On the cusp
Stories by Catherine Kekoa Enomoto
Photographs by Ken Ige
ON Jan. 23, 1864, King Kamehameha V conveyed Niihau island to brothers Francis Sinclair and James McHutchison Sinclair for $10,000 in gold. The census of 1860 reported a Niihau population of 647. The new owners hired members of this community and operated the island as a ranch for sheep and cattle.
One-hundred thirty-three years later, the present owner, 86-year-old Helen Robinson, and her sons, Keith Robinson, 56, and Bruce Robinson, 54, are Sinclair descendants who continue a generational legacy of employing, providing for and safeguarding the 200 native Hawaiians remaining on Niihau.
Like their forebears, the Robinsons closely restrict access to Niihau; one needs permission or an invitation to go on island. Niihauans may not speak about anything that might adversely affect the security and privacy of his family's property and business affairs, Keith Robinson explained. Residents must remain silent about national-defense research projects. And, they must have a "reasonably honest, sober and moral lifestyle" as long as they live on Robinson property. Otherwise, they are subject to possible expulsion from the island.
The island remains largely undeveloped; there are dirt roads only, and no telephone or electric lines although each home has a generator. More than 130 years of restricted access has inspired the nicknames of "Forbidden Island" and "Island of Yesteryear," and mystique veils Niihau.
We're all one family," says educator 'Ilei Beniamina about Niihauans, who have recurring surnames of Beniamina, Kanahele, Ka'ohelauli'i, Keale, Kelley, Niau, Niheu and Shintani. She is a Niihau native who currently lives on Kauai, where she's on the faculty of Kauai Community College.
Recording artist Moe Keale, whose father was born on Niihau and took him there regularly in his youth, described Niihauans as very giving, mellow, shy and humble. He said they live close to nature and they make do.
He likes to tell a story about his Niihau cousins fixing a truck without reading a manual. They dismantled the engine and laid the parts on the grass, in the order that they removed the pieces. Then, they reassembled the engine -- replacing parts in the reverse order that they took them out.
"My dad said they were never going to fix this, but at 1 o'clock in the morning I heard ehe-he ehe-he ehe-he -- and it started," Keale recalled. "What's neat about it is, they did with what they had. They are amazing, amazing people."
He describes Niihauans with one word, "aloha." He listed adjectives commonly associated with the acronym ALOHA: akahai (gentleness), lokahi (harmony), 'olu'olu (graciousness), ha'aha'a (humility), ahonui (patience).
"That's who they are," he said. "They're the perfect example of what Hawaii is."
Keale described the rhythm of Niihau's lifestyle: Residents rise before the sun and work till sundown in ranch activities of herding cattle, mending fences and "all the cowboy kine stuff." They fish and "know where to go on that island to get 'opihi and what kinds of fish they like."
There's a supply store where people sign for staples, such as flour and canned goods. And in the evenings, families gather to make Niihau shell lei because "that is their gift they give you."
Time is fluid, Keale recalled; when people say they'll see you Tuesday, "It can be any time between sunup and sundown. There is no such thing as being late on Niihau ... Just like they navigate by the sun and moon."
A ranch barge offers supplies and free transportation without much regularity: every one to six weeks. Niihauans also have access to the ranch's twin-engine, seven-passenger helicopter for medical and other emergencies.
Keale looks at the ambience of Niihau through romantic lenses: "Niihau is what Hawaii was like a hundred years ago -- you're there in a second."
TODAY, against the backdrop of a lifestyle as relaxed as the lap of gentle waves persists the pressure of economic reality plus a military presence dating to 1941. A small Army garrison had guarded the island after a Japanese pilot from the Pearl Harbor attack had landed and terrorized the community.
Fast forward to the present: The Navy is spending $2.3 million for an environmental impact statement (EIS) on its proposal for test-missile launch sites on Kauai and Niihau. A first draft of the EIS is expected late this year.
Keith Robinson welcomes the plan, calling it a matter of getting "paid to be allowed to sit around and push buttons in black boxes."
"It's the least environmentally damaging thing I can imagine. It's a lot better than having sheep overgraze."
Also, a 6,000-foot runway could serve as a firebreak, preventing catastrophes such as happened in the 1950s, he said.
He said the ultimate decisions belong to brother Bruce Robinson, the managing agent and co-heir with Keith of Niihau Ranch, which encompasses Niihau island.
"He may occasionally solicit input (from Niihau residents). We do seek out their advice and will try to go along with their provisions. But in the end, we must live with the results, we are the owners, we are the ones being taxed."
