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Moanike‘ala Akaka dies at 72

Moanike‘ala Akaka, longtime Hawaiian activist and advocate, former Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and a founding mother of the renaissance of Hawaiian language and culture in the 1970s, died Saturday at Hospice of Hilo Pohai Malama Facility after a monthslong battle with cancer. She was 72.

“Mom was a firecracker. She was born on the Fourth of July. Both my parents were,” Ho‘oululahui Erika Perry, daughter of Akaka and Tomas Belsky, Akaka’s soulmate and partner of 43 years, said Tuesday.

Born in Honolulu, Akaka spent her childhood years in Kaimuki and attended Kamehameha Schools until her father’s work moved the family to Northern California. After returning to Hawaii as an adult, she was a fixture at meetings, hearings, conferences and protests connected to Native Hawaiian issues, and her voice was often the loudest and most strident.

“Mom was very passionate about Native Hawaiian justice and our natural environment and environmental quality, not just here, but everywhere,” Perry said. “If you asked her what she does, she would have said, ‘I’m a protector of the land and the people’ or something to that effect. That’s what made her tick and what she was really passionate about, helping her people and people in general, and making sure the environment isn’t totally degraded.”

Belsky, a well-known Hilo artist, described Akaka as “the most-focused, single-minded person on Hawaii that I ever met.”

“She was quick-tempered. ‘My bible is the truth,’ that’s what she would frequently say. And she didn’t mind speaking truth to power. And sometimes people would be upset with her,” he said.

Akaka participated in the Kalama Valley protest in 1971, resisting the eviction of Hawaiians by Bishop Estate in favor of development, that launched the movement seeking Native Hawaiian recognition, lands and rights.

Not long after, Akaka was part of a prominent group of activists called Protect Kahoolawe Ohana that protested military bombing of the island. Others included George Helm, Kimo Mitchell, Emmett Aluli, Walter Ritte and Harry Mitchell.

Belsky said the group “picked up where Lili‘uokalani left off.”

“They were Christian, yet they felt they had been betrayed — not by the Christian religion, but by those who institutionalized it,” he said. “And it caused a lot of struggle within people, and in Moani, because her family was Christian. … Lili‘uokalani felt betrayed by the adherence to the Christian faith, but she forgave because of her belief that the Christian nation of America would do as Queen Victoria had done in 1845 and reinstate the monarchy, the kingdom. And she was quite mistaken about that, obviously.”

Akaka’s activism was lifelong. She was among dozens arrested two years ago on Mauna Kea protesting the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the mountain.

Belsky said that during Akaka’s 12-year tenure as OHA’s Hawaii Island trustee in the 1980s and ’90s, her frustration with the board over issues she deemed important led her to chain the local OHA office doors shut to draw attention to those matters.

“There were times she came home … crying because she couldn’t get money through to build a health post in Waianae or on the Big Island. They couldn’t get the money through the bureaucratic maneuvering. But they did sometimes be a little self-serving to get new desks and new this and new that. But she was disappointed and she raised a lot of hell with OHA.”

Despite that, Akaka had her successes as well, including decades of negotiations over “ceded lands” that culminated in a settlement signed into law in 2012.

“That was something that she spoke of,” Perry said. “I know she helped encourage the board into helping fund (Hawaiian) language immersion schools, Aha Punana Leo and just a lot of opportunities that would come up. She would see the connection and the benefit to our people.”

Akaka also served the community in quieter ways, helping found Bay Clinic, serving on its board, and on the board of Habitat for Humanity, as well.

“The health of our people is connected to the health of our environment, not just locally, but across the whole globe. … She knew that and recognized that and recognized the relationship that people have to the aina,” Perry said.

“Moani was a very, very special individual and a powerful woman, much misunderstood. But that was the price,” Belsky concluded. “She was the way she was. She made a lot of very, very fast friends and some people who opposed her. But her spirit is very powerful and it will carry on, I’m sure.”

A celebration of life is scheduled for 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, May 28, at Queen Lili‘uokalani Gardens in Hilo.

Other survivors include a granddaughter, Keali‘ikaho‘onei‘aina Perry; son-in-law, Cheyenne Perry; brothers, Douglas Akaka and Loren Akaka; sister, June Martello; uncle, Douglas Kini Mossman; cousins, nieces and nephews.

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