Photo: Kalae, Kaʻū
Kalae, Kaʻū, looking toward Mauna Loa and the district’s southern shore. - Photo: Zuri Aki

Kaʻū holds answers to the plight of the Native Hawaiian people. The OHA Public Policy team just returned from Kaʻū, and this is what we learned.

Kaʻū mākaha
(Kaʻū of the fierce fighters)

Native Hawaiians face greater inequities and disparities, in our own homeland, than anyone else. We are in a constant fight for our survival on never-ending battlegrounds: health risks, homelessness, poverty, access to education, structural racism, injustice – far too many.

This is our plight. We carry it together. This plight stems from historical injustice and is perpetuated by systems of oppression that were never dismantled. The 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom impeded Native Hawaiian self-determination. It is an open wound that is left to fester, and it only gets worse over time, becoming an ever-increasing burden from one generation to the next – so, we fight in this war.

Structural and institutional racism persists. These wrongs were never made right and so we fight for our survival. We fight for our healing. We fight for our future.

Kaʻū carries invaluable lessons – strategies to win this war – borne through the ages from ka wa ma mua (the time before) to ka wa ma hope (the time after), lessons that we need to remember and learn. Part of remembering requires us to nānā i ke kumu (look to the source). And so we shall.

Kaʻū nui kua makani
(Great Kaʻū of the windblown back)

Kaʻū is a majestic windswept land on the southeastern flank of the largest active volcano on Earth. A place where verdant hills roll into scorching lava deserts that endlessly clash with raging seas. Rugged and forbidding, it is a place of immeasurable beauty.

It is the breast of Mauna Loa, a wondrous vault brimming with treasured experiences that are enshrined in the proudly celebrated memories of both the ʻāina and makaʻāinana (people of the land).

At 922 square miles, Kaʻū is the largest district in the Hawaiian Islands and larger than every island in the archipelago – the obvious exception being the island of Hawaiʻi.

Yet its population is comparable to that of Molokaʻi despite being three-and-a-half times its size. South Kaʻū is one of the most rural and remote locations in Hawaiʻi – the very reason why struggle is no stranger to its people.

Kaʻū malo ʻeka, kua wehi
(Kaʻū of the dirty malo and black back)

Forged in the fires of Pele, tempered by the thunder of Lonomakua, and quenched in the waters of Kanaloa, the people of Kaʻū have always held the reputation of being stalwart and resilient. King Kamehameha I was raised in Kaʻū, toughened for his eventual conquests by the harsh and challenging hardships of life in this land.

Today, the people of Kaʻū remain as tenacious as ever, enduring challenges that represent the peak of our plight. However, their struggle isn’t the same as before.

Subsistence, now, requires money. With a dearth of economic opportunities, Kaʻū people face widespread food insecurity and financial instability. Most residents endure hours-long commutes to and from work. Younger generations see the district as a trap from which to escape, unintentionally leaving aging generations to structural vulnerabilities like the lack of adequate and accessible medical care.

As the kupa (natives) of Kaʻū are forced out, they are rapidly replaced by non-natives – non-locals who are reshaping the district according to their distant and foreign values. This gentrification further expedites the displacement of the remaining Native Hawaiian population. This is Hawaiʻi’s story and history tells us what happens when we do not address this problem.

Kaʻū hiehie i ka makani
(Kaʻū, regal in the wind)

The solutions to Kaʻū’s problems are the strategies for winning the war. And Kaʻū offers many solutions.

Kaʻū’s solution to economic instability is the strategy for creating Native Hawaiian-led economic pathways. Kaʻū’s solution to healthcare inaccessibility is the strategy for Native Hawaiian healthcare workforce development. Kaʻū’s solution to population displacement is the strategy for restoring our traditional communal systems that make us stronger together.

Integral to winning this war is the strategy of elevating and amplifying the voices of these communities. Kaʻū is a rallying battle cry for the resounding message that our communities don’t need outsiders solving our problems. We just need them to step aside, so we can advance our own solutions.

Stepping aside doesn’t mean disengaging, there’s still a matter of accountability owed to historically disadvantaged communities – this is part of the elevating.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Public Policy team is focusing on amplifying and elevating the voices of Kaʻū, and we’ll take these lessons with us to employing these strategies in every community to win this war. E hume i ka malo, e hoʻokala i ka ihe.