Our story … rests within the culture, which is inseparable from the land. To write this is to write of the land and the people who are born from her.
— Haunani-Kay Trask
As a (qu)id [queer kid], I learned that Kānaka Maoli were not homeless, because Hawaiʻi is our home.
— Tatiana Kalaniopua Young
1. Seeking Refuge
See the child. Brown-skinned, bushy-haired, androgynous. She wakes in the remnants of a World War II-era pillbox. Folds her blanket and stuffs it in a backpack. Breakfast is a handful of Apple Jacks. She checks her phone, scrolling frustratedly. “Where the fuck are you?” No one answers.
So opens Kimi Howl Lee’s Kamaʻāina: Child of the Land. 1 The 2020 short film follows Mahina, an unsheltered, queer Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) sixteen-year-old as she navigates the familiar yet hostile streets of Waiʻanae on the west side of Oʻahu. In search of shade, Mahina lingers at a Korean barbecue joint, only to be chased off by an employee: “Benches are for customers.” As night falls, we sense her deepening vulnerability — invisible to drivers passing on Farrington Highway, all too visible to men loitering in the park.
In the film’s third act, Mahina makes her way to Waiʻanae harbor, where houseless individuals have built a sprawling encampment of tents, tarps, shopping carts, bike parts, and other found materials, protected by a wall of stacked wood pallets. Mahina is taken to the group’s de facto leader, a tough but tender woman named Aunty Twinkle, who listens as Mahina explains her situation: estranged from her mother, recently kicked out by her girlfriend’s parents. Without hesitation (or red tape), Aunty Twinkle offers Mahina a place to stay in the village. In the film’s final moments, we see Mahina standing on the shore, gazing at a billowing ocean as Aunty Twinkle promises the community’s support: “You need that time, find yourself, go ahead. You need us with you, we will stand with you.”
Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae serves as a sanctuary for islanders unable to access conventional forms of shelter — a safety net beneath the safety net.
Lee’s film responds directly to the experiences of queer and trans youth in Hawaiʻi, who are disproportionately represented among the islands’ unsheltered population. 2 Most of the cast, including Malia Kamalani Soon, who plays Mahina, and Twinkle Borge, who plays herself, have experienced houselessness. The film was shot on location at Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, the real-life settlement that helped inspire the story, which occupies roughly ten acres of state-owned property next to Waiʻanae Small Boat Harbor. In ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian language), the term puʻuhonua describes a place of refuge, a “sanctuary, or asylum, a place of peace and safety.” 3 Tatiana Kalaniopua Young, a māhūwahine (Native Hawaiian transgender queer woman) and one-time resident of Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, writes that “as a refuge, puʻuhonua can be a person, a place, or a thing. Its main function is to create space for inclusion, harmony, protection, and safety.” 4
For more than a decade, Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae has served as a sanctuary for islanders unable to access conventional forms of shelter — a safety net beneath the safety net. At any given time, the village is home to between 200 and 300 people, the majority of them Native Hawaiian, and a good number of them queer or gender-nonconforming. 5 Those who live at the puʻuhonua pay no rent but volunteer their time, running the onsite food pantry or taking shifts as security guards. The village is presided over by Borge, an openly queer Kānaka Maoli woman who has been houseless since 2006. She is known around the island as Aunty Twinkle — or, within the village, as Mamas. A team of mostly female “captains” help manage day-to-day affairs. “Visiting Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae means entering as a guest into a space with its own unique governance structure led almost entirely by Kānaka Maoli women,” writes Tina Grandinetti, an Oʻahu-born Uchinaanchu (Indigenous Okinawan) scholar and activist who spent years studying and writing about Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae. 6
For residents, Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae is a reprieve from an economic system that has made housing a luxury good, and from societal norms that marginalize those who do not fit mainstream expectations around gender, sexuality, or family structure. The need for such a refuge is acute. The state of Hawaiʻi consistently reports one of the highest rates of houselessness per capita in the United States, while its homeownership rate is among the lowest. 7 On Oʻahu, the most populous of the eight main Hawaiian islands, one of every two renters is cost-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. 8 In March 2022, the median price of a single-family home on Oʻahu hit $1.15 million, a 21 percent increase from the year before. 9 Even before these spikes in costs, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that an individual making minimum wage on the island could work around the clock — 168 hours per week — and still be seven hours short of affording the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment. 10
Meanwhile, on Oʻahu alone, 14,000 housing units — more than three times the unhoused population — are unoccupied, reserved as second homes or investment properties. 11 Roughly a quarter of all home purchases in Hawaiʻi are by out-of-state buyers, a share that grew in the first half of 2020 as the coronavirus fueled demand for private havens. 12 Between 2019 and 2021, the number of home sales to foreign buyers in the state increased by 25 percent, representing $22.2 billion in real-estate transactions. 13 Hawaiʻi real-estate executives boasted of sales growth in excess of 300 percent. In December 2021, two days before Christmas, amid a surge of the Omicron variant, the Wall Street Journal carried what the editors must have felt was a festive headline: “Since Covid, Hawaii Home Sales Over $10 Million Have Grown Sixfold.”
