“Yesterday, they came at 7 in the morning: sheriffs, Kauaʻi Police Department (KPD), plus they even flew in United States Marshals. They had no paperwork to show us what all of this was about. They blocked the highway roads so no one could see what was happening here,” says Charles “Kamuela” Hepa. Hepa is one of the kiaʻi—the caretakers—watching over the land at the mouth of the Wailua River; land that a group of developers is claiming belongs to them. “I rushed to the court house in Līhuʻe and asked for paperwork regarding the action, but the clerks could produce no such document.”
Hepa continues, “A young lady was arrested for praying in Hawaiian and they released her with no bail and no paperwork. She had to hitchhike all the way back from Līhuʻe with no phone. KPD confiscated it.”
On February 22, KPD moved in to enforce an eviction order that had been handed down from Judge Michael Soong of the District Court of the Fifth Circuit in January, 2018.
“Our criminal trespassing charges were dismissed with prejudice, and our understanding was that the eviction was still pending the judge’s signature,” Hepa says. “And they pulled this stunt the morning before we were supposed to show up in court to challenge Judge Soong’s standing. It was clearly timed to do the most damage to our case. Everything they do is just so crooked. The whole system is conspiring—judges, police, developers, politicians—to remove us from our land. We have the patent. I have title passed down from Deborah Kapule, and my cousin Noa [Mao-Espirito] has title passed down from King Kamualiʻi. Everything we claim was certified and notarized by the Bureau of Conveyances of the Hawaiian Kingdom. All the agents that came yesterday are acting illegally on behalf of Coco Palms Hui LLC.”
On February 11, 2017, and again on March 11, 2017, Coco Palms Hui LLC developers Chad Waters and Tyler Greene filed trespass complaints with the KPD against these two, young Hawaiian men. The developers claim that Mao-Espirito and Hepa are squatters. To the business interests of yet another hotel in Hawaiʻi the kiaʻi are “occupiers” standing in the way of their renovation and relaunch of the world famous and—since 1992—defunct Coco Palms hotel into a $175 million resort.
Mao-Espirito and Hepa, meanwhile, say they are lineal descendants of the true legal inheritors of the land. They, and a small but dedicated group of mostly Hawaiians, had been working to restore the land and the waterways into a functioning ecosystem that can support both indigenous (and often endangered) fauna, as well as themselves, in harmony with the values of Aloha ʻĀina, Ea, and Kūʻē.
The Hui has produced a limited warranty deed which the entity claims proves its ownership over the former resort land and grants it the rights to redevelop the property into the proposed Coco Palms by Hyatt resort.
“We still have court for the title issue,” says Hepa. “Who has clear title to this land, and who doesn’t? They [Coco Palms Hui LLC] only have a ‘special warranty’ deed. I looked it up and it’s totally bogus. It’s a fake. What they doing right now—kicking us off our own ʻāina—it amounts to pillaging.”
He continues, “We are cleaning and cropping and providing for the people. We host ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi—Hawaiian language classes here. We are growing food, teaching the kids and families how to live by growing kalo and taking care of the endangered species that live here. Right now it’s heavy. So we’re talking story about what to do next. But this is not over. It’s just the beginning.”
Mao-Espirito and Hepa have filed a Quiet Title lawsuit against the developers on the basis of their title claims to the land, passed down to them by the original inheritor of Kamualiʻi’s estate, Deborah Kapule, the last queen of Kauaʻi. Mao-Espirito and Hepa believe their royal patent, called a Palapala Sila Nui, gives their family land rights in the area in perpetuity.
“Because my bloodline goes straight to Kaumualiʻi, and because Kamu’s bloodline goes straight to Kapule, we have vested rights and a vested interest in this land that nobody can take away from us,” Mao-Espirito says. “Once a royal patent is made, it’s in that family’s name forever.”
He continues. “Judge Soong admitted that our Quiet Title claim has the power to overturn his ruling in the district court case. So they’re real upset about that. Anyone else with links to the Kapule or Kaumualiʻi ʻohana can join in our Quiet Title claim. All the kids in that bloodline will be able to come on this land.”
