In Lahaina, the area in west Maui that is of historical importance to Indigenous people, entire neighborhoods were wiped out by this week’s historic wildfires, including the Na 'Aikane o Maui Cultural Center, which had a massive archive that was lost to the flames. We are joined by Noelani Ahia, a Kanaka Maoli activist, who describes the community's reaction to the destruction of Indigenous cultural documents, art and artifacts. “In the blink of an eye, it was burned to the ground, and all of those things were lost,” says Ahia. She also describes mutual aid efforts now underway and notes, “The people on the ground know what the community needs.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we get an update now on the impacts of the wildfire on Lahaina, the area in west Maui that’s of historical importance to Indigenous people, entire neighborhoods wiped out by the wildfire, including the Na ’Aikane o Maui Cultural Center, which had a massive archive lost to the flames. The head of the center said, quote, “The place is burnt [down] to the ground.”
We’re joined now on Maui by Noelani Ahia, a Kānaka Maoli activist, longtime organizer in Lahaina Town. She’s also the co-founder of the organization Mauna Medic Healers Hui and is involved in mutual aid efforts as the community responds to the devastation.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Noelani. It is an honor to have you with us. Can you describe, from your vantage point, where you are, and especially the cultural center — is the center of Lahaina — in terms of what has been lost at the center and, overall, in the town?
NOELANI AHIA: Yes. Thank you so much, Amy. It’s so good to be here.
Na ’Aikane o Maui Cultural Center was founded about 20 years ago in historic Lahaina Town, and it happens to sit adjacent to a very sacred area of Maui called Mokuʻula and Mokuhinia. And this is a traditional place, what we would call a wahi pana, or a sacred place, dating back to the 1500s, where one of our former kings, who presided over the islands with peace, lived, and his sacred family was birthed there. And we have stories that carry us down today that connect us back to that place, that reroot us.
And this island, Moku’ula, was in the middle of a wetland. It was lush and beautiful and green. Because of settler colonialism and because of the impositions of the settler government, it was covered over a long time ago, and there’s baseball fields now on it and tennis courts. And the Na 'Aikane o Maui Cultural Center has been working to get the access in order to restore Moku'ula and to clean it up and make sure it’s a place of reverence again. And the folks at Na ’Aikane have been working for decades on all kinds of issues, protecting burials, protecting land right issues and just generally being there for the community, to provide classes and workshops and cultural practice and cultural protocol.
And that building also housed a collection of artifacts, as well as historical documents, old maps — just priceless things that are all lost in the blink of an eye. It was burned to the ground, and all of those things are lost. It also had a collection from an esteemed kūpuna, esteemed elder, named Sam Ka’ai, whose collection was being housed there. And for this kūpuna, this elder, this was his life’s work. He’s 85 now, and this was 50 years’ worth of carvings that he himself did of collecting items from all over the South Pacific when he traveled on the Hōkūleʻa, a double-hulled canoe voyaging project back in the '80s. And I had the — I had the burden, you could say, of telling him yesterday that his collection was gone. And it was devastating. It was devastating. This is this man's life work. And he created all of these things not for himself, but for future generations to understand how brilliant our Kānaka Maoli people are and how ingenious we were, because so much of that history and that culture was lost to us after the overthrow and with the new government and the wave of people that came in and took over lands. Particularly, we’re talking about, you know, the plantations and the oligarchy that Kaniela was talking about. So many Hawaiians were dispossessed from their land, and we lost so much of our culture, including our language. And so, when a kūpuna, when an elder, like this dedicates his life to retrieving and retracing and remembering those pieces of ourselves that allowed us to live here on this isolated island — how to make tools, how to make rope, how to make the instruments that feed us — all of these things that allowed us to have life and survive here, all of those things that he dedicated his life to are now a memory.
But I will say, he told me yesterday morning that he woke up having a dream about seeds. And what he said was he saw us planting seeds back in the ash. He saw us putting back our traditional — our traditional plants, our traditional medicines, our kalo plant, our taro, which is very sacred to us. We’re ancestrally connected to the kalo. He saw us putting those things back in the ground so that new life can come again. And for somebody of his age, who’s closer to moving into the next realm than many of us, for him to still be thinking about the next generation and still be thinking about what the future could be in Lahaina, for me, is the measure of what it means to be Indigenous and what it means to be genealogically connected to this land.
