My Turn: Kapu aloha in 1974 practiced the real meaning

On Saturday, Sept. 21, both East and West Hawaii papers had court coverage that revealed the nature and change (progress?) involving Hawaiian protesters today.

In 1974, Sonny Kaniho demonstrated against the Hawaiian Homes Commission on the leasing of lands involving Parker Ranch in Waimea. I was the sole police officer assigned to make the arrest of those trespassing. I want to make comparison with that incident and what I read concerning the protesters of today on Maunakea.

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The term, kapu aloha, was coined by those at Maunakea. It is a good term for today and a far cry from the days of the alii of old who had one solution for those who broke the kapu — death, unless the offender could make it to some heiau (place of refuge) before being caught. Kapu aloha requires that both the offender and the offended practice calm and patience while interacting.

Sonny Kaniho, a twice retired kupuna, made it known to all that on a chosen day in 1974, he would enter the disputed property and wait to be arrested in an effort to get his cause into court. A group of people understood his cause and vowed to assist him if the demonstration were held on a day that they were free to participate. That date was arranged to be May 18, 1974, a Saturday when his supporters were on their day off.

The press along with the police were notified. Mr. Kaniho (his name reflected the large teeth his family inherited) explained his goal and promised that there would be no violence or disrespect whatsoever during the protest. Basically, it was his rendition of kapu aloha in practice.

The day arrived and Kaniho, with numerous friends and supporters, gathered at the gate of the property on the Kohala Mountain Road. At the planned hour, they lifted the gate off the hinges and entered the property. The Parker Ranch security called the police and I proceeded to the scene. On my arrival, a group of protesters had already gone beyond the gate. I parked my patrol unit on the roadside among those observers who, not wishing to be arrested, remained on public land. The security personnel gave me a ride to the protest group gathered a ways up on the property in question.

At my arrival, the group surrounded me and we talked respectfully among ourselves. Now the fun part. I took down their names and informed them all that they were under arrest for trespassing. I then informed them to meet me at the police station for booking.

As we left the scene, they worked with the security guard to reinstall the gate. Kapu aloha was demonstrated by the protesters. They showed respect and drove their own vehicles to the police station for processing. Their beef was with the Hawaiian Home Commission, not the arresting officer.

In the Maunakea protest, the arrested kupuna refused to move and had to be carried away for processing. Their idea of kapu aloha was to make it inconvenient for everyone not actively supporting their cause. Had the Kaniho demonstration practiced the same kapu aloha as the Maunakea group, one cop carrying all 18 of them would have been an impossible task. Again, their beef was with the Hawaiian Homes Commission, not with me, the arresting officer.

According to the newspaper, a Maunakea protester went to court saying that she was protesting TMT because she is still number 411 on the Hawaiian Homes waiting list. In her case, kapu aloha allows for the punishment of all those who do not agree with the cause, however distantly connected.

At the old Waimea Police Station, prior arrangements for additional manpower to expedite the processing of those arrested were in place but the limited space and the one shared toilet in the building prevented that. While waiting, some of those arrested asked if they could leave for a few minutes.

The overcrowding was horrendous so they were allowed to leave for a while. On their return, they surprised us with snacks and soft drinks for everyone. Again, kapu aloha was displayed and we took a break and together snacked on the treats provided by those arrested. The Hawaiian word for friend is “ai kane.” It projects a picture of men sharing a meal together.

At the trial for the Maunakea protesters, the paper stated that one of them asked the judge if lunch would be served at trial. Although it may have been meant to be a joke, kapu aloha being practiced by the Kaniho group provided food without being asked. In comparison, the kapu aloha practiced by the Maunakea group expressed an expectation to be fed.

Upon completion of the booking process involving the Kaniho group, cops and protesters shook hands and parted as friends. On the day of their court appearance, those arrested all showed up and didn’t ask for free attorneys. They had a cause and were willing to put their money where their beliefs were. They arranged for their own attorney to represent them in court and won the case. This protest forced the Hawaiian Homes Commission to make changes in the leasing of lands under their control.

Robert Lindsey, OHA Trustee, went through a life-changing experience because of this incident and wrote a play accurately depicting the Sonny Kaniho protest from beginning to end.

One of the arrested demonstrators with Sonny Kaniho later became the Planning Director for the County of Hawaii.

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To those who wish to learn more about this Sonny Kaniho kapu aloha protest, get on your computer and punch in the name activist Sonny Kaniho. There is lots of interesting information with pictures of that remarkable day in 1974 when kapu aloha was truly expressed.

Leningrad Elarionoff is a resident of Waimea.