Our whanaunga in Hawai’i, Kanaka Māoli, are demanding the immediate closure of the US naval base at Red Hill in Oahu, in the wake of the latest in a long string of injustices: the contamination of a major water source caused by leaked jet fuel.
Kanaka Māoli have long fought back against the US militarisation of their islands. In recent years, the world took notice as native Hawaiians united in defence of their sacred mountain, Mauna Kea, on Hawaii Island. That struggle continues on the mountain today, but recent events on Oahu have seen protestors bringing attention back to water. A fuel leak at a US naval storage facility has resulted in the pollution of a major water source in Honolulu. Pacific Studies lecturer Dr Emalanai Case, who was born in Hawai’i, says the pollution and desecration won’t end until sovereignty is returned to the native Hawaiians.
Growing up with the all-pervading presence of the US military, Dr Emalani Case has become accustomed to violations inflicted on her homeland. It has hardened her resolve to see the end of the militarism in Hawai’i.
“Ultimately, Indigenous sovereignty in Hawai’i is what we need. First, de-militarisation and then decolonisation,” she says.
Case, a Kanaka Māoili from Waimea, Hawai’i, grew up 45 minutes from the Puhakuloa military base on Hawai’i Island, referred to as Big Island.
“You grow up feeling the bombs, seeing tanks, helicopters flying constantly. You’re not fully aware of how violent of an upbringing that is.
“I would love for future generations to not have to experience any of that.”
Case is also a lecturer in Pacific studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and she is standing in solidarity with many Kanaka Māoli, native Hawaiians, calling for the immediate shut-down of the US Navy Red Hill facility after the local water supply was contaminated. She says the solution is the demilitarisation of Hawai’i.
Oahu’s largest water source, the Halawa Shaft, which delivers 20% of Honolulu’s water supply, has been shut down by the local Board of Water Supply. This followed an announcement by the US Navy on November 20 that jet fuel from a WWII storage facility had leaked into a local aquifer. Thousands of military families have been displaced, residents have fallen ill from drinking the contaminated water, and pressure has been mounting on the military to invest in prevention measures.
It’s not the first time the US Navy has been found irresponsibly managing its facilities. In 2018, the Hawaiian Department of Health fined the US Navy over $350,000 for operations and maintenance violations at an underground fuel storage facility, and in May this year, an operator error caused the release of over 6,000 litres of fuel at the Red Hill storage facility. The latest fuel leak at the same facility has resulted in water contamination of petroleum over 350 times safe drinking levels.
Just days ago the US Air force delivered filtration systems to the base camp, which will be used to flush approximately 25 million gallons of contaminated water. This will be released on land or into sewer and wastewater systems.
Engineers have said the gray dust in the water is “harmless charcoal residue from the massive filters” and that they’d have “clean and tested water in 45 days”, Hawaii News Now journalist Mahealani Richardson reported, but Pearl City Peninsula residents say they’re sceptical.
The water contamination has opened up a much larger conversation about how much Hawai’i has sacrificed for the military, Case says. Many Kanaka Māoli have resisted the military in Hawai’i for over a century but it takes catastrophes like this for people to become aware and speak up about it.
“This is just one example of how the military has prioritised its own agendas over the health and wellbeing and safety of our lands, our waters and our people.”
History of US military occupation in Hawai’i
The occupation can be traced back to 1893 when the US military supported the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani, the reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
“People aren’t aware of the fact that we lost sovereignty when our Queen was overthrown and our islands illegally taken over because of the military,” Case says.
As early as the 1870s, military officials were scouting Hawai’i as a strategic location, and looking for a place to build a naval port. They found an area called Ke Awa Lau O Puʻuloa (The Many Bays of Puʻuloa), now commonly known as Pearl Harbour.
That led to the signing of the Bayonet Constitution in 1887, which King Kalākaua was forced to sign. This gave the US military access to Pearl Harbour. When King Kalākaua’s sister and successor, Queen Lili’uokalani, tried to embed a new constitution in 1893 to bring more power back to the Kingdom of Hawai’i, she was overthrown.