Many residents, including Native Hawaiians, have become economic refugees from their homeland.
Once-permanent dwellings of all types are also increasingly being converted to short-term rentals. A 2018 report from Hawaiʻi’s Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice found that between 2015 and 2017 the number of vacation rental units in Hawaiʻi increased by 35 percent. Despite the passage of legislation intended to rein in the market, the trend has continued: in January 2022, the state counted 26,413 vacation rental units, a fifteen percent increase over 2017 levels. 14 Fueled in part by this unaffordability, Hawaiʻi’s population is steadily shrinking, as residents, including Native Hawaiians, become economic refugees from their homeland. 15
Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae represents a rare place of refuge from, and resistance to, these economic forces. In adopting the name Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, the village lays claim to a history of inclusion and care that is distinctly Hawaiian. This runs counter to local media coverage, which has tended to frame the community as historically anomalous, isolated both from a legacy of dispossession that severed Kānaka Maoli’s generational ties to the islands, and from the lineage of Hawaiian-led, land-based resistance that followed. In fact, the harborside village is one of many puʻuhonua that have sprouted across the archipelago over the past half-century, most recently in 2019 in response to plans to build the Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea. 16 In extending its ethic of care to the lands it occupies, Grandinetti writes, Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae can be understood as a kīpuka aloha ʻāina, a protected space in which Kānaka Maoli cultural practices and land relations persist. 17
In Lee’s film, Mahina represents more than the thousands of queer teens in Hawaiʻi who will experience houselessness at some point in their lives. She is also a metaphor, Young tells us, “for Kānaka Maoli and … our ability to bounce back after chaotic disruptions, historical failures, and apocalyptic setbacks.” 18 Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae similarly stands in for the many puʻuhonua that historically have offered Kānaka Maoli hope and sanctuary — communities that were treated by those in power as aberrant congregations of squatters and vagrants, but that from members’ perspectives were spaces of protest, embodied demands for self-determination and the return of stolen lands.
As an expression of queer Indigeneity and deep relationality, the village subverts violent colonial assumptions about land as a commodity.
I visited Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae multiple times in spring 2022, documenting the village with the Waiʻanae-based Kānaka Maoli photographer Josiah Patterson. The community was at an inflection point. After being threatened with eviction, the group had cut a deal with the state. They would relocate, but only once they had raised money to purchase property; until then, the state would not sweep the villagers from the harbor. In February 2020, with help from a nonprofit called Hui Aloha and funds from several major grants, Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae bought a 20-acre parcel on Waiʻanae Valley Road, two-and-a-half miles mauka (upland) from the boat harbor. 19 In October 2022, the community broke ground on its new, permanent home, the Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae Farm Village. Plans include 90 modest, A-framed duplexes — designed by residents — for 180 total housing units, along with shared kitchens, bathrooms, and gathering spaces. Already, villagers have begun to grow kalo (taro), ʻulu (breadfruit), papaya, banana, mango, and avocado.
Despite assurances from officials that the village will not be evicted while the mauka site is prepared, its existence at the harbor remains precarious. The community has reckoned with wildfires and floods, as well as indifference and outright aggression from other locals. At the same time, the radical space of inclusion created at Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae threatens to be co-opted by state efforts to reduce houselessness, including Governor Josh Green’s “kauhale” initiative, under which tiny-home villages ostensibly inspired by Borge’s community are to be built across the state. 20
As an expression of queer Indigeneity and deep relationality, Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae subverts the violent colonial assumption that land is a commodity to be bought and sold — an understanding that underpins not only the contemporary housing crisis, but also the climate emergency. At the same time, the means by which the community has negotiated an alternative to eviction illustrate the challenges of building a home outside dominant economic systems. Far from an “answer” to houselessness, the successes and struggles of the village demonstrate the urgent need for a much broader societal transformation — one that extends far beyond the puʻuhonua’s makeshift walls.