“My fear is for the people,” says Hepa. “What’s gonna happen when the whole island has had enough of this? All this corruption—from Kauaʻi to Big Island—could result in serious civil unrest. And these guys doing this is fanning those flames. We want to keep it peaceful. We even had classes on how to be firm but still be polite and respectful toward the police.”
Most media coverage, meanwhile, depicts Mao-Espirito and Hepa as unruly (“Coco Palm activists threaten to arrest the judge”), uneducated (“Report: Occupants have no claim”) or ignorant (“Coco Palms Developer Fights Back With Its Own Native Hawaiian Research”), with no real (read: Western) claim to the land. And while it may be impossible to definitively prove, biologically, that their lineage connects to the land’s rightful inheritors, research into Hawaiian Kingdom court cases from the second half of the 19th century can prove that the deed Coco Palms Hui LLC purchased from Prudential Insurance for $23 million was created fraudulently.
The competing claims to the land today echo the competing claims illustrated by these court records, which are all based on a disputed will that was challenged, re-challenged and re-challenged again by some of the most powerful and recognized names of the late Kingdom period. The final court case, which was decided immediately after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and under dubious circumstances, is the case in which the title to the land was wrested away from the legal trustees to the Kapule estate and given to one of Hawaiʻi’s most notorious historic swindlers, one Junius Kaʻae. And it is upon that illegal transfer of title that Coco Palms Hui LLC has based its claim.
“Our ancestors bones are here,” affirms Hepa. “Kapule’s bones are buried under the lobby of the old hotel. The people can only take so much. I want to rebuild the heiau after the hotel is gone, so people can hoʻokupu the kings and queens and the gods. I want to take care of the burials and the fishpond. They threw another curveball at us, but there’s a bright side to everything. This is uniting us.”
Historically, the Ahupuaʻa of Wailua was reserved for Kauaʻi’s royalty. But the aliʻi used the fertile river valley to cultivate enough food to feed the people of the surrounding population centers. Once, there were acres and acres of taro patches here, and a fully functioning loko iʻa that the island’s last independent queen, Deborah Kapule Kekaihaʻakūlou (c. 1798–1853), herself maintained.
The area around the mouth of the Wailua River is well known to Hawaiians as a place of legend and events of historical, cultural and religious significance. Here is the landing place of the Kahiki voyagers who came ashore around 500 A.D., and the place where the prophet Naula-a-Maihea dwelled. It’s the place of origin of the Naha stone and, on Jan. 18, 1778, Captain James Cook landed here.
In 1810, the monarch of Kauaʻi, Kaumualiʻi (c. 1778–1824) negotiated a peaceful agreement with Kamehameha the Great that allowed the island to become a part of the new Hawaiian Kingdom, while still allowing Kaumualiʻi to remain the defacto ruler of Kauaʻi. The agreement established Kamehameha’s son Liholiho as supreme monarch.
After Kamehameha’s death, a council was held in the summer of 1821 with Kaumualiʻi and Liholiho, now called Kamehameha II, along with the top chiefs and advisors. When Kamehameha II agreed to maintain the settlement terms, Kaumualiʻi asked the new monarch to take some of Kauaʻi’s lands for his wives. Liholiho justly refused, saying that his father had left no instructions about the land. He did, however, take Kaumualiʻi’s wife Kekaihaʻakūlou as one of his own wives and gave his wife Kekāuluohi to his most trusted advisor, Charles Kanaʻina (father to William Charles Lunalilo), as a way to please the chiefs. The council decision displeased Liholiho’s mother, Kaʻahumanu, and a year later she would take Kaumualiʻi as her husband, twisting the teachings of the missionaries on marriage to make herself his heir.
