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Turning a bombing range into a spiritual homeland

As the Navy cleans up Kahoolawe, native Hawaiians are tying to reclaim it as their own.

A few miles off the Maui coast, the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe rises serenely from the broad Pacific. No houses dot its steep slopes, no sailboats ply its emerald harbors.

But sown beneath its volcanic soil and white-capped waves lies evidence of a more violent past. Following World War II, the United States military used the island as a bombing range, and until four years ago, it plunged nearly every type of bullet, bomb, and missile into Kahoolawe's rocky landscape.

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Today, however, the island is in the midst of a transformation. The bombing has stopped, and the most expensive unexploded-ordnance cleanup in the history of the Department of Defense has begun. But native Hawaiians - who see the island as a sacred site - want more. And like many native American tribes on the mainland, they are ratcheting up their efforts to regain control of their ancestral land.

"Land recovery is one of the top priorities of indigenous groups and tribal governments in the United States," says John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians in Washington. Tribal government authority is growing each year, he adds, and land recovery is a primary part of that nationwide trend.

'Sacred land'

Speckled with hundreds of shrines, temples, and other archaeological sites, the entire island of Kahoolawe is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But to native Hawaiians, it is much more than that - it is a symbol of their culture.

"The island is sacred land. It's a way of life,... a tradition. It's everything we are," says Kealohikina Tsukiyama, a longtime activist for Protect Kahoolawe Ohana (PKO), a group of native Hawaiians and other Hawaii residents opposed to military use of the island. "The land talks to you, the spirits dwell there."

Long used for cattle and sheep ranching, Kahoolawe gained attention after the military seized it for training purposes following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. While most Hawaiian lands came under state control at the onset of statehood in 1959, Kahoolawe stayed in federal hands.

Although the Navy finally turned Kahoolawe over to the state in 1994, native Hawaiians will gain control of the island only if a sovereign Hawaiian nation is established and formally recognized. With efforts to establish self-rule tangled in debate, sovereignty is a distant prospect at best.

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Nonetheless, native Hawaiians have begun to reestablish their ancient links to Kahoolawe. Under an agreement with the Navy, which controls access to the island during the cleanup, PKO takes dozens of people each month to safe areas used for religious and cultural purposes.

"It's a hard, hard trip," says Piikea Miyamoto, a teacher from Castle High School on Oahu who brings students to the island each winter during the religious season known as Makahiki.

Unable to afford the helicopter flights that ferry military personnel to the island, PKO charters a 33-foot boat for the 40-minute crossing from Maui. No docks exist on Kahoolawe, so passengers must swim the final 100 feet to shore, dragging a flotilla of plastic-wrapped sleeping bags, four days' worth of food and water, and other supplies.

Cleanup hang-ups

Protecting historical sites while removing unexploded ordnance has been made difficult by the variety of weapons used here over the years. "A lot of ordnance is old and not safe to move," says Jim Putnam, the Navy's senior contracting officer for the project. "So we blow it up in place or put a fence around it."

A top cleanup priority is the denuded uplands, where overgrazing by feral goats and sheep reduced one-third of the island to bare rock. The animals were eliminated in the late 1980s, but massive soil erosion continues. Once the Navy clears upland areas, the state will begin environmental restoration.

Hawaii state law limits the use of Kahoolawe and its waters to native Hawaiian cultural, spiritual, and subsistence practices and education. But some native Hawaiians worry that after the Navy finishes its $280 million cleanup in 2003, the island may become something of a cultural park, with tourists coming to gawk at native Hawaiians' traditional practices.

Yet, ironically, the concern that undetected bombs may still lurk beneath the surface could be a blessing - protecting it from hordes of visitors seeking a view Hawaii's past, says Hokulani Holt-Padilla, cultural coordinator for the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission. "We want to keep Kahoolawe for those who want to give back to the island, not take from it," she says. "It has been abused for too long."

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