On September 13, 2016, Maui County experienced a record-breaking rainstorm. Residents who had lived in Central Maui their whole lives had never seen anything like it. The Wailuku river changed course and, true to the literal translation of its name, became the “destructive water,” rising from a flow rate of under 100 million gallons per day to an estimated rate of three billion gallons per day.
Emergency proclamations were issued at the County, State and Federal level to assist in the clean up. These emergency proclamations allowed for the temporary suspension of certain environmental laws. Homes, as well as portions of the State and County parks in ʻĪao Valley, suffered significant damage and County, State and private contractors went to work clearing debris, including a large amount of pōhaku (rocks) that had washed down the valley. With another rainstorm looming on the horizon, there was a great sense of urgency to shore-up residences and protect what remained.
In the following weeks, as the weather settled down, residents of the area became alarmed at what was going on in ʻĪao. The public was denied access to the valley and surrounding area, and there was no transparency or openness about the cleanup process.
Debris was hauled out by TJ Gomes trucking company to the landfill, and to Maui EKO compost. Sources at EKO say workers had to hand sort debris and pick out the rocks in order to process the debris, and that EKO declined to have the pile of separated rocks hauled by TJ Gomes to be crushed at their crushing station. Yet area residents reported truckloads of large pōhaku from the valley being hauled straight to the landfill and crushed to be used as landfill cover.
PB Sullivan was contracted by TJ Gomes to crush the rocks at the landfill. Many Maui County community members expressed concern over the handling of the situation and, with no word from the mayor’s office, the outcry continued to grow. Residents wanted an explanation as to why the pōhaku were being removed from ʻĪao valley as part of the clean up, and why the large rocks weren’t being used, instead, to immediately shore up the banks.
Finally, on February 14, 2017, five months after the storm, the Maui County Mayor’s office issued an apology, through Hawaii News Now, for “unintentionally” crushing the pōhaku removed from ʻĪao valley. The County spokesperson, Rod Antone, insisted there was no intention to crush the rocks, and that he had personally apologized to his friends in the Native Hawaiian community. But some of you are likely asking, “why all the fuss?”
ʻĪao Valley is sacred to many Hawaiians. It is the historic site of the Battle of Kepaniwai, which took place in 1790. During this extremely bloody battle, Kamehameha I landed with his army in Kahului, Maui, and fought against Kalanikūpule, son of the great Chief Kahekili II, who was away on Oʻahu at the time. The battle was evenly matched until, on the third day, Kamehamehaʻs army (with the help of John Davis and Isaac Young) used western cannons to turn the tide.
It was said that, “the river ran red with the blood of the dead,” and the multitude of floating corpses resulted in the “damming of the waters.” Hence the name, Kepaniwai, which means “the water dam.” This battle was a turning point in the history of Hawaiʻi: it was the moment Kamehameha I realized he could achieve his dream of conquering the islands with the help of Western weapons. The enormous amount of spilled blood in the valley, and on the rocks within it, is one of the reasons both the site and its pōhaku are sacred, historically and culturally significant to many Hawaiians.
On February 17, 2017, Mayor Arakawa himself appeared on the Hawaii News Now “Sunrise Edition” to talk about how the county had handled the aftermath of the rainstorm. As the interview began, however, it became clear that Mayor Arakawa was not, in fact, sorry at all that these sacred rocks had been gathered up and unceremoniously discarded or destroyed by the county. “Thereʻs no such thing as sacred rocks,” he declared, adding that those who are standing up for this issue are nothing more than political wannabes.
He went on to state that the lineage of Kamehameha I had declared Christianity to be the religion of Hawaiʻi, and that one of the Christian commandments is “thou shalt have no false God before me.” At some point during the program, the island of Maui literally shook from a magnitude 4.5 earthquake that occurred off the coast of Hawaiʻi Island’s Kīlauea volcano. Whether or not this was a hōʻailona (sign or message) regarding Mayor Arakawaʻs remarks remains to be seen.
I ran as a challenger to Mayor Arakawa in the 2014 nonpartisan Maui County mayoral election. Part of the reason that I decided to run against the incumbent mayor was the consistent disrespect he has shown to the Native Hawaiian community and to indigenous culture.
On October 18, 2013, I remember a front page Maui News article about the proposed renaming of the Waiheʻe Ball Park in Waiheʻe Valley to the Richard “Pablo” Caldito Sr. Park. In that article, Mayor Arakawa is reported as being “irritated” by protesters who had a problem with the name change. The protesters felt that the name of the town was Waiheʻe, and that keeping the name Waiheʻe for the park, meant respect for the general history and culture of the area, thereby representing all the people who had made Waiheʻe their home over the decades. They held signs that read: “It’s Waiheʻe valley, not Caldito valley!”
Mayor Arakawa responded that, “If they are so small-minded that they cannot accept someone who dedicated his life and who deserves to be respected, then they donʻt deserve the time of day.” Mayor Arakawa said this a little over a year before his re-election. He said, “This is somebody who worked day in and day out for decades, his whole life, and they come out and disrespect that. That’s not Hawaiian culture.” At the time, I wondered why a compromise couldn’t be reached. Maybe the Richard “Pablo” Caldito Sr. Park in Waiheʻe Valley?
There are many issues at play here, but the biggest one seems to be Mayor Arakawaʻs continued lack of respect for the Hawaiian culture. Hawaiʻi is often referred to as a melting pot of different cultures, where all ethnicities can come together and celebrate the others’ cultures: Pounding mochi, Chinese New Year, Barrio Fiesta and more. The problem is that, while respect is given to the diversity of cultures that come to Hawaiʻi, it is often not shown to the indigenous host culture, and that is reflected in the statements made by Mayor Arakawa.
The key to the issue is respect. Obviously not everyone is going to have the same religious beliefs, but we all—especially our elected officials—need to respect each individual’s rights to hold on to their personal beliefs. And that must include Native Hawaiian beliefs as well. As stated in the recent Office of Hawaiian Affairs press release on this subject, “Pōhaku (rocks) are a cornerstone of Native Hawaiian material and living culture, providing not only a vast array of utilitarian uses such as tools, vessels, weights and building materials, but also immense spiritual and political importance for Native Hawaiian people.”
Would it have been so difficult for Mayor Arakawa to acknowledge that many people feel certain pōhaku are sacred? Would it have been so difficult to apologize for the way things were handled in an emergency situation, and to promise to take action to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future? It is only difficult when there is such a lack of basic respect for a people or culture.
Moving forward, what can we—as the people of Hawaiʻi—do about this? We need to educate our children, regardless of their ethnicity, about the importance of respecting all cultures. We need to educate our youth about what is unique about Hawaiʻi, and the real history of this ʻāina. And we need to empower them to speak up against this type of bullying, and to envision a way to solve problems without destroying our cultural resources. As adults we need to engage in serious discussions about how we will move forward with respect, even when our elected leaders have none.