After Kaumualiʻi was taken by Kaʻahumanu, Kekaihaʻakūlou (now called Deborah Kapule) converted to Christianity and remarried Simeon Kaiu, who was to become an instructor for the missionaries. The couple had a son, Josiah Kaumualiʻi and, in 1837, they moved an entire retinue of people to Wailua. Shortly after relocating, Kaiu died from a stroke. But Kapule continued to live in Wailua, tending the land.
Both Kapule and her son, Josiah Kaumuali‘i, have Mehele land grants. The land at Wailua was included in the estate of Kealiʻiahonui, the son of Kaumualiʻi, who passed away in 1849, leaving his land to Keahikuni Kekauʻōnohi (c. 1805–1851), a Hawaiian high chiefess who was a member of the House of Kamehameha.
Kekauʻōnohi was married to Levi Haʻalelea (1822–1864), a kahu (royal guardian/attendant) and konohiki for High Chief Leleiohoku, one of the grandsons of Kamehameha I. On January 25, 1855, Haʻalelea petitioned the Hawaiian Supreme Court as a beneficial representative of the estate of Kekauʻōnohi, for whom he was the sole heir. He had in his possession the will of Kealiʻiahonui, which outlined the succession of land rights passed down to him. In Reports of Decisions Rendered by the Supreme Court of the Hawaiian Islands, Volume 8 (1893), it is documented that:
In 1855, Levi Haʻalelea submitted the will of Kealiʻiahonui to the courts that showed his sole heir was his wife, Kekauʻōnohi. Haʻalelea himself was the sole heir of Kekauʻōnohi who had married Haʻalelea. The courts granted the administration of the estates of Kealiʻiahonui and Kekauʻōnohi to Levi Haʻalele. (Pages 93–94)
However, on July 2, 1866, a petition was filed on behalf of Kapiʻolani Napelakapuokakaʻe, her husband David Kalākaua, along with their associates Virginia Kapoʻoloku Poʻomaikelani and her husband Hiram Kahanawai, Victoria Kinoiki Kekaulike and her husband David Kahalepouli Piʻikoi, Kaluaipihana Malaihi and her husband F.W. Malaihi, as well as a minor named Kamehaokalani, a supposed niece of Kealiʻiahonui, seeking possession of the estate. Essentially, both parties claimed the other party was using a forged will. That case, pitting the future king and queen against the estate trustees put in place by Haʻalelea, was dismissed on November 30, of the same year.
Then, in 1890, a new petition was filed by Junius Kaʻae—who had married Kamehaokalani in 1873—along with Amoe Ululani Kapukalakala Ena (1842–1904), Haʻalelea’s second wife and widow. A newspaper article in The Hawaiian Gazette briefly mentions the case: “Petition of Junius Kaae to revoke probate of will. Continued for one week.”
In his decision, Judge J. Bickerton wrote: “After careful examination of this case, and of the authorities, I consider that the petitioner is estopped from what would amount to a re-hearing of the original petition.” (Reports of Decisions, Volume 8, 99–100). In other words, the judge found no basis for Kaʻae’s claim that the 1866 case was not fully and adequately presented and tried.
In January, 2018, The Garden Island reported that a title expert named Colleen Uahinui had traced the title back to an 1883 “ejectment case” in which, she claims, the Supreme Court of the Hawaiian Kingdom had sided with Kaʻae against the family of Kapule. Uahinui is “lead senior title abstractor in the Historic Title Services Department of Title Guaranty of Hawaii, Inc., in Honolulu,” according to The Garden Island article. The company is a dominant issuer of title insurance in the state. Coco Palms Hui LLC, has used this “research” as the basis for claiming the title ownership of the land and discounting the Royal patents presented by Mao-Espirito and Hepa.
However, there’s a major problem with that narrative: no such case exists. In reviewing the entirety of Reports of Decisions, Volume 8, we could find no 1883 cases involving Junius Kaʻae at all: none.
“The Coco Palms Hui claims their right to the land goes back to an adverse possession claim that was filed during the Kingdom period, prior to the overthrow” says veteran Hawaiian sovereignty activist Laulani Teale. “That’s what their case is based on; it’s how they claim ownership. Coco Palms Hui LLC claims that Kamu and Noa have no title, but they’re just plain wrong.”
