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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Rebuilding a Hawaiian Kingdom

'Bumpy' Kanahele has carved out an Oahu village where native values reign. Many see it as a steppingstone to the goal of sovereignty.

July 21, 2005|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

WAIMANALO, Hawaii — From Honolulu, it takes an hour to drive here, heading north over dagger-like mountains and then east through rolling farm country to the outermost corner of the island known by some as the Hawaiians' Hawaii.

Tour buses circling the island don't stop here except to gas up.

Those who step off the bus won't find hula dancers greeting them with leis, or five-star hotels, or even two-star ones. They'll find a sleepy, rough-edged, working-class town of 10,000 people, some of whom don't like tourists and don't mind saying so.

"Haole, go home!" and variations of whites-aren't-welcome are occasionally shouted from front porches as a reminder that this isn't Waikiki. It's a different world. Locals rule here.

Half the residents are native Hawaiians, and many more are part Hawaiian. This is a place where Hawaiian is taught as a first language in some schools and spoken among neighbors, a place where it is widely held that Hawaii was stolen by the United States and that someday these lands will return to the Kanaka Maoli, the ancient Polynesians who settled the islands.

Scattered throughout Waimanalo's neighborhoods are state flags hanging upside-down, a symbol of defiance. In this corner of Oahu, Hawaiian sovereignty -- a government of Hawaiians for Hawaiians -- isn't just a tropical dream. The people have seen a version of it materialize before their eyes.

In the foothills above town, there is a village unlike any other in Hawaii. It's called Pu'uhonua o Waimanalo ("Refuge of Waimanalo"), a community of 80 native Hawaiians living communally on 45 acres. If Waimanalo is a stronghold of Hawaiian sovereignty, the village is its spiritual center.

Some people refer to it as "Bumpy's town," named after the 300-pound, tattooed, activist ex-con who negotiated the village into existence -- wrangling with the state's most powerful politicians -- more than a decade ago.

Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, 51, is a descendant of King Kamehameha I and bears some of the warrior's physical presence. When asked how far removed he was from the king, Kanahele thought for a moment, then lifted a massive leg onto a nearby table. He studied a row of blue and red triangular markings tattooed on his calf.

"Eleven generations, brah," he said matter-of-factly. If Kamehameha were here today, he said, the king would be uniting his people as he did two centuries ago.

Kanahele is a folk hero in these parts. He did what no other Hawaii activist had done: carved out a little kingdom within a kingdom, allowing natives to live by their own rules and revive the ways of the Kanaka Maoli. For many locals, the village represents the most tangible gain in more than 30 years of agitating for Hawaiian sovereignty.

When the movement first emerged in the 1970s, even native Hawaiians were skeptical.

"I didn't think it could happen myself, but people like Bumpy made us see it could," said Sandra Barney, 59, a native Hawaiian from Kaneohe Bay who has known Kanahele since he was a young man. "The proof is here. Bumpy stuck his neck out. I thought they were going to chop it. Now there's a village in the mountains."

The idea of sovereignty has become part of Hawaii's mainstream consciousness, with the state's most powerful political leaders -- Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and Democratic Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka -- supporting some version of it.

The U.S. Senate is considering a Hawaiian sovereignty law known as the Akaka bill, named after its chief sponsor and the first native Hawaiian in Congress. The bill, which has stalled in the Senate the past five years, was blocked again Wednesday by a Nevada senator concerned that it might encourage Hawaiians to build casinos. Both Hawaii senators said they had secured enough support to pass the bill if it ever made it to a vote. The House passed an earlier version.

The legislation would lead to federal recognition of native Hawaiians in the same way that the government recognizes American Indians and Native Alaskans. It would also initiate a process under which native Hawaiians could set up their own government, giving them the same nation-within-a-nation status as Indian tribes.

A native government would represent Hawaiians in negotiations with the federal government over contested land and resources, including nearly 2 million acres once owned by the Hawaiian monarchy -- nearly half the state.

Forming the new government would take years, not counting legal challenges.

A 2003 survey by the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, like most in recent years, found that the majority of Hawaii residents supported sovereignty. But the Akaka bill has inspired an odd spectrum of opponents.

On one hand are political conservatives, mostly Caucasian, who call the idea divisive and immoral.

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