2. ‘He Aliʻi Ka ʻĀina’
On the leeward coast of the Island of Hawaiʻi, at the foot of Mauna Loa, a giant black wall slices across the landscape. Built from dry-stacked basalt, with some boulders more than six feet in diameter, the wall is twelve feet high, eighteen feet thick, and nearly 1,000 feet long. It stretches from one side of a narrow peninsula to the other, bracketing a portion of the shoreline and creating an island on the island, which can be accessed only by water or through a small opening near the center of the wall.
This enclosure is Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau. It was constructed sometime between 1400 and 1600 CE, and today is managed by the National Park Service. 21 In addition to the basalt Great Wall or Pa Puʻuhonua, the historic site includes a grouping of brackish, anchialine fishponds; a coconut grove; an open area once likely occupied by royal residences and ceremonial structures; and a monumental stone platform known as ʻAleʻaleʻa Heiau. When I visited the park in spring 2022, the air was filled with the sounds of bleating goats and conversations in a multitude of languages. Visitors posed between a pair of wooden kiʻi (carved statues) as if they were Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, puʻuhonua were a significant part of the archipelago’s physical, social, and spiritual landscape. Hawaiian society was divided in three parts: the aliʻi (chiefly class), the ahuna (priestly class), and the makaʻāinana (common people). 22 Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor explains that the society centered “around subsistence production to sustain ʻohana,” or extended families:
Hawaiian spiritual beliefs, customs, and practices focused on maintaining harmonious and nurturing relationships to the various life forces, elements, and beings of nature as ancestral spirits who were honored as deities. Land and natural resources were not privately owned. Rather, the Hawaiian people maintained a communal stewardship over the land, ocean, and all of the natural resources of the islands. 23
Stewardship fell to the aliʻi, who, as trustees of the gods, were responsible for the land’s fecundity and the well-being of the makaʻāinana. The makaʻāinana, in turn, worked the land and supplied the aliʻi with food, barkcloth, and other goods. This relationship has drawn comparisons to European feudalism, but Kānaka Maoli scholars have dispensed with the analogy. For one thing, even aliʻi did not own land. 24 In Hawaiʻi, ʻāina — a word that translates to “land, or that which feeds,” but that also encapsulates Hawaiians’ familial relationship with the natural world — was elevated above all else. This reality is expressed by an ʻōlelo noʻeau or Hawaiian proverb that states, He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwa ke kanaka: “The land is chief, the people its servant.” A responsibility to land superseded class or status. As Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio writes in Dismembering Lāhui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887, for Hawaiians, “the land itself was alive and conscious. Untroubled by Judeo-Christian theology that placed human beings in a position of dominance over the earth and its other creatures, Hawaiian political systems favored not one class over another, but the land — ʻāina — over the others.” 25
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, puʻuhonua were a significant part of the archipelago’s physical, social, and spiritual landscape.
The system of sacred laws that governed Hawaiian society during this time was known as kapu, which determined everything from acceptable land uses to social codes of conduct. Under kapu, puʻuhonua — which existed on every major island — served as politically neutral asylums “where those who violated the strict kapu … could flee and find sanctuary, even from penalties requiring death,” Kalamaokaʻāina Niheu writes. 26 Today, we might understand these refugia as spaces of restorative justice. Rae Fujimori Godden, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and former chief of interpretation at Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau, explains that while a puʻu is a building up, as in a hill or mound, and honua means earth, puʻuhonua describes a “rising consciousness.” These were places of healing and spiritual transformation but also of safety; during times of war or turmoil, they served as safe spaces for women, children, and the elderly. Puʻuhonua, moreover, were not exclusively enclosures, or physical places at all. Kaʻahumanu, a favored wife of King Kamehameha I, was imbued with the power of a puʻuhonua, able to pardon individuals outside the boundaries of a built sanctuary.
3. Finding Home
Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae is not surrounded by a great wall. Instead, it is fortified with wood pallets, concrete blocks, and rubble. Its central gathering space is a large open area, occupied only by a pair of picnic tables and an assortment of old chairs. A sign by the portable toilets says, “Bring Your Own T-Paper.” Yet the village plays a role similar to that of Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau. It is a place of safety and healing for any who need it.
Divided into six sections, the encampment is arranged according to need, with campsites nearest the village’s sole source of water reserved for kūpuna (elders) and families with young children. Located near the entrance are a communal outdoor kitchen; a food pantry, where all items, from canned goods to menstrual products, are free; a donations tent, which supplies villagers with free clothing and furniture; and a tent with couches where older kids can hang out.
The village not only receives social services, but provides them, delivering meals and referring individuals to recovery programs, legal assistance, and workforce training.