The Independent reached out to Uahinui to ask her to review the research she had regarding the 1883 case in which, allegedly, Ka‘ae was granted the land by Kingdom court. We are still awaiting her research but, because of the immediacy of the circumstances in Wailua, felt it necessary to publish this piece as soon as possible, with the potential to update the article with her response when it arrives.
A major development in this narrative occurred in 2009, when Waldeen K. Palmeira and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation attempted to seek a preliminary injunction and summary judgment against the Department of Transportation (DOT) for a widening project that involved a portion of the Coco Palms property. As a result, the DOT was required to release an Archaeological Inventory Survey for the Kūhiō Highway Short-Term Improvements Project, Wailua Ahupua‘a, Kawaihau District, Island of Kaua‘i, which it did in 2012. This document seems to be a major basis for the Coco Palms Hui claim to the land in question.
On page 42, Section 1.7.5 of the document, the DOT states: “Upon [Kapule’s] death in 1853, her lands in Wailua, as well as those of her son, Kaumuali‘i, were willed to her adopted daughter Kaluaipihana.” Kaluaipihana was one of the petitioners in the 1866 case, and we assume the DOT means Josiah Kaumuali‘i. But there is no attribution within the DOT document that could be used as a source for that information.
When one cross checks this statement in Reports of Decisions, Volume 8, this statement clearly is incorrect. In fact, beginning with Haʻalelea’s original petition in 1855, and confirmed in 1866 and again in 1890, his claim to the land stood all the way past his death and the death of his two legal heirs, Queen Kalama Hakaleleponi Kapakuhaili and Charles Kanaʻina, the father of Lunalilo.
So why did the 2012 DOT report say that Kapule had willed the estate to her when the record of Kingdom court cases clearly states otherwise? According to page 95 of Kauai: The Separate Kingdom (1988), Kaluaipihana was the daughter of Oliver Chapin and Nahinu. Nahinu was the half sister of Kealiʻiahonui, as was Kinoiki who was the mother of Kapiʻolani, who was the wife of Kalākaua. This explains the list of petitioners in the 1866 claim that was dismissed.
“When Mark Zuckerberg began his Quiet Title lawsuits, I did a little research on the title of some of the lands on Kauaʻi because a number of names came up including Lunalilo and his father Charles Kanaʻina,” says Mark Miller. Miller is an artist and historian of Hawaiian descent living in Northern California who traces his roots back to Kauaʻi. “As a descendant of a number of the adjudicated heirs of Kanaʻina, I already knew a great deal of the background on the sale and title of some land, but not a lot of specifics. So I felt I needed to see if there was anything for me or others to be concerned with.
“Since Mr. Zuckerberg dropped his case, there was little reason to further the research,” he continues. “Then, a couple of weeks ago, someone linked me an article from The Garden Island that claimed a report had been made by a supposed expert that said Junius Kaʻae had been awarded the title in 1883 in an ejectment case of some kind.”
The case that finally did wrest control of the land away from the estate claimed by Levi Haʻalelea and handed it to Kaʻae actually took place after the Kingdom period—in 1893, immediately after the overthrow. And it involves an egregious breach of separation of powers on the part of the president of the provisional Republic of Hawaiʻi, Sanford B. Dole.
The Curious Case of Junius Kaʻae
Junius Kaʻae was a Hawaiian politician during the reign of King Kalākaua. He is a central figure in the Aki Opium Scandal that led to the Bayonet Constitution of 1887, in which the monarchy lost many of its powers.
