(BIVN) – Hawaiian Homes Commission chair William Aila, speaking Wednesday to the State Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs, told lawmakers that one other commissioner had prior knowledge about plans to remove the Hale Kūhiō structure on the side of the Mauna Kea Access Road two months ago. The “ranger station” was dismantled on the same day the mid-level Hale Kukiaʻimauna and the two summit ʻahu were also removed, and the Notice To Proceed was issued for the Thirty Meter Telescope construction project.
At the senate committee briefing, Aila told Hilo State Senator Kai Kahele that “he made the decision” to remove Hale Kūhiō, “because the individuals that were involved in the construction were informed. They were warned. They were encouraged to remove the illegal structure. They did not have permission to build Hale Kūhiō.”
Hale Kūhiō was located not far from the present standoff over the TMT on the Mauna Kea Access Road, but the little red structure represented a struggle apart from the observatory. “We started a Kanaka Ranger Program to help assist [the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands] in the management of the 50,000 plus acres on the ʻAina Mauna Legacy on Moku O Keawe,” said Kepa Kaʻeo, one of the initiators of Hale Kūhiō, in a previous interview. “After consultation with both the DHHL and homestead associations and communities, the Kanaka Rangers erected Hale Kūhiō with their blessings. The funding was donated from over 700 individuals that paid $1 for their family members who are waiting or who have died” on the Hawaiian Homes waitlist, he said.
The rangers are pushing for Hawaiian beneficiaries to “live on the land, not die on the list”.
Hale Kūhiō was nevertheless a point of tension between the Kanaka Rangers and DHHL. Kaʻeo was present on June 20 during the early morning raid, and livestreamed the action using Facebook. Aila was there when the structure was taken down.
A DHHL spokesperson on June 20 said that all information regarding the removal of Hale Kūhiō would come through a joint news release from a newly established, state-run Mauna Media team. However, a few days later, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands quietly posted this information to its website:
Members of the “Kanaka Rangers” and the “Beneficiary Trust Council” who constructed the dwelling were given multiple verbal and written notices to vacate the property over the past year.
A previous structure at the same location was voluntarily removed by a separate party upon request by DHHL several months ago. The DHHL action occurred alongside other removals on Mauna Kea by various state agencies that same day.
“The Department had intended to remove the illegal shack for some time. The other removal activities on the Mauna allowed DHHL access to safety and security resources that we otherwise would have not been able to acquire,” said Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman William J. Aila, Jr.
The lumber from the structure was transported and placed into storage by DHHL while all items of value were taken to a private storage facility. Everything from the removal will be kept for a 30-day period, in which the owners of the property may claim them. A notice was posted at the site and a copy was provided to a member of the “Kanaka Rangers” who was present during the removal.
Social media posts have inaccurately stated that former East Hawai`i Hawaiian Homes Commissioner Wally Ishibashi was a part of this action. Ishibashi was not present at any time.
“Even though there were different agencies, appropriate state agencies, who were removing the unauthorized structures, it was a coordinated effort for security and for safety reasons,” said Hawaiʻi Attorney General Clare Connors during a later press conference. “Its all tied together,” she said.
“The feeling that I have here is not a feeling of loss, it’s more of a feeling of momentum,” Kaʻeo said immediately after the removal. “This injustice and genocide must stop. And we’re going to take a stand right now. The toll is too great.”
“We’ve taken down structures without permits on every island,” Aila told the senate committee on Wednesday. Still, Senator Kahele wanted to know why that one.
“This is a very sensitive situation,” Kahele said. “In my opinion, we could’ve done that differently. In my opinion we inflamed the situation and made things much, much worse. I think there could have been a better way to go about that.”
Since that time, the Kanaka Rangers have played a supportive role in the Kū Kiaʻi Mauna movement to stop the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope, including helping out at Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu – which is also located, partially, on Hawaiian Home Lands.
“In hindsight, would you have done the same thing? Given that last six weeks?” Kahele asked Aila.
“Yes,” Aila answered.
The Kanaka Rangers say they sought a right of entry for Hale Kūhiō, but Aila said that the idea of a right of entry “could only be entertained if they were in compliance. As long as Hale Kūhiō was standing in non-compliance, we could not consider that.”
Present for Wednesday’s briefing were kanaka rangers Kaʻeo and Kalaniakea Wilson, who attempted to confront Aila during a Facebook livestream after the meeting was finished. The two spoke to students who were present at the capitol and later presented evidence to the committee chair Maile Shimabukuro, which they say shows documentation on a right-of-entry for Hale Kūhiō, as well as signatures from various beneficiaries in support of their Aina Mauna efforts – including Hawaiʻi Island homestead association leadership and the (now former) East Hawaiʻi commissioner Wally Ishibashi.
Ishibashi’s term on the commission concluded a few months ago.
During the senate briefing, Sen. Kahele wanted to know if any other commissioners, besides chair Aila, knew about the plan to remove Hale Kūhiō prior to June 20. Aila was reluctant to allow other commissioners the chance to answer Kahele’s question, citing executive session concerns, but eventually said that “the commissioner whose district that the action was in was notified. The other commissioners were not notified.”
The room was full of public observers who murmured and even laughed at Aila’s answers, which at one point appeared to frustrate the DHHL chair. “One of the things you gotta learn is a little respect,” Aila said, after one audience outburst.
“Absolutely. Goes both ways,” Kahele commented.