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One of the deadliest wildfires of the 21st century devastated the island of Maui, Hawai‘i this month. Many fear that this is the beginning of a land grab that will not only displace families, but also erase Hawaiian culture. 

For many Native Hawaiians, the fear over the land grab is deeply rooted in their history, dating at least to 1893, when the independent Kingdom of Hawai‘i was overthrown for political and financial gain by American and foreign businessmen. 

“Unfortunately, what happened with the wildfires directly related to our history of colonialism in Hawai‘i. Of course it has been compounded by global climate change, but we wouldn't be in this situation in the first instance if it wasn’t for colonialism,” Kapua‘ala Sproat, Director of the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the University of Hawai’i, told Native News Online. 

Sproat said that the central region of Lahaina was known for its abundant resources, which is why it became the capital of Hawai‘i before it was changed to Honolulu. 

“Lahaina was incredibly wealthy, it was an important place, playground, and capital. The seed of government changed with impacts from colonization. Plantation interest came in, reverted streams, drilled wells to take ground water resources and essentially sucked the life out of what was an incredibly vibrant community.” 

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed legislation apologizing for the U.S. role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. The apology, meant as a means of reconciliation with Native Hawaiians, acknowledges the historical significance of the event, but the apology does not provide federal recognition to Native Hawaiians as other federal laws provide to Native American tribes. 

“It's basically a confession from the United States,”  Brandon Makaawaawa, Deputy Head of State of the Nation of Hawai‘i, told Native News Online. 

“And legally when you confess to something there are repercussions that happen. We haven't had a reconciliation process yet. It takes two groups to reconcile, and if one group is ready to sit down at the table and the other pretends they don't know where the table is, this is why we haven't had any reconciliation yet.”

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Makaawaawa said that Hawaiians have been in a state of survival for 130 years. What is happening now in Maui is the direct repercussions of what removing Native Hawaiians from their land ends up looking like. The way Native Hawaiian people manage land today is not in line with how they managed lands for the past 2,000 years. 

“People that are managing our lands today are greedy big landholders that want to sell to the highest bidder now that we don't have sugarcane or pineapples,” Makaawaawa explained. “They want to sell out to multinational corporations that have been impacting Indigenous peoples for so long.” 

Makaawaawa said that In 1843, a law that legitimized private land ownership laid the ground for big developers to hoard resources for profit. The creation of private property allowed agricultural corporations to wield political and oligarchic power. 

“Our people didn't have a concept of land ownership so the majority of our people didn’t go get land when they could. The foreigners took advantage of that and bought the land for pennies on the dollar. That's where the problem went wrong.”

Makaawaawa said that most of the land that caught fire in Maui was by big agriculture. Acres of sugarcane and pineapples were planted and left desolate. Invasive plants were introduced as livestock forage, creating what would essentially become a tinder box for wildfires.     

More than 100 lives were lost, burning over 2,200 structures and resulting in an estimated $6 billion in damages in the historic Lahaina. 

“People really need to begin to understand where they live, who were the people that lived here before, and go and learn something from them so that we are prepared for things like this again in the future,” Makaawaawa said.  “It’s going to take other people that aren't Indigenous to really understand how to aid and assist the land, so that we can navigate this world correctly.” 

One of the tactics used by those seeking to exploit the situation in Maui is by making below-market offers, playing on fears of foreclosures and the cost of rebuilding. Democratic Hawai‘i Governor Josh Green has proposed a ban on land sales in Lahaina, stating that measures will be taken to prevent the loss of land to outside interests. 

“My intention from start to finish is to make sure that no one is victimized from land grab,” Green said at a news conference. “People are right now traumatized. Please do not approach them with an offer to buy their land. Do not approach their families saying they’ll be much better off if they make a deal. Because we are not going to allow it.” 

Hawaiian Native Paele Kulani is using his Instagram platform to inform people on social media of the land grab that residents are facing. 

“If we are going to make something go viral, this is one that should go viral as soon as possible because we need to make sure we keep our people here,” Kulani said in an Instagram reel. “We need to urge our state leaders to make sure that our lands cannot be sold to anyone else. Yes, it may be soon as people are still struggling out there, but we need to urge our leaders to create policy right now because those things take time. 

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About The Author
Kaili Berg
Author: Kaili BergEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Staff Reporter
Kaili Berg (Aleut) is a member of the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq Nation, and a shareholder of Koniag, Inc. She is a staff reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. Berg, who is based in Wisconsin, previously reported for the Ho-Chunk Nation newspaper, Hocak Worak. She went to school originally for nursing, but changed her major after finding her passion in communications at Western Technical College in Lacrosse, Wisconsin.