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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Hawaiian man fights to reclaim family's land

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

WAIKANE — Raymond Kamaka has never given up hope that he would one day get back the lush acreage in Waikane Valley where his grandparents were born, where the family once raised taro from the mountains to the ocean, where he played as a boy six decades ago.

Raymond Kamaka's family owned land in Waikane Valley from the 1850s before the military leased it for live-fire training in 1942.

Photos by Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Raymond Kamaka refused to sign a settlement with the federal government or accept payment of $2.3 million for the family's Waikane Valley land that his siblings and cousins agreed to in 1994.
But a court date looms this month, and he fears that it could end for good the family connection to the land that Kamaka traces to the 1850s.

The land, 187 acres that was leased to the military for less than $2 an acre, was used for live-fire training from 1942 to 1976 and condemned in 1989 after the Marine Corps and Navy determined that they could not clear the property of unexploded ordnance as stipulated in the lease.

After drawn-out and often contentious negotiations, the family settled with the federal government in 1994 for $2.3 million. His siblings and cousins signed an agreement with conditions that once the property was cleaned the family could buy it back for that amount plus interest.

But Kamaka, 65, refused to sign the agreement or accept payment.

He is duty bound to his kupuna, who instructed him to never sell the 'aina, he said, and insisted that the government honor its commitment and clean up the land.

Now he has been ordered to U.S. District Court on Sept. 24. The judiciary wants to clear the issue from its dockets and decide what to do with $60,000 that is being held for him.

"If I don't take (the money) one way or the other they going to take (the land) away from me," said Kamaka, a Kahalu'u resident. "That's putting me against the wall."

Land condemned

From the time that Hawai'i first became a strategic American outpost in the Pacific, the military has condemned thousands of acres of state and private land for training and military bases. Inevitably, that led to conflict with Native Hawaiians, many of whom lost their homes, means of support, self determination and spiritual connection with the land.

These tensions are still evident today, in such areas as Makua, Polihale and Pohakuloa, where Native Hawaiians protest the military training that takes place there.

Kamaka was not the only person to lose his land to the military, but the circumstances and the high-profile nature of his case have inspired and strengthened the resolve of Native Hawaiians to pressure the military into using good ecological practices, said Kyle Kajihiro, program director for American Friends Service Committee, an international Quaker organization that supports Native Hawaiian rights and demilitarization.

"Here you have someone who took a very principled and courageous stand ... and now it's become a very important and pivotal case for a lot of us who are concerned about this issue," Kajihiro said.

The Kamaka land was part of the Waikane Training Area, a 1,061-acre parcel in Waikane Valley. The Army Corps of Engineers announced recently that it will assess the rest of the training area in September toward the goal of cleaning it up.

But not Kamaka's land.

The injustice hasn't been lost on the community, said Kajihiro.

The military needs to honor its commitment to the Kamakas no matter what the cost, said Jonathan Osorio, director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

"This is a man's home and this is a family's estate," Osorio said. "We're not happy that they have taken away the public lands like Bellows, Barking Sands, Lualualei or Pohakuloa, but in this particular instance (all) Americans should be outraged that an individual's private property should be used and abused like this."

Although the Army Corps of Engineers has said it will not include Kamaka's land in its clean-up plans, Marine Corps Base Hawai'i, which now owns the land, says it is developing a long-term management strategy in order to ensure that the Kamaka land "can someday be made safe in an environmentally responsible manner."

The Marines will request a cleanup once the area is officially closed, said Maj. Patricia Johnson, director of public affairs at the Kane'ohe base.

"(Closure) is the first step," she said recently. "Currently the letter to get that done is sitting on the general's desk."

Live-fire training

But Kamaka said he no longer trusts the military to do what it says it will do.

It was in the months after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that the U.S. government said it needed the Waikane land for live-fire training.

Concern was high that Hawai'i, a U.S. territory, could fall to the Japanese. The U.S. military wielded considerable influence here, and what the military wanted it usually got. The request for the land was honored, and according to the lease contract, the federal government said it would clean up the land and return it when it was no longer needed for military training.

Raymond Kamaka was 3 years old when the lease began.

Year after year, the roar of artillery fire filled the valley, which was left with spent shells and bomb craters. "When we was young we used to play, even when the Marines was here," said Gilbert Ahlo, Kamaka's cousin. "After they leave, we play, we swim in the pond. The kids pick up the shells fo' go sell. And they used to leave their rations behind and the young kids used to eat 'em.

"We used to spend a lot of time up there. They never said nothing about ordnance."

After the lease terminated in 1976, the military tried twice to clean the property. A total of 24,000 pounds of ordnance was removed in 1976, and when the land was returned that year it was declared "clear of ordnance," according to the Marine Corps, which had taken over the area from the Army.

That set the stage for Kamaka's father and the kupuna to carry out their dream of preserving the area, which is rich in cultural sites and history, Kamaka said. They wanted to share their knowledge, understanding that it would all die if the children weren't taught, Kamaka said.

For the task, they chose Kamaka, an unlikely torchbearer who had moved to the Mainland right after high school and lived there for 30 years. He accepted the role, which he described as a spiritual calling.

Kamaka, a former professional wrestler, started farming the land shortly after returning in 1981. He raised pigs and taro in abundance and was able to share it with senior citizens, churches and the homeless, he said. Schoolchildren visited the property, where a heiau, petroglyphs and a kuahu, or shrine, is located along with taro patches that are so unique they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Some 22 homeless people lived on the property at one time with him, cultivating the land and trying to put their lives back together, Kamaka said.

Unexploded ordnance

But in 1984 he found unexploded ordnance on the hills above his fields and called on the military for additional cleanup. About 16,000 pounds of ordnance was removed before experts determined that it would be too expensive to clear the land entirely of the rockets, grenades, 60 mm mortar rounds and practice ordnance.

The land was fenced off to protect the public, and the government went to court to condemn the land, taking it away from the family.

"It really broke my heart when they took my land," said Kamaka. "I had kids from Waikiki, Samoa and Tonga who had no job and were ripping off tourists. I had them farming and was educating them."

The family wanted to keep the land, but during negotiations their offers were turned down because of liability issues, said Judy Tsutsui, a Kamaka family member. The family wanted the military to take only the land where ordnance was found or let the lease stand until the military cleaned the land, Tsutsui said.

"Even when we said we accept liability, just give it your best shot in cleaning, they said no," she said.

The family had also questioned the fairness of condemning its property and not the rest of the training area where unexploded ordnance were found, Tsutsui said.

"We felt prejudiced against," Tsutsui said.

Buyout accepted

In the end the family gave up and accepted the buyout.

Except for Raymond Kamaka.

In fighting for his land, Kamaka said he was accused of trying to overthrow the government. He believes that is what ultimately led to his conviction and two-year jail sentence in connection with a tax scheme. According to media accounts on the case, several prominent officials wrote letters on his behalf, including U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka, U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Judge David Ezra, who said he believed Kamaka was misled.

It has been 17 years since Kamaka last set foot on his farm, and today he supports himself by selling a health drink.

He said he will reach back into history and the laws of the Hawaiian Kingdom in an attempt to prove that what has been done to him was illegal. Using American law to make government honor its contract has failed, he said.

Kamaka is not sure how his fight for the land will end, but said he must continue to tell his story so the children remember.

"All I did was try to save my land," Kamaka said.

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com or 234-5266.