Friday, May 14, 1999

Niihau: Opening up

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Niihau's children came out for a rare public appearance
during Gov. Ben Cayetano's recent tour of the privately
owned "Forbidden Island."

The Robinson family and native
Hawaiians are turning to the
military and tourism for income

By Anthony Sommer


PUUWAI, Niihau -- For the first time in 135 years, Niihau Ranch, the only employer on "The Forbidden Island," is closed.

"Cattle ranching is dead. Sheep ranching is dead. Honey is dead. Even charcoal is dead," said ranch manager Bruce Robinson.

For five generations, every man in Niihau's small native Hawaiian community could depend on full employment on the ranch and believed all of their babies (the boys at least) would grow up to be cowboys.

Today, the unemployment rate on Niihau is 100 percent.

"Under the new federal laws, welfare has a five-year lifetime limit," noted Keith Robinson. "In a very short time the people here are going to be in a world of hurt."

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
A mature Hawaiian monk seal basks in the afternoon
sun on a rocky north shore.

The Robinson brothers are looking at two sources of new income for the island: contracts with the military and tourism.

The Robinsons apparently succeeded last week in persuading Gov. Ben Cayetano to back off state objections to the use of Niihau as part of a major new Navy missile-testing program scheduled for the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

"You mean there's no work for these young guys?" Cayetano asked, indicating the Niihau men driving the ranch vehicles for the tour.

"Only from the military," Bruce Robinson replied.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
State Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu interacts
with Niihau students just outside the school building.

If there are no new jobs from the Navy testing program, the Robinsons told the governor, the only economic salvation for the island may have to come from increased tourism, which would destroy the isolation that insulates the Hawaiian community. Tourist activities so far -- helicopter trips and hunting safaris -- have avoided contact with the Hawaiian community.

Even with an increase in military employment, the Robinsons say some limited new tourism activity is likely.

With tour boats evicted from Kauai's north shore, more and more tours are being offered by west-side boats with Niihau as an option to the Na Pali Coast.

"We believe we can offer a better product on Niihau and allow people to visit the beaches without all this fooling around by Kauai tour boats right off shore," Keith Robinson said.

Cayetano made it clear he understood the economic crisis facing the Robinsons and the Niihau community.

"I feel in my heart that I must do everything I can to help the people of Niihau," Cayetano said.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Animal footprints are etched on the sand at Niihau's beach.

The 150 or so native Hawaiians living on Niihau make up the last community in the state where Hawaiian is the official language and all of the inhabitants are full-blooded Hawaiians.

Isolated apparently only as much as they want to be, many spend parts of the year living with relatives and working on Kauai, and then return. They have radios and televisions hooked to VCRs and, according to Keith Robinson, "they all know who Dennis Rodman is."

Totally bilingual, the children switch effortlessly back and forth from Hawaiian to English. What's telling is that there isn't a hint of pidgin in their English.

Bruce Robinson's Niihauan wife, Leiana, and her parents appear to receive a deference reserved for alii, but so, too, do the teachers at the Niihau School.

One of the lasting memories of the governor's tour is bouncing down a dusty, rarely used road in the center of the island. A husky young Niihauan is at the wheel of the ancient Dodge Weapons Carrier, adroitly using the hand brake when needed because the foot brakes are long gone. Walking in front of the truck and pushing aside large boulders is 58-year-old Keith Robinson.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
An old concrete structure is a possible site for future
rocket launchings.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Keith Robinson fishes for eels on the isle's north
shore using squid baits.

Brothers able to keep
rest of the world out

For years the Robinsons have
thwarted attempts by the state to
take control of their island

By Anthony Sommer


PUUWAI, Niihau -- Gov. Ben Cayetano's offer to compromise in a dispute between the state and the Robinson family ends another chapter for brothers Bruce and Keith Robinson in their half-century effort to keep bureaucrats off their island.

When their father, Lester Robinson, died in October 1969, control of Niihau Ranch shifted to his widow, Helen, and his two sons, and they immediately found themselves at war with then-Gov. John Burns.

Until his death in late 1972, Burns tried repeatedly to persuade the Legislature to use its eminent domain powers to take Niihau from the Robinsons and turn it into a state park, in the process "saving" the island's native Hawaiian population from their isolation.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Palm trees populate this grove on Niihau.

"He even wanted to create a tropical rain forest here," Keith Robinson said, laughing. He kicked up a cloud of red-yellow silt from the trail he was hiking and looked up at the bright blue sky.

"Where's the rain going to come from?" he said.

In the lee of Kauai and subject to rain only from passing storms in the winter, Niihau is a desert island rimmed by rugged ridges above broad, dusty flatlands with dense forests of kiawe.