What Niihauans themselves think about their future and about the prospect of test missiles is difficult to determine. Their shyness and humility, notwithstanding, Niihauans historically have been forbidden to discuss national-defense research projects that date to the 1958 atomic testing on nearby Johnson Island. Therefore, only two Niihauans overcame an ingrained reluctance to talk with outsiders.
For 'Ilei Beniamina, the Navy missile proposal embodies the dichotomy between the Western and Hawaiian cultures.
" 'A'ole 'ike (The Navy doesn't understand) what's important to us, what is taking our mana (spiritual power) away. They have no idea, they don't feel (the same), they don't see (the same)."
Beniamina drew on a cigarette, looked away into an indistinct future and spoke in a low, earnest voice.
"Don't water down anymore our Niihau culture," she implored. "It's so special. We are the last indigenous people that are Hawaiian, because we have the language and that's what's left -- the remnants (of the culture). Will this change affect Niihau drastically? That's my biggest emotion."
Beniamina represented Niihau on the recent Hawaiian Sovereignty Elections Council and she acknowledged that the decision-making process among Niihauans is a microcosm of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. It is also a time-consuming process.
"In our cultural tradition, when we're into decision making, we no'o (think); we share. This is why we take time. There's the kuka (discussion) stage. There's the pilikia (clear the air of troubles) stage. When we're all done, our decision is what becomes public."
Outsiders, she said, misinterpret the people's decisions as those of the island's owners when, in fact, "our people made the decision and gave it to Robinson."
"Actually the ho'oponopono (problem resolution) stage to come together about sovereignty, for eight different islands, takes years. Our kupuna said to let Haunani (Kay Trask) yell and scream. Everything will come out one voice.
"But work we must," she admitted, "and change. But, it doesn't have to be drastic."
On the choices facing her people, 59-year-old Niihauan "Mama" Lina Kanahele said vehemently in Hawaiian: " 'A'ole makemake" -- I don't want (the Navy on the island of Niihau).
" 'A'ole kuleana" -- It's not the property or purview (of the military)."
NIIHAU'S near future appears dim but stable. The Robinsons confirmed they don't intend to sell the island; they've turned down many offers -- one a huge sum by Japan interests.
Keith Robinson said, "We will try to maintain the place as long as we reasonably can, but can obviously make no permanent guarantees. Hard times exist everywhere. At the moment, we have very little extra money to subsidize Niihau."
He said he and his brother divert earnings from the Gay & Robinson Inc. sugar plantation -- of which they are among a number of owners -- to support Niihau. They employ two to three times more Niihau workers than necessary and pay minimum wage. Due to the economic downturn, the Robinsons recently have cut back workers' hours, but are trying to avoid laying off anyone.
"I estimate that up to now we have lost somewhere between $8 million and $9 million (over 50 years) trying to keep that community employed. This figure does not count income loss from giving free housing and free meat to a community of 150 to 200 people," he said.
Robinson said he plans to start ecotourism tours in his Kauai Wildlife Reserve to "bleed off some money to help pay for Niihau a little bit."
The family wants to sell 200 to 400 acres in Wainiha, Kauai, to raise capital; however, this land will be a hard sell because it is zoned conservation, Keith Robinson said.
Niihauans themselves might be able to work in NASA solar-plane research that soared to a height record last Monday over Niihau.
MEANWHILE, the reaction of outsiders to the prospect of Navy missiles on Niihau ranged from "it's their business" to cries for self-determination and even radical change.
In the first category are Mary Thronas, Kauai County Council chair, and Clayton Hee, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Thronas believes that what happens on Niihau is up to the Robinsons and says the County Council is not about to get involved.
"It's a personal matter, it's their island, they own it, and they should really be the ones to decide it," she said.
Hee says, "In the case of the native speakers of Niihau, we're very concerned about them and we care deeply for them. However, we would not presume to speak for them or any other Hawaiian without being asked by them. To do so would be -- I guess the Hawaiian phrase is -- maha'oi, to put our nose where it may not be appreciated.
"There's no doubt, at least in my mind, if Niihau were owned by people other than the Robinsons, that it's very likely that the people and the language and the culture would not exist."
Hee believes that in some ways, "the Hawaiian people owe a debt of gratitude to the Robinsons for the language and the culture that exist today."
He feels the Robinsons are very connected to Niihau.
"Every time I've gone to West Waimea, their jeans were dirty with red dirt. So they're unique in the sense that as large landowners, you do not find them on Bishop Street, but under a truck repairing a transmission or somewhere in the fields. And that sets them apart in actually participating in the labor of the land."
Others in the Hawaiian community have strident positions concerning Niihau.