This network of care extends beyond immediate community members, creating what Young describes as a “space of relational belonging shared between people, place, and the more-than-human.” 27 Just west of the donations tent are a series of fenced-off areas, where woven barricades of kiawe branches protect openings that lead to underwater karst caverns sometimes populated by ‘ōpae ʻula, an endemic shrimp. Villagers built the fences after officials from Hawaiʻi’s Department of Land and Natural Resources raised concerns about pollution of the ōpae ʻula habitats. In addition to a culture of reuse that characterizes many informal communities — among the many stories Young tells is of an unhoused woman who takes “runoff water from public beach showers to grow kalo” — Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae has an agreement with DLNR that villagers will clean up the harbor site once it has been vacated, including removing structures and debris. 28 Currently, villagers are remediating the mauka property, removing old tires, car parts, appliances, and other rubbish.
Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae has also opened its pantry and donations tent to the surrounding community. Anyone in need can shop for free. In this way, the village increasingly serves not only as a recipient of social services, but as a provider, delivering meals to unsheltered families up and down the Waiʻanae coast, and referring individuals to programs for recovery from substance abuse, legal assistance, and workforce training. State representative John Mizuno has estimated the value of these services at between two and four million dollars annually — all provided, Grandinetti notes, at no cost to the state. 29
Residents of Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae are frustrated by their treatment in local media, which overemphasizes substance abuse and mental illness as drivers of houselessness. 30 “The problem is just not one thing. It’s many things,” Borge told me.
We have mental illness in our village. But we also have people that cannot read or write, and people [whose] main provider either passed away or left. We have people in our village who work, but not enough to get into a place. We got people in our village that do carpentry. We got people in our village that do irrigation. We got people in our village that fix cars. We got people that do floral arrangements. I have a couple of people who are beautiful painters; they can paint you a mural and you wouldn’t even know that they did that freehand. I got people that can do gardening, that can grow something where we had nothing, and now we have something to put on our table. But we also have people that just don’t know what to do with themselves.
Villagers point to statewide shortages of mental health facilities, transitional housing units, and permanent affordable housing. Lala, one of Borge’s captains, observed that lawmakers “don’t realize the cost of living down here. It’s expensive. We’re locals, and we cannot even afford to live in a house. Yet mainland people come and, boom, they get.” Borge’s nephew, Kala, who has lived in the village off and on since 2007, explained to me that even in working-class Waiʻanae, rents have skyrocketed. “Back in the day, as a child, you didn’t have to worry about what you were going to eat, where you were going to sleep. Doors were never locked. There was no theft, no nothing. If your neighbor wanted something to eat, you never denied them, because you always had plenty. Nowadays, everything’s changed.”
Residents of Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae are especially critical of the sweeps regularly conducted by the City and County of Honolulu, the joint entity with jurisdiction over the island of Oʻahu. For the past eight years, official policy toward houselessness has gone by the almost cartoonishly sinister name of “compassionate disruption,” a zero-tolerance approach that uses police to cite, arrest, or otherwise compel the movement of houseless individuals sleeping on sidewalks, in parks, or on other public property. In 2014, the city council passed its first sit-lie law, which criminalized sitting or lying “on a public sidewalk, or on a tarp, towel, sheet, blanket, sleeping bag, bedding, planter, chair, bench, or any other object or material placed upon a public sidewalk” in Waikīkī. 31 The ban augmented existing ordinances governing the storage of private belongings on city property.
Since then, the city council has expanded the ban six times, covering a total of seventeen neighborhoods, despite the fact that experts, including attorneys with the Hawaiʻi chapter of the ACLU, say that sit-lie laws and related measures criminalize poverty itself, and therefore violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 32 Meanwhile, the sweeps sever community ties, stymie outreach efforts, and cause the loss of documents necessary to access housing. 33
Villagers raise chickens, ducks, and pigs, and tend lush gardens. Unlike most government-run housing programs, here residents can stay as long as they need or want.
Kala echoed what most residents — even most service providers — told me about sweeps: “it’s a band-aid. You can keep sweeping somebody or putting ’em in a shelter. That’s all band-aids. All it is is buying time. And when your time’s up, then what? Back to the streets?” The churn he described exemplifies what Ananya Roy calls “permanent displaceability,” a tacit system in which unsheltered people face “expulsion, carceral isolation, as well as unending uncertainty.” 34 “These governments have no programs whatsoever that can help people get into permanent housing,” Kala said. “They got budgeting classes. But really, you’re paying rent, you’ve got your kids with you, how you gonna budget? You cannot.”