US marines backed American businessmen and plantation owners, forcing the Queen to surrender the Hawaiian Kingdom to the United States.
“You can see how military interest and desires in Hawai’i have been central in taking over Hawai’i… [and] they’ve been there ever since,” Case says.
While Hawai’i is often described as a strategic location of national security, Case says this doesn’t protect or support Kanaka Māoli.
“Our lives, and our lands, and our waters are always seen as disposable, always seen as expendable for the safety of everyone else.”
The Kaho’olawe case
After Pearl Harbour was attacked in 1941, the United States declared martial law in Hawaii. Kaho’olawe, an island sacred to Kanaka Māoli, was then used as a bombing range.
In 1976, a group of Kanaka Māoli, Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, began occupations on the island, risking death to stop the bombing. Two of them, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, lost their lives at sea while returning from the island. Activists Walter Writte and Richard Sawyer occupied the island for 35 days, during which time the navy continued to bomb it. Protect Kahoolawe Ohana then sued the navy, and bombing stopped a few years later. In 1993, the United States Congress voted to end military use of Kaho’olawe and transferred the island back to the state.
“Kaho’olawe sits in many Kanaka Māoli hearts and minds as an example of what is possible: to never ever give up hope, to remain radical as George Helm would say, and to do something because it is possible to end destruction,” says Case.
“When you’re facing a beast like the United States military, people might think you’ll never win, you’ll never prevail, but that’s an example of a win.”
Layers of complexity
Critiquing the military as an oppressive structure requires a level of gentleness and delicacy, Case says, as many Kanaka Māoli have a family history of service, or family members who are currently serving.
“I’m not anti-individuals in the military, I’m against this militarist structure that takes violence as being justified and that is willing to and has shown that it will destroy lives and societies for its own agendas.
“That’s really hard when people are so wrapped up in it, and when their livelihood is wrapped up in it,” she says.
Today, nearly a quarter of the island of Oahu is controlled by the military.
SINKEX is another example of the pervasive military presence in Hawai’i. It is a practice where the US navy shoots missiles and torpedoes at decommissioned ships and lets them sink, often off the coast of Kaua’i. It’s part of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest international maritime war exercise which takes place in Hawai’i every second year. The New Zealand Navy also participates in this biannual event — it sent a ship over in 2020.
The military exercise not only puts the lives of native Hawaiians in danger, but it pollutes the water, Case says, and is yet another example of the damage inflicted on the people of Hawai’i by the larger military structure.
“When you talk about militarism, and when you look at things like the current contamination, the fight to protect Mauna Kea, all of the struggles that we face, it’s really, really easy to lose hope.
“It’s really easy to feel depressed, to feel down, to feel completely frustrated and we all do, at times, but we stay in the fight because of that hope.
“If we give up hope, then we’ve lost, and colonialism has won.”
The military is so visibly dominant on the island, its presence embedded in the landscape and in the psyche of locals that Case says they face pushback when calling for demilitarisation.
“When you challenge it, like many of us do, then you’re seen as being unpatriotic, you’re seen as being anti-veteran, you’re seen as unsympathetic to the people who have given their lives in war.”
Radical hope in the face of it all
Borrowing from Johnathon Lear, Case teaches her students that she lives by the concept of radical hope.
“I’m going to have hope for a better future, no matter what. Even if you tell me that I’m crazy. Even if you tell me that my hope is ridiculous, even if everything in my life shows me that the status quo is going to prevail, I’m going to have hope no matter what.”
“When you look at Kaho’olawe you see radical hope. When you hear Haunani Kay Trask, you feel her hope. You feel her anger, you feel her rage and resistance but you know she’s doing it because she’s hopeful.”
Propelled forward by the obligations to her descendants and fuelled by radical hope, Case says she won’t stop fighting for the land she loves, as a responsibility to future generations.
“I would love a Hawaii that is clean, that is free, where we can actually grow food on our own ‘Āina (whenua) and sustain ourselves. That’s what we really want. We want to be able to grow as indigenous people and be indigenous.”