During the fall of 1886, Kaʻae had suggested to a Chinese rice planter named Tong Kee, or Aki, that a “present” of $71,000 made to the king would guarantee him a license to sell the drug in Hawaiʻi. Kalākaua, who had recently legalized the substance, accepted the obvious bribe but then awarded the contract to a different opium dealer who outbid Aki, paying the king $80,000 instead. Aki demanded, but failed, to get his money back, and divulged the whole affair, turning it into a national scandal. All of this is discussed in detail in Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, created by the U.S. State Department in 1895:
In order, so far as possible, to remove the stain now resting on the Throne, we request of the King that he shall cause immediate restitution to be made of the sum, to wit, seventy-one thousand dollars ($71,000), recently obtained by him in violation of law and of his oath of office, under promise that the persons from whom the same was obtained shall receive the license to sell opium, as provided by statute of the year 1886.
Whereas one Junius Kaʻae was implicated in the obtaining of said seventy-one thousand dollars ($71,000), and has since been, and still is, retained in office as registrar of conveyances, we request, as a safeguard to the property interests of the country, that said Kaʻae be at once dismissed from said office, and that the records of our land titles be placed in hands of one in whose integrity the people can safely confide.
Kaʻae, who had been the Registrar of Conveyances, was dismissed and the debt was never paid by Kalākaua, who died just four years later. The government placed all of Kalākaua’s estates and the administration of his accounts under the direction of trustees. Aki sued to be paid back from the trustees who refused to add him and the debt to the official list. As documented in Hawaiian National Bibliography, 1780-1900: 1881-1900, in 1888 the courts agreed with Aki’s estate (he had died since) and added the amount to the debt.
After the overthrow, Kaʻae was appointed to the position of Recorder of Titles by the provisional government. Hawaii Reports: Cases Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii, Volume 9 (1895) covers the very first court cases after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. And the very first of these cases holds the key to the Coco Palms claim. In 1893, literally days after the overthrow, Kaʻae resubmitted to Sanford Dole and the same judge that denied the 1890 petition, another petition to claim the land at Wailua. As the very first act of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Hawaiʻi, President Dole forced the revocation the 40-year-old probate of Levi Haʻalelea.
Dole had been named president of the provisional government within 48 hours of the overthrow. He should never have been seated on the bench or taken a case, let alone be allowed to reverse 40 years of case law. In fact, he stepped down from the bench as a justice to take the position of president and still sat in on the case, just to make sure it went through. The litigants even had to sign a document allowing Dole to adjudicate the case, even though he was president and not even seated on the court anymore.
In Hawaii Reports, Volume 9 (page 7–8), the court writes: “Now, therefore, it is hereby agreed that the said Honorable S. B. Dole may participate in, make, sign, file and enter a decision and judgment in this cause, upon said appeal, in like manner as though he were still in commission as a Justice of said Court.”
Even if one ignores entirely the illegality of the overthrow of the Kingdom, the decision to grant the land to Kaʻae implicitly means that the land was confiscated from those that it had passed to from Haʻalelea. According to his will, that was Queen Kalama and Charles Kanaʻina.
“It’s difficult to say who had the title to the Kapule land in 1893,” says Miller. “All of Kalama’s estate went to Kanaʻina and, after his death, everything was auctioned off with many of Kanaʻina’s heirs buying back land—like Princess Ruth and Princess Bernice. It seems likely that either Ruth Keʻelikōlani or Bernice Pauahi would have purchased that land. If so, it would have been part of Kamehameha Schools by 1887.”
According to The Garden Isle article, Kaʻae conveyed the land to W.C. Parke on Jan. 20, 1902. Parke transferred ownership to the Lihue Plantation Co., Ltd., which was absorbed through merger into an entity that retained the Lihue Plantation Co. name and re-recorded the Coco Palms ownership in 1969.
However, page 44 of the 2012 DOT report states that the coconut grove of William Lindemann was leased land. And on page 86 of Creating Hawai’i Tourism: A Memoir (2004), Robert C. Allen claims that Lyle Guslander, the original owner of the Coco Palms Resort, leased the land from the Territory of Hawaiʻi, casting more doubt over the research done by Uahinui.
And according to Miller, Kaʻae—who was married to Kamehaokalani—along with the former queen, Kapiʻolani, owed money to settle Kalākaua’s debt, including what he owned from the Aki Opium Scandal. To settle the debt, Kaʻae forfeited the land to the provisional Republic—soon to be the Territory of Hawaiʻi.