Manu Boyd, a kumu hula, OHA cultural specialist and lead singer for Ho'okena said, "The people of Niihau need to decide. Their voices together with the family that owns the island need to be considered, against anything that would desecrate the geophysical, historical, social or cultural significance of the island. Because Niihau is such a personal subject to those who belong there, it's their decision."
Kauai freelance writer Sabra Kauka, who wrote on the Robinsons for a Forbes magazine article on America's top 400 families, said, "The island needs to be sovereign, to be run by the people who live there. They (Niihauans) should decide how the island should be taken care of. They're plenty smart enough to be able to do that. I think it's been a dream of theirs for a long time; they've wanted to 'own' the island.
"It's the people there who traditionally have not wanted development and intrusions in their lifestyles at all. They have been pretty strong about it. It's been the only one of the islands that has managed to pull that off. It's the only one of the inhabited islands that has managed to stave off Western development. It's because the Robinsons have been protective, but it (also) very much comes from the people. They're actually very independent."
FOR such reasons, Haunani-Kay Trask, director of the University of Hawaii Center for Hawaiian Studies, opposes any Navy presence on Niihau.
'Colonial choke hold'
"There should not be any military in Hawaii, period," she said. "But those missiles are a complete assault on the people of Niihau. They are a small, fairly isolated community, and that kind of dangerous, large development is very intrusive. It's going to be very destructive of their environment and the kind of close 'ohana relations they have with each other."
Niihau "should go back to the people who live there," Trask said. "They (Robinsons) should stop being 19th century imperialists and let the people decide their future. They should get on with the 21st century view of indigenous peoples and reparations, and give the island back to them -- free of charge. This is a real case study in tyrannical government. They're sort of like the lord of the manor; if you misbehave, you're off the island.
"Some of the people are purebloods. They have every historical reason to be freed from that colonial choke hold that they're under."
Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, associate professor at the UH Center for Hawaiian Studies, said, "I think it's terrible that the Navy wants to do test-missile launch sites on Niihau. It's a terrible desecration of that land.
"As for the future of the island, I believe that the state ought to condemn the island to benefit the Niihau people and just turn it over to the Niihau people who live there. Since the Robinsons want to put military things on that land, they have forfeited their right to be konohiki (chief) on that land.
"I really believe that the best thing for the future of Niihau and for the Niihau people themselves is to be able to control the island. (If) they want to exclude outsiders, they want to live peacefully by themselves, they should be afforded that right."
Hawaiian activist and physician Kekuni Blaisdell is "outraged" about the missile proposal.
Outsiders "keep telling us we need to have a growing economy and this will provide jobs for you, that we need to grow and survive. That's the way they seduce us. It's going on everywhere. So this is more exploitation and domination, which of course is the definition of colonialism, which is a crime by specific international law."
Lawyer Mililani Trask, head of the Hawaiian sovereignty group Ka Lahui Hawai'i, said, "I am opposed to, and Ka Lahui already passed a resolution against, militarizing any lands within the archipelago."
She suggested enlisting experts to assess and develop marketing plans for economic ventures with a unique Niihau flavor, such as Niihau shell jewelry, weavings, music and tropical fish.
"You can't have economic development and growth when the position is to remain insular and alienated from others. The bottom line for economic growth is economic commercialism and social intercourse," Trask said.
Kihei Niheu of the Big Island's Pu'ukapu Hawaiian Homestead, whose father was a Niihau native, wants descendants to become involved in the discussion.
"I really want to organize. I think the descendants should get together and start talking about how can we help our homeland. We gotta start communicating with the people who are still there -- economic activity, how to develop a solar industry there, things like that.
"Why is it they don't have solar panels for their families?" Niheu asked. "Why don't they have their own property? Why doesn't the state step in and condemn some land for our people there, so every kanaka maoli (native Hawaiian) in the island has their own property, to give them a sense of independence? And some of us want to go back; why won't they allow us to go back?" he said.
OHA trustee Haunani Apoliona tempered the debate by suggesting an open discussion of issues with the people of Niihau.
"Maybe people should ask them what they want. Maybe their perspective is framed by what they know living there. There's so many levels in this thing; it's not simply black and white.
"It's that dilemma of balance. The word for the century is balance, because there are so many overlapping, superimposed priorities. Whatever alternative is chosen, I hope there is a balance of lifestyle, of economic situation, of the needs of the people as well as the people who are responsible for that island."
And, while Niihau basks in its blue-gray-green ocean, Keith Robinson frets.
"It's an enormously complex situation," he said. "It's stressful. I lie awake at night wondering if we've done the right thing."
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