The two large lakes on the island hold water only in years of heavy rain. Several small aquifers are scattered about the island, each too small to justify the expense of drilling wells. The few streams run only during storms.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
The Robinson family owns a private helicopter to
shuttle themselves and Niihau residents to and from Kauai.

When the Robinson brothers' great-great-grandmother Eliza Sinclair first saw Niihau in 1863, she thought it a lush, tropical haven for the large family she had brought to Hawaii from New Zealand.

In persuading her to buy it from him for $10,000 in gold, King Kamehameha IV failed to point out the previous two years had been the wettest in memory and that Niihau normally is subject to severe droughts that, then and now, force the residents to move to Kauai until the rains return.

After only a few years of living on normally arid Niihau, Sinclair moved her family to Makaweli on Kauai, using Niihau as a ranch and summer home. In 1883, her grandsons Aubrey Robinson and Francis Gay formed Gay and Robinson, still a major sugar producer.

After a half-century of welcoming interisland steamships, Aubrey Robinson in 1915 closed Niihau to the outside world. Visits, even by relatives of the then roughly 300 native Hawaiians who lived on Niihau, were with his personal permission only, and it was rarely given.

Niihau has remained "The Forbidden Island" ever since. In enforcing the isolation of the island's native Hawaiian residents, the Robinsons have created curiosity about the lives of the people and their relationship with them.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Bicycles are the mode of transportation around Niihau. Here,
students' bikes lean against the rock wall surrounding the
square at Puuwai, Niihau's main village.

The most recent power struggle between the Robinsons' conservative views on private property rights vs. government's social liberalism appears to have ended with Cayetano's visit last week.

The U.S. Navy is going to test its new anti-missile missiles at Kauai's Pacific Missile Range Facility, 17 miles east of Niihau. The Navy, the Robinsons and the Niihauans want Niihau used both as a launch site for target missiles and to situate instruments to monitor the tests. Participation in the tests means income for the family and the Niihauans.

For the past year, former Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman Mike Wilson -- who also held the title of state historic preservation officer -- insisted that federal law requires a complete archaeological study of the island before he could approve the tests. Then he limited the study to unspecified "affected areas."

The Robinsons refused to go along with the study, fearing that under the 1995 Hawaii Supreme Court PASH decision, militant native Hawaiians would claim a right to visit any cultural artifacts that are found and destroy their island's isolation. They insist there are no cultural artifacts at any of the sites the Navy wants to use.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
State Land Department Director Tim Johns views debris
washed ashore -- fishing floats, plastic containers, driftwood
-- on Niihau's north shoreline.


Welcome to 'Forbidden Island'

Here are a few snapshots of Niihau:

Bullet As uninviting as the interior of the island is, the beaches are spectacular. And that's what the Robinson family hopes to market to gain income for the island.

The unpolluted water is responsible for the luster of the shells used in the famous Niihau leis. Bruce Robinson said the same shells are collected in Hanalei and other beaches on Kauai but the shell leis that result are dull by comparison.

Bullet There are no elderly people in the village. Keith Robinson said it's because of their diet, which is heavy on starches and sweets and short on nutrition. Diabetes and high-blood pressure are common.

"As long as they followed the old, traditional diets, they lived a long time. Now, an old man here is in his 60s," Robinson said.

Bullet Niihau has a long-standing relationship with the military dating back to before World War II. Niihau already hosts unmanned Navy radar sites for the Pacific Missile Range Facility.

Most recently, the island has been a regular training area for every kind of special operations unit, from Marine sniper teams, Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs to Air Force pilots training in escape and evasion tactics.

Bruce Robinson and two expert Hawaiian trackers are training a group of other Niihau men in tracking skills during the all-night exercises. Robinson said the local trackers have refused the offer of night vision goggles because they have excellent night vision and the goggles just distract them.

The Niihauans are proud that no serviceman has ever avoided capture. Even though they are paid to play the role of the enemy, the Niihauans look on the exercises as great sport, and whole families join in. In a night exercise recently, one young Marine was captured by a 10-year-old Niihau girl.

Bullet As a result of the current drought and other factors, the island is overrun with feral pigs and sheep, and many are starving. Bruce Robinson estimated the pig population at about 6,000.

Bullet Niihau Ranch hasn't made a profit since early in the century, but the Robinsons never have seriously considered giving it up. They have turned down lucrative offers and fought attempts by the state to take it over.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
The skull of a wild animal, probably
left by hunters, sits on a Niihau dirt road.

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1999 Honolulu Star-Bulletin