In any case, the succession of lease transfers that leads to Coco Palms Hui LLC and its claim to Wailua is inherited directly from Junius Kaʻae and the fraudulent 1893 case.
One of the wills presented in these historic cases was clearly a forgery. The Kingdom courts sided with the original claim by Haʻalelea all the way up until the overthrow, at which point Sanford Dole acted far outside the norms of U.S. law (that is, the only standard to which U.S. courts would adhere), by breaching the separation of powers in order to reverse that decision and side with Kaʻae.
A Beautiful Day in Wailua
During the time of Kamehameha the Great’s campaign of unification, Kauaʻi held out as a sovereign kingdom the longest. Deborah Kapule represents a kind of cultural stronghold. She is the central historic figure in all of this, but her heirs are largely unrecognized because her name and legacy was the focus of what amounts to an historic smear campaign by missionaries during and after the Kingdom period. Because she had a number of children with different partners, the missionaries maligned her legacy. They did not approve of her feminine sexuality and mana. Hepa and Mao-Espirito are descended from two different, matrilineal lines.
“What this comes down to is the lineal descendants and protectors of the area—who are working with the native water fowl, replanting kalo, restoring the stream, cleaning up trash—on one side, and the Coco Palms Hui, which inherited its claim from the swindler Junius Kaʻae, on the other side,” says Teale. “They want to bring in a bunch of people from other countries to work their hotel and to, essentially, colonize the area. That is the stand-off between these two forces. Traditional, yet unrecognized, Hawaiian claims and caretakership on one side and colonization and PR campaigns on the other.”
The area itself is important ecologically, historically and culturally. While Kapule’s heirs ended up disenfranchised, the land went from Kaʻae to a ranching company, then a mainland hotel developer, and eventually ended up with the Guslanders, the family who built the original Coco Palms Resort. After Hurricane ʻIniki, it was sold and resold multiple times before ending up with the Coco Palms Hui of today. All of these deed transfers are based on the one illegitimate transfer from 1893.
Although believed to have been a royal grove originally, the coconut trees were actually planted in 1896 by William Lindemann, a German immigrant. Lindemann wanted to harvest the oil and copra (dried meat) from these trees in the hopes of creating a vast copra empire. However, he was unaware of how long the trees took to mature and the plantation was a failure. Today the vast coconut groves along the coastline are often referred to as The Coconut Coast.
By the early 1950s, the site had a small businessmen’s lodge owned and operated by an elderly widow named Veda Warner Hills. She advertised for the sale of the site in 1952, and Lyle Lowell Guslander, known in the tourist industry as “Gus,” answered the call. A former assistant manager of the Palace hotel in San Francisco, Guslander arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1947 to manage the Niumalu Hotel (Hilton Hawaiian Village). Although Guslander did not have the funds to purchase the property outright, he managed to get a lease with the option to buy from the Territory of Hawaiʻi.
On January 25, 1953 the Coco Palms lodge opened with 24 rooms, five employees and two guests. During this early period, the hotel still had a sugarcane train running past the front of the property. The hotel was run by Island Holidays Ltd., owned and operated by Guslander as president. The group also included William Newport, William Mullahey and Grace Buscher, who became the general manager of the hotel. Mullahey was a regional director for Pan American Airlines. In an interview to The Garden Island, Mullahey announced plans to expand the lodge into a hotel with a “Hawaiian atmosphere.” By 1956, the lodge had converted into a cottage style hotel with 82 rooms. That same year, Guslander removed ten of the cottages to build a 24 room wing to the hotel, increasing capacity to 96 rooms.
In the book, Kauai: 100 Years in Postcards, author Stormy Cozad states that, while the famous torch-lighting ceremony captured in tourist materials of the era became synonymous with the Coco Palms, it was not a true Hawaiian ceremony but a dramatic appropriation of Hawaiian culture displayed for the enjoyment of guests. Post cards from the time depict a number of local Kauaʻi residents performing the ceremony including Sebastian Alalem blowing the conch shell, Willie Carrillo beating the drum and John Keleohi lighting the torch.
