oʻahu earned his medical degree from the University of Hawaiʻi, John A. Burns School of Medicine and completed his medical training with the University of Hawaiʻi Internal Medicine Residency Program. He is board certified in internal medicine, belongs to the American College of Physicians, Hawaiʻi Chapter, and serves as president of ʻAhahui ʻo nā Kauka, the Association of Native Hawaiian Physicians. Dr. Iwane is the chief of the Kaiser Permanente West Oahu Medical Office at Kapolei, known as Kīpukaoha, where he leads a collective effort with community organizations to create innovative programs and partnerships that promote Native Hawaiian health and healing.