AMY GOODMAN: Noelani Ahia, it is so painful to talk to you right now at this moment with the destruction that your island has undergone. If you could talk about the mutual aid efforts? You know, first of all, in the rest of the corporate media, we hear almost no Native voices, no Native Hawaiians, and why it’s so important to hear your voices. And then, what is happening on the ground? You know, there’s a big debate now: Like, why weren’t people alerted earlier? Where was the early alert system? Why were people just looking out the window or smelling the smoke and seeing the fire right in front of them? And how important that is. But also, it’s just described, Lahaina, as a great tourist destination. How tourism has affected the whole environment, if you could speak about that, as well?
NOELANI AHIA: Absolutely. Thank you so much. You know, it’s very disturbing for us, as Kānaka Maoli, to see the headlines and talk about — you know, see Lahaina as this tourist town, as if that’s all it is, because, for us, it’s so much more. And the tourism is part of the commodification of our culture. It’s part of the erasure of our culture. That narrative literally just takes us out of the picture. And, you know, without Hawaiians, there would be no Hawaii. Everybody loves aloha, but they forget about the people that breathe aloha into the world, the root and the source of aloha, and that’s the Kānaka Maoli people.
The overtourism, the overdevelopment, the dispossession of Kānaka Maoli from our lands, the monocropping, as Kaniela Ing was talking about, those are all things that contributed to the conditions that created this. And, you know, as we live on an island, there’s only so much space, and there’s only so much room, and there’s only so much resources. And for over 130 years, our water has been diverted to go to those sugar plantations and pineapple fields.
So, what used to be a lush, verdant Lahaina — in fact, I’ll tell you a little something, that the Lahaina is not an old name. One of the older names for Lahaina is Malu’ulu o Lele, and it means “land of the flying breadfruit,” because Lahaina used to be covered in breadfruit, which is a staple for the Hawaiian diet. It’s incredibly nutritious. It’s being studied the world over to help with food sovereignty in underprivileged areas. It’s just an amazing, rich, rich, historical plant for us. And Lahaina was covered with ulu until the sugar plantations came in and chopped it all down. And they permanently changed our ecosystem, that one act, that on top of the diversion of water for the plantations.
What’s happening now that the plantations have shut down is unscrupulous developers are diverting the water and banking it for real estate. And it’s not real estate for the Kānaka Maoli or the local people. It’s for foreign investors. It’s for gentlemen’s estate farms that have giant swimming pools. It’s for — excuse me — really inappropriate use of one of our most sacred resources. In fact, the name for water in Hawaii is wai, and the name for wealth in Hawaii is wai wai, which means if you have water, you have life. But our water has been taken away from us. And it’s left us in this dry, barren, almost unrecognizable — it would be unrecognizable to our ancestors, this condition that we’re currently living under, the settler government.
So, you combine the dispossession with the overtourism, with the overdevelopment, and you have this trifecta for disaster. And that’s what we’re seeing today. It’s absolute disaster. It’s absolute devastation for our people.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Noelani, we only have a minute, and then we’re going to go to a fire scientist at the University of Hawaii. But the mutual aid efforts on the ground, those grassroots —
NOELANI AHIA: Oh, yes. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: — efforts that are saving everyone?
NOELANI AHIA: Thank you. The mutual aid group in Maui has mobilized. We’re working with them. We’ve got medics, food distribution. We’re working on organizing housing for people.
But one of the issues that we’re having is we’re being prevented access. And it’s really, really disappointing, because the people on the ground know what the community needs. The people on the ground self-organize and are able to move fast, quickly and get the needs of the people where they need to go. But, unfortunately, I have to say, there has been some blocking of those efforts. And it’s always done under the guise of safety. But when our people are in Lahaina and they’re suffering because they don’t have any food and they don’t have any water and we’re not allowed to get them resources, it’s really, really challenging.
So we’re finding some unique ways to get resources to people. Folks have been taking boats around from the other side of the island in order to get resources in. And we’ve been using whatever methods we can to get the needs of the people met. But it’s a beautiful effort. The people on the ground are so strong and so resilient and so ready to jump in to help one another. We say, ”Aloha kekahi i kekahi.” That means “Love going out, love coming back.” And one of my good friends said today, “Your disaster emergency kit must include community.” Community is first. And that’s really what it’s about, is taking care of each other.
AMY GOODMAN: Noelani Ahia, I want to thank you so much for being with us, and all the very best, Kānaka Maoli activist, longtime organizer in Lahaina, co-founder of the organization Mauna Medic Healers Hui.