Hollywood took an active interest in Coco Palms beginning in May of 1953 with the filming of Miss Sadie Thompson starring Rita Hayworth. The Chapel in the Palm was built by the studio in the Coconut Grove specifically for this production. Using the Hollywood chapel, Grace Buscher would invent the “Hawaiian Wedding” for tourists.
In 1926, Charles E. King had written the song, “Ke Kali Nei Au” (“Waiting There for Thee”) for a musical production entitled, The Prince of Hawaii. The song was originally recorded in 1928 by Helen Desha Beamer with its original Hawaiian language lyrics. It would then be recorded in 1951 by Bing Crosby with an English translation. In 1958 Al Hoffman and Dick Manning wrote additional English lyrics for Andy Williams. Now called, “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” it was featured prominently in the film Blue Hawaii, starring Elvis Presley, whose character is married at the lagoon at the Coco Palms in the movie’s finale. The hotel made a big business of selling “Blue Hawaii” weddings that recreated the floating wedding ceremony depicted in the film. Extras for this wedding package included two singers performing “Hawaiian Wedding Song” and a conch shell blower.
In 1992, the hotel closed down after Hurricane ʻIniki destroyed much of the infrastructure and severely damaged its buildings. On July 4, 2014, the resort caught fire. No one was injured and the fire was controlled by early afternoon. In June, 2016, GreeneWaters LLC, operating as the Coco Palms Hui in conjunction with Hyatt Development’s Unbound program, began demolition of the old structures in preparation for construction of the new resort. Greene was quoted as saying, “Our mantra on this has been to honor the past and celebrate the future.”
From the initial cultural appropriation and profiteering of the original Coco Palms resort, to the current situation at Wailua, this story is an encapsulation of the larger narrative of Hawaiʻi. In their own land, Hawaiians must struggle against institutional bias when dealing with a state apparatus that, far too often, ridicules or dismisses their legitimate claims. From the Coco Palms eviction case to Kaleikoa Kaʻeo’s Haleakalā trespassing case, Hawaiians who subscribe to the values of a traditional, indigenous world view are given little to no consideration in official proceedings. Instead, they are relegated to quaint, cultural stereotypes created by and for the tourism industry. This cultural dismissal, a kind of Orientalism of Hawaiian culture—is nothing new. But it is reaching a head as an educated and vocal, young segment of the Lāhui comes into its own right as stewards of the land and caretakers of the culture.
“We don’t have money to drop for a big lawyer, or for court fees; we don’t have the luxury of time to wade through the legal process the way the Hui does,” says Keʻala Lopez, one of the kiaʻi. “These people are very good at playing the game, and we don’t even know the rules. This game is the opposite of what we’re about.”
At the beginning of the eviction case, Hepa and Mao-Espirito had to sort through an overwhelming amount of information the Hui had provided to the court with no legal expertise or acumen. As a result, they were unable to mount an effective defense.
“Once the judge determined that the special warranty deed was enough to show possession, and therefore eviction, he refused to touch anything that had to do with title, which is what the majority of our case was based on,” Lopez explains. “That’s the argument right there: We have entitlement to the land traced back through our genealogy. Coco Palms Hui LLC acquired it illegally. Not being able to present that evidence effectively tied our hands behind our backs.”
“The fact that the judge refused to look at anything to do with title in deciding who can stay and who can’t on a piece of property is telling,” says Teale. “It would make more sense to wait; to keep the civil claim and halt the eviction while the land court case goes through, but that hasn’t been done. The system itself is pretty clearly slanted. Anyone with a business interest is favored.”
“From the beginning, the judge had his decision made,” says Lopez.
Nevertheless, space exists for an appeal in which the case could be brought in front of a different court that might be able to consider the arguments and evidence presented by Mao-Espirito and Hepa, which is why they have launched the Quiet Title claim case in circuit court.
