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Protest at statue riles those who installed it

<p>HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald</p><p>Robert M. Yamada II stands in front of the Kamehameha Statue in Hilo on Wednesday afternoon.</p>


Tribune-Herald staff writer

A recent Hawaiian sovereignty protest at the Kamehameha the Great statue on Hilo’s Bayfront isn’t sitting well with some of the folks who worked to install the statue in 1997.

More than two months ago, activists led by “Uncle” Abel Simeona Lui set up residence at the Wailoa River State Recreation Area and planted 14 short rows of taro, coconut trees and aloe plants in opposition to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

The activists said they were free to camp and garden there, questioning the state’s legal authority over the site after what they claim was an illegal annexation of Hawaii by the United States.

That did not stop police, however, from sweeping the area last week during Hilo’s 50th Anniversary Merrie Monarch Festival. In all, 11 protesters were ousted from a tent they were sleeping in at the location and arrested, and the “Kanaka Garden” was uprooted.

This week, several of the Kamehameha Schools alumni who helped to bring the Kamehameha statue to the park weighed in on Lui’s methods, calling his behavior disrespectful.

“I am speaking out about the rudeness of those who call themselves Hawaiian,” wrote Robert M. Yamada, one of the original contractors and volunteers who installed the statue, in a letter to the Tribune-Herald. “… we have asked you politely in the past to not post your signs and banners and plant your plants at the statue. Yet you continue to do so in defiance of our request.

“… It (the statue) was built for the alumni of Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiian people, the State of Hawaii and tourists at large who visit this site to learn. How long should we turn our cheek to the blatant disregard and disrespect for what many of us consider sacred. Be Hawaiian, please honor our request and express your political views elsewhere and not on the grounds of the statue or the mound upon which it stands.”

Martha McNicoll served as president of the Kamehameha Schools alumni committee that helped to purchase and install the statue. On Wednesday, she said she confronted Lui about his use of the site before he and his followers were removed.

“I went down there when I heard about it,” she said. “They had a big sign on the statue, and I said ‘Nuh-uh. That statue belongs to the alumni. You can put your signs some place else. I’m not objecting to your signs, but don’t put it on the statue. What you’re saying has nothing to do with the Kamehameha statue.’”

McNicoll said she doesn’t share Lui’s views on the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but she respects his right to protest.

“If that’s what these Hawaiians gotta do, that’s fine. But you’ve got to follow proper procedure,” she said. “I talked with Mr. Lui and he seemed like a very nice man, and they did a nice job planting the taro there. But, I thought they had permission to plant it. If you’re gonna do something, do it right. Don’t put a blight on the statue.”

Not everyone was as critical of the activists’ efforts, however. James McKeague, who also served on the statue committee, said he believes Lui’s actions were in keeping with the spirit of the area.

“Hawaiians have always gotten the short end of the stick. … I thought it kind of brought some color to the Merrie Monarch (Festival),” he said of the protest. “In principal, I kinda support what he (Lui) is trying to do. But I’m not really familiar with all that he’s basing his arguments on.”

McKeague added that when he first saw the garden, he had a feeling it wouldn’t last long.

“I was kind of surprised that it happened,” he said. “He was trying to speak out, though. A lot of other people use that area as a base for their sovereignty protests, and I think that’s great that they’re allowed to do that. I just hope that what Abel did doesn’t clamp down on those type of activities for others.

The statue itself took a long and circuitous route to arrive in Hilo. It was originally purchased in 1985 for $250,000 and was to be displayed at a Princeville Corporation resort on Kauai, but was not well received by the community there due to the fact that the island had never been conquered by Kamehameha. The Kamehameha Schools Alumni Association took over title of the statue in 1996, and work began to install it at the Wailoa River park. The process was completed on May 26, 1997.

Less than five years after its installation, the 14-foot statue’s gold leafing began sloughing off, and a $30,000 restoration project was required to fix the issue.

Over the years, the statue has been a focal point for tourists and Hawaiian sovereignty activists alike. Lui, who was evicted in October from land at Kawa Bay where he claimed indigenous rights, set up make-shift tents at the site and began planting on Jan. 17 — important to activists as the 120th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Email Colin M. Stewart at


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