Navy returns sacred island to Hawaiians

KAHOOLAWE ISLAND, Hawaii – Spotted with patches of dry grass and colored by thorny kiawe trees that thrive in the arid landscape, the red dirt of this former Navy target range supports little other vegetation, and even less wildlife.

But the uninhabited 45 square miles of Kahoolawe (pronounced kah-HOH-oh-LAH-vay) are sacred to native Hawaiians who feel that the island, untouched by tourists, connects them with the spirits of their ancestors.

Now, after spending 10 years and $460 million to clean up a half century’s worth of shrapnel and unexploded bombs, the Navy is returning control of Kahoolawe to the Hawaiians for the first time since the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The transfer will take place today, Veterans Day.

More than a decade after the last round of ammunition was fired, native Hawaiians are preparing for what they hope will be the rebirth of the island as a place where their cultural traditions can be celebrated.

“You can get a feel on Kahoolawe of what it was like to live on Hawaii at the time of our ancestors,” said Davianna McGregor, a native Hawaiian with the cultural preservation group Protect Kahoolawe Ohana. “It’s important for us to have a place where we can practice our traditions without it being a spectacle, without it being some kind of tourist attraction.

“It’s one place we can go to be in communion with our natural life forces.”

The island and its more than 600 archaeological and culturally significant sites are on the National Register of Historic Places. Those sites include old houses, religious artifacts, shrines, remnants of ranches, and a centuries-old quarry.

The island will be set aside for cultural, education and archaeological activities, with no commercial development allowed, and access to Kahoolawe will be controlled by a state agency.

Six miles southwest of Maui, Kahoolawe is the smallest of the eight major Hawaiian islands. It is 11 miles long and seven miles wide. The Navy has controlled Kahoolawe since martial law was declared after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was used as a target and training area until 1990, when the first President Bush ordered a halt to the exercises after years of protests and lawsuits by native Hawaiians. Congress later agreed to clean up the place and return it to local control.

Cleanup crews already have removed about 11,000 tires and about 9 million pounds of scrap metal – enough steel to construct a frigate and a destroyer, according to the Navy.

But the effort is not complete. As of Oct. 31, about three-quarters of the island has been cleared of unexploded ordnance, according to the Navy. The Navy is set to leave for good on March 12, but will return to clean up any dangerous materials found in the future.

Copyright ©2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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