According to Hawaiʻi’s 2022 point-in-time count, only 40 percent of the state’s houseless population was residing in some sort of shelter, an indicator that beds remain in short supply, but also that emergency shelters fail the demographic they seek to serve in numerous ways. People remain houseless even when shelter beds are available, and Borge says that one reason for this is the restrictions such facilities impose. Most shelters limit the amount and type of belongings a person can bring, enforce strict time limits — often 90 days — and prohibit pets. Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, in contrast, affords residents a sense not only of community, but of autonomy. Villagers raise pigs, chickens, and ducks, and tend gardens of tropical flowers. And unlike most government-run housing programs, at the puʻuhonua residents can stay as long as they want. “Other places, they get 90 days. I think that is the stupidest thing,” Borge said. “To work with one person, one-on-one, takes me about three years.”
Shelters also can be places of violence, especially for people who are queer or transgender. In “Home-Free and Nothing Less,” her “queer cosmology of aloha ʻāina,” Young tells the story of a 62-year-old trans woman named Layla, who lost her apartment and car after being fired from her job as a janitor. Layla, Young writes, was “booted from parking lots, kicked off beaches, and disrespected in shelters by police officers and security guards,” largely because of her gender identity. 35 Like Mahina, Layla eventually made her way to Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, where “the community polices itself and provides for its residents outside the economic and political framework of the cistem, a systemic privileging of cisgender and heteronormative nuclear-family structures.”
In the film Kamaʻāina, the everyday threat of violence lurks just offscreen. During a conversation with an otherwise friendly social worker, the mention of police and the possibility of being escorted home sends Mahina scrambling to extricate herself. Of the realities experienced by many houseless LGBTQIA+ people, Young writes:
social workers should know that sometimes “home” is not a safe place. Abuse, neglect, and condemnation are too often a part of our everyday life. Sometimes “elsewhere” is the only place we feel safe. Moreover, in a world where our very existence as unsheltered Indigenous, queer youth is criminalized, the last people on earth we would want to see or talk to is the police. 36
The villagers I spoke to at Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae described a community culture that, though not without conflict, is built around inclusion, compassion, and care. Stevie, an openly queer schoolteacher from El Salvador, moved to Oʻahu from Los Angeles. He first met Aunty Twinkle at Waiʻanae High School, where he was working as a special education teacher. After a time, he moved into the puʻuhonua.
We don’t have homophobia in this village. Even somewhere as liberal as L.A, I’m not used to that amount of comfort and freedom: to say what you gotta say, walk how you wanna walk, laugh how you wanna laugh. I feel different when I go out now. I carry that solidarity and that comfort of just, like, being okay in my own shoes because I’m okay here in my habitual space. It’s huge, the comfort of a habitual space, and it’s not always bound by a roof or an electrical outlet on a wall.
Here, again, Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae reclaims an island lineage of acceptance and celebration. Historically in Hawaiʻi, persons whose spirit is both male and female — māhū — were revered, and same-sex relationships were common. 37 Even land was gender-fluid: ʻāina was, and still is, both male and female. 38 Listening to Stevie, I thought of the final scene in Kamaʻāina, Mahina standing beside Aunty Twinkle, a benevolent ocean before them. Then I imagined some anonymous makaʻāinana, fleeing to a puʻuhonua in 17th-century Hawaiʻi. Capitalism wants us to believe it offers freedom. But, under kapu, resources were shared, land divided not for private gain but for the benefit of all, including the non-human. A person had to break a law to find themselves in need of a puʻuhonua. Under capitalism, criminal status is levied on entire groups for little more than daring to exist.
4. How ‘Āina Became Property
In 1819, the kapu system ended, and puʻuhonua ceased to serve their traditional functions. This break coincided with other major shifts, precipitated, in part, by a collapse in the Hawaiian population following the introduction of cholera, influenza, measles, smallpox, and other diseases. Estimates of the mass death during this period put the population decline at as much as 90 percent. 39 Such losses, within the span of a single generation, strained every aspect of Hawaiian society, including its land tenure system, as loʻi kalo (terraced taro fields) and loko iʻa (fishponds) went untended and the infrastructure supporting them fell into disrepair.
The Māhele of 1848 redistributed lands for private ownership, with individuals claiming fee-simple title to their holdings.