“I hope all of this goes to the very highest court,” says Hepa. “Our rights are being violated here. The Hui has hired known drug dealers to enforce their will. And we’ve mentioned this to the judges—mentioned the intimidation and the threats—but the police won’t even take down the reports. They don’t care about our safety. The whole system is paid off. That’s the only reason we felt we needed to invoke the Geneva Convention. This is beyond madness.”
“This is really the stand at this moment for the legitimate, traditional, Hawaiian way against the corruption and disrespect of the current system,” says Teale.
From the days of opium profiteer Junius Kaʻae to the modern era, addictive substances are very much still a part of the struggle. The drug trade on Kauaʻi—today it’s black tar heroin and crystal methamphetamine—is being used to divert young Hawaiians away from the path of cultural reclamation embarked upon by young Hawaiians like Mao-Espirito, Hepa and the others living at Wailua.
“It’s a crucial war in that way,” says Teale. “These guys like Noa and Kamu represent a rejection of the drug culture and lifestyle. And because of that, they’re being tailed, followed and threatened.”
Teale says that off-duty police officers have been harassing people because they work side jobs for these companies. “Supposedly they function as private investigators, but in actuality, they are private security used to intimidate and bully opposition to development.”
Lopez also says she’s been followed to her workplace by KPD officers, and that the threat and intimidation generated by their presence is very real. While camped out on the site in Wailua, she and others have heard rustling and the snapping of branches in the dead of night caused by unknown agents moving about the camp perimeter at night.
“That threat is there because of what the hotel represents,” says Lopez. “We are exposing the corruption here and that makes them nervous. Noa has made it very clear: we’re not here for money. We’re here for food, to cultivate the ʻāina, to be pono with our ancestors and with our future. This is very different than the norm of kickbacks and Hawaiians taking a cut to sell out their own people and the ʻāina.”
Recently, the Coco Palms Hui hired a small group of Hawaiians claiming to be cultural experts to add a veneer of legitimacy to their project. Lopez and the other kiaʻi aren’t buying the act.
“My peers and I are growing up,” she says. “When I was young I went to a Hawaiian immersion school and we were told the stories of George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, Duke Kahanamoku and Eddie Aikau, and all these people who represent the movement—that huli. Now we’re in our 20s and we see how corrupt the system we are forced into is. But we’re also realizing that we are the authors of our own stories, and it’s time for us to make our moʻolelo something that we can be proud of and that will support and mālama our lāhui before it’s too late.”
“Everyone has their kuleana, but it’s all coming to one point,” says kiaʻi Kaʻimi Hermosura. “There is movement in our people; and sometimes it’s a clash of the titans—after all, we’re talking about a clash of the royal bloodlines of Hawaiʻi, here. But we have to learn how to get along with each other so we can move forward. Because unless our people get along with each other, and recognize that we get the power for do certain things and stop this stuff from happening to us … You cannot get more real than this.”
“I myself feel that ticking,” Lopez agrees. “I see all these buildings being constructed; the highways and the traffic; and I’m thinking: if I don’t stop it, nobody will. I think this upswing of resistance has to do with my generation growing up, coming into their own, knowing their personal power and recognizing that power is amplified when we stand together. I see, in this new generation coming up, a spark in our eyes that had died out in the older generation. I think we are inspiring in them, again. We are the bridge between the keiki and the kūpuna; the past and the future.”
“When the sun goes down into the pō, it’ll come back up and we will have to deal with our problems as a lāhui still yet,” concludes Hermosura. “And still we carry the aloha for each other. It’s a new day, and you have to carry on. So come on down here and get straight to the point. This is a beautiful, sacred place. You will never find a place like this ever again. This is heaven on Earth. You see us, our faces are scarred. ‘Cause we go through this every day. It’s not supposed to be like this. But we’re closer than you might think. We’re making progress. It’s a beautiful day out here in Wailua.”