By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
They have spent over two months growing taro, and with it, their message of pono in the shadow of King Kamehameha.
But time and the state’s patience may be running short for the small group of Hawaiian sovereignty activists who have symbolically reclaimed a corner of the Wailoa River State Recreation Area for the kingdom.
With shovels and use of their hands, the activists, consisting of a core group of about half a dozen, have planted more than 14 short rows of taro — a plant of both cultural and spiritual significance — a few coconut trees and aloe plants in the park near the king’s statue in an attempt to bring attention to the issue of ceded lands.
The grow-in started Jan. 17 on the 120th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. It has since expanded to a 24-hour operation with Abel Lui, better known as Uncle Abel, sleeping in a make-shift tent of tarps to oversee the young crops.
Their efforts have largely gone undisturbed, the activists said, except for a few times plants were torn out at night.
Now, they say they are getting indications that the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which owns the park and has appeared to tolerate their presence, will move soon to remove them.
Gene Tamashiro, who helped start the protest, said a Hilo-based DLNR official told him Tuesday they are considering evicting the activists.
“If we don’t pack up, they are going to bring the bulldozers in,” he said. “My guess is it could happen soon because this is Merrie Monarch week.”
Dean Takebayashi, DLNR district park superintendent, declined to comment, noting the “sensitivity” of the situation.
A phone call to a DLNR spokeswoman in Honolulu was not returned.
The activists say the land is part of the 1.8 million acres of ceded lands, property that once belonged to the crown, which is why they chose the spot for their “Kanaka Garden.”
Tamashiro said they have gathered over 300 signatures in support.
If removed, the activists, who do not see themselves as breaking laws since they don’t believe the land properly belongs to the state, say they will return and plant again.
“I believe they are going to look bad to the people,” said Albert Haa of Panaewa, referring to the state.
Lui said he sees the garden as bringing life back to the park land, a long stretch of grass used for keiki soccer practice or by the occasional Frisbee players.
“The food is for the people,” he said. “To me, if they want to take it back, who is going to feed all the people we have now?”
Food security is part of the group’s message. They say they plan to give the taro away once harvested.
Lui, an elderly man with a worn but welcoming face, has been in the news several times before over a land dispute with Hawaii County.
The county evicted him in October from land at that he claimed indigenous rights to at Kawa Bay.
“They don’t know what to do with me,” he said, when asked about possibly being removed from the park.
The activists say they have made sure to take care of the park, including mowing and other general maintenance around their garden.
They’ve also been disposing of refuse they find in the soil, including broken soda bottles and car parts, possibly left by the Shinmachi village, destroyed by a tsunami in 1946.
“We do it with aloha,” Tamashiro said.
Lui, who has camped in the park for about two weeks, said he has ordered portable toilets to be delivered today.
His camp consists of a cot, three tables mainly covered in cooking gear and a few papayas, a propane stove, and several green plastic chairs.
Banana bunches hang from the tent’s metal posts and the rumble of nearby traffic and planes flying close overhead as they approach Hilo International Airport provide a constant urban ambiance.
The occasional tourist comes to take pictures of the Kamehameha statue, and in the evenings, children kick around soccer balls for practice. But otherwise, that area of the park seems to be mostly theirs.
Tamashiro, a founder of Aloha Uprising, said he and a few others got the idea for the protests after seeing a woman displaying a sign protesting the overthrow of the kingdom at the statue.
That protester, Simbra Lynn Kanakaole, has since been helping with the garden almost daily.
An energetic, yet at times meandering speaker, Kanakaole said she believes it’s her “birthright” to be there and tend to the taro even if it is a public park.
“I’m sitting in my grandma’s lap,” she said, while preparing soil for more taro.
None of the activists say they talked to the state about starting the garden. Nor do they think permission was needed.
“We’re not asking, because they don’t have lawful jurisdiction,” Tamashiro said of the state. “We’re just taking direct action.”
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.