In 1848, under the growing influence of American missionaries and mounting pressure to “modernize” Hawaiʻi, Kauikeauouli, the reigning moʻi or monarch, undertook the Māhele. 40 The Māhele divided and redistributed all Hawaiian lands under a new system of private ownership, with individuals — whether aliʻi or makaʻāinana — claiming fee-simple title to their holdings. In part, this redistribution attempted to preserve land rights for Kānaka Maoli in the face of an expanding foreign population and the threat of international hostility. “It is only private property that is respected,” Robert Wyllie, the Scottish-born Secretary of the Interior for the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, advised in 1849. “Therefore it would be wise to put every native family throughout the islands, in possession of a good piece of land, in fee simple, as soon as possible.” 41
Under the Māhele, any of Hawaiʻi’s roughly 80,000 makaʻāinana could file a claim with the Land Commission to secure title to parcels on which they lived or tended loʻi kalo. And yet, despite notices published in Hawaiian newspapers and posted in churches, by 1850, just 14,195 claims had been submitted, with a total of 8,421 fee-simple awards made. 42 Among the many impediments were the costs of hiring a surveyor as well as a pragmatic calculus assessing whether a system based on traditional resource-sharing was possible under private ownership. As Jonathan Osorio points out, for makaʻāinana, “the typical award was somewhere in the neighborhood of three to ten acres, enough to include a good loʻi perhaps, but not enough to ensure that the ʻauwai (irrigation network) would be left intact.” 43 Ultimately, the Māhele represented a “critical dismemberment of Hawaiian society,” laying the foundation for more foreign land speculation, and transforming Native Hawaiians, both conceptually and legally, from makaʻāinana — a people with spiritual connections and obligations to land — to hoaʻāina, tenants. “The Māhele,” Osorio writes, “established the indigenous occupants … as competitors rather than as caretakers of the ʻāina.” 44
Over the next 40 years, haole (White foreign) interests gained political power in Hawaiʻi, first through land acquisition, then through a political system that favored land ownership, and finally and most dramatically through the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, an act carried out by a group of sugar plantation owners and the settler descendants of missionaries, aided and abetted by the U.S. Marines. Even before the seizure of Hawaiʻi’s Crown Lands by the newly formed Republic of Hawaiʻi, the majority of the islands’ territory had been claimed by foreigners. As Haunani-Kay Trask notes, by 1888, ten years before Hawaiʻi was formally annexed by the United States, “three-quarters of all arable land was controlled by haole.” 45
When my wife and I moved to Hawaiʻi to be closer to her family, renting a studio apartment off the Ala Wai Canal in Waikīkī, we officially became kamaʻāina. This status, conferred by our permanent residence and state IDs, entitled us to discounts at restaurants, special rates on hotels and tours, and, occasionally, price reductions on inter-island air travel. I felt deeply ambivalent about the situation. As Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio points out, kamaʻāina, literally translated, means “child of the land,” and historically meant “native-born.” 46 Over time, it has come to refer to any resident of Hawaiʻi. This shift, Osorio writes, reflects “how kamaʻāina has been perverted, exploited, and commodified into a consumer reward system.” In many ways, “kamaʻāina rates” are tourism operators’ way of luring locals to spend money in areas they’ve been pushed out of, to participate in an economy built on the continued exploitation of Hawaiʻi’s lands and people.
Our current political and economic systems want me, a White U.S. citizen born in Kansas to a family of Swiss and Austrian immigrants, to believe that I have as much right to call Hawaiʻi home as Kānaka Maoli. But, in Hawaiian culture, the term kamaʻāina comes with a kuleana, or responsibility, born of ongoing relationship with Hawaiʻi’s lands and waters. “Declaring oneself a ‘kamaʻāina,’ without any understanding of what kuleana that requires culturally, re-enacts the long-practiced strategy of ‘immigrants … [claiming] our indigenous heritage, including our lands, as their own,’” Osorio writes. 47
In Hawaiian culture, a kuleana, or responsibility, is born of ongoing relationship with the lands and waters.
Other writers have explored alternatives to kamaʻāina that center non-Indigenous individuals’ status as participants — witting or otherwise — in the colonial project. Terms like “settler ally” or “settler aloha ʻāina,” Candace Fujikane has suggested, could help to root settlers like myself “in the settler colonialism that we seek to dismantle so that we never lose sight of those conditions or the privileges we derive from them.” 48 Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻopua has theorized that any efforts to claim attachment to Hawai’i must center the land — the ‘āina — itself, noting that a “settler aloha ‘āina can take responsibility for and develop attachment to lands upon which they reside when actively supporting Kānaka Maoli who have been alienated from ancestral lands.” 49 Still other Hawaiians argue that, as an identity and set of relations, aloha ʻāina, often translated as “love of land and nation,” is reserved only for Kānaka Maoli.
There are no easy answers to the question of how settlers in Hawaiʻi can most ethically build solidarity with Kānaka Maoli in the fight for self-determination. I wonder how to know if I have fulfilled my kuleana. I have carried my Kansas ancestors with me into the soft, green wetness of Kalihi Valley to work alongside Kānaka Maoli restoring native forests. I have sunk my feet into the life-giving soil of a loʻi and been instructed how to cut the corm from a stalk of kalo. Do these actions make me a settler aloha ʻāina? Are such gestures enough? How, I ask myself, does one measure aloha ‘āina? But then, perhaps the instinct to try to measure what is fundamentally relational is itself a colonial compulsion.
6. The Puʻuhonua Society
Amid the upheavals of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea of puʻuhonua retained its power, and on November 13, 1914, approximately 200 Kānaka Maoli leaders crammed into the Waikīkī home of Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole. They were there to discuss a series of intersecting crises, among them a lack of affordable housing on the islands. The group conceived of an organization that would “help members receive training and attain jobs … lobby at the legislature, [and] search for secure and sanitary living quarters.” 50 They called this organization Ahahui Puʻuhonua O Nā Hawaiʻi, The Puʻuhonua Society of Hawaiʻi. 51
Central to the group’s aim was reinstating Kānaka Maoli on the land. Prince Kūhiō and his contemporaries were intimately aware of the injustices precipitated by the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. “These Hawaiian families … do not own an inch of land in their own country,” the prince stated; securing housing became, in his words, a way to “set aside for the Hawaiian people lands that originally belonged to the Hawaiians.” 52
The planters sponsored their own version of the law, making homesteads available to a limited number of Native Hawaiians.
In December 1918, the organization drew up the Puʻuhonua Resolution, a precursor to what would become the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (or HHCA) of 1921. The resolution outlined the need for a special Hawaiian housing program, and called on the U.S. Congress to make available former Crown Lands for the purpose. “In its original form as the Puʻuhonua Resolution, the bill, designated as Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 2, was simple and direct,” Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor writes in her history of the HHCA. The resolution would have made publicly owned land available for homesteading by anyone of Hawaiian blood, “in whole or in part.”
The haole owners of Hawaiʻi’s sugar plantations, however, feared a future in which prime agricultural parcels would be open to homesteading by Kānaka Maoli. Indeed, the planters’ control was already precarious. McGregor explains that, under the territory’s existing Organic Act,
lands could be withdrawn from plantation and ranch leases and opened for homesteading by any group of 25 citizens who petitioned for their homesteading .… From the perspective of the planters and the ranchers, quick and decisive action was required to prevent the withdrawal of additional public lands for homesteading. From the perspective of the Hawaiian leaders, the expiration of the leases presented them with a rare opportunity to repatriate those Crown and Kingdom lands to the Native Hawaiian people to homestead. 53
The planters’ solution was to ostensibly support the homesteading bill while lobbying for significant changes. They sponsored their own version of the law, which introduced, among other things, a blood-quantum requirement that made homesteads available only to those Hawaiians with at least a one-half blood quantum — that is, one fully Native Hawaiian parent — disqualifying thousands of Kānaka Maoli. Additionally, plantation owners introduced restrictions on homestead size; successfully argued that the islands’ first- and second-tier agricultural areas should be exempted from the program (along with any arid public lands “capable of being converted into agricultural lands by the development of underlying and/or contiguous waters for irrigation purposes”); and repealed restrictions on corporations owning or acquiring parcels in excess of 1,000 acres. 54
The two versions of the bill were merged, with many of the planters’ demands intact. The final text of the HHCA established a Hawaiian Home Lands Trust of 200,000 acres in mostly third- and fourth-tier agricultural lands — at least 55,000 acres of which were covered by lava, with another 7,800 acres too steep to build on — for homesteading only by those who could prove the 50-percent blood quantum. Homesteaders would not own the land beneath their houses, but receive 99-year leases at an annual rent of one dollar.
The Hawaiian community saw the compromise bill — accurately — as the “demise of homesteading of the public lands by the general multiethnic public,” McGregor writes. Even some sugar industry insiders opposed the amendments. Albert Horner, an industry expert employed by the Territory of Hawai’i, wrote to Governor McCarthy in February 1921 that the designated areas were unsuited to the program’s intent. “I believe in the Bill, but I do not believe it is possible to successfully operate it under the lands selected,” he warned. 55
A program that might have rekindled generational ties to the land has become instead a tool for legal dispossession.
Upon the territory’s admission to the United States in 1959, administration of the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust transferred to the State of Hawaiʻi. Since then, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (or DHHL) has been plagued by scandal and mismanagement, and has struggled to deliver housing at a scale and cost that make it accessible for the average family. The agency bears some blame for its failures, but many are also attributable to the planters’ initial sabotage. As Rob Perez and Agnel Philip reported in 2020 for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica, on the eve of the HHCA’s centennial, just one-fifth of the 7,800 acres managed by the department on Oʻahu is developable. 56 Additionally, the department’s exclusive focus on developing single-family houses in sprawling subdivisions has left many beneficiaries unable to afford a home, even with a land-lease cost of one dollar per year. Perez and Philip found that the department “routinely had to go thousands deep on its waitlist to find applicants willing and able to accept a lease during the past 25 years, bypassing those who couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.” 57 Today, more than 28,700 Native Hawaiians are on a waitlist; at least 2,000 would-be beneficiaries have died waiting. 58 Among the unsheltered Native Hawaiian population, fifteen percent are on the waitlist. 59
With the hollowing out of the HHCA, a program that might have rekindled generational ties to ‘āina has become instead a tool for continued “legal” dispossession. Moreover, the law’s blood quantum requirement — already oppositional to Kānaka Maoli understandings of selfhood — have had repercussions beyond the issue of housing, with particular impact on Hawaiians who are queer, or māhū. “The HHCA not only legalized insidious blood logics that presumed those with more ‘blood’ were more ‘Hawaiian,’” writes Jamaica Osorio,
but also adopted principles of nuclear familyhood that allowed only certain Kānaka Maoli with legally sufficient blood quantum to pass on land — and only to immediate nuclear descendants. Here “modern” sexualities and heteropaternalism combine to mandate that Kānaka Maoli wahine [women] must pair with Kānaka Maoli kane [men], each with the required quantum, to make, protect, or pass on our claims to land. 60
As Carol Lee Kamokona, a Maui resident who has been on the waitlist for 20 years, told a documentary film crew in 2022: “My kids will never, ever get a chance to buy a home here. Because once I die, once my mom dies, there is no more 50 percent blood quantum for my family. It’s genocide. It’s a way to get rid of the people.” 61
7. Becoming Puʻuhonua
Two hundred years after the abolition of kapu, and one hundred years after the formation of Ahahui Puʻuhonua O Nā Hawaiʻi, the importance of puʻuhonua vibrates in Hawaiʻi’s collective consciousness. The continued need for places of refuge finds expression in communities like Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae, in environmental conservation efforts, and in movements for criminal-justice reform and prison abolition. It inspires works of art; indeed, Jamaica Osorio has described moʻolelo (stories, histories) themselves as puʻuhonua.
Yet the word was not one Aunty Twinkle used growing up in the Pālolo neighborhood of Honolulu. In fact, the community at the boat harbor — which has existed in some form since 2006 — didn’t call itself Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae until 2018, when Borge and other leaders first met with an activist named Dennis Kanahele, known to most as Uncle Bumpy. Kanahele has long been involved in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. In 1987, he and fourteen other Hawaiian activists occupied a pair of houses abandoned by the U.S. Coast Guard at Makapuʻu, at the far eastern tip of Oʻahu. “This is not a protest,” Kanahele, then 32 years old, told reporters. “We have filed a deed, claimed this land, and are just returning home.” 62 In 1993, Kanahele was at the center of another occupation, this time at Makapuʻu Beach Park, where a group of Hawaiians declared themselves the Independent Nation State of Hawaiʻi. It was the centenary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Miliani Trask, an organizer with Ka Lahui Hawaiʻi, a group fighting for Hawaiian sovereignty, told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin at the time, “We agreed that in 1993 we couldn’t just talk, testify, and write letters. We had to do more. We believe that peaceful occupation and civil disobedience are the only ways.” 63
For a year, the Independent Nation State of Hawaiʻi operated from its beachfront base, claiming the land as rightfully theirs. The situation came to a head in the summer of 1994. That May, Honolulu mayor Frank Fasi had ordered the park’s bathrooms boarded up and the water shut off. The Hawaiians tapped the water line. A few days later, city crews covered the access point with a 2,000-pound metal plate and sealed it with concrete. “The reason they want us out of here is that it’s bad for business,” one activist told reporters. “This is how the state deals with the disenfranchised.” 64
A puʻuhonua is not only a physical space, but a set of relations. It is all the villagers, each a sanctuary for the others.
The occupation ended when the state’s then-governor, John Waiheʻe III — the only Kānaka Maoli to date to occupy the seat — brokered a deal to offer Kanahele’s group 69 acres of Trust land in Waimānalo valley, to be leased from the state for $60 per month. 65 Today, the village is known as Puʻuhonua O Waimānalo. It comprises about two dozen simply built homes and multiple farm plots, and for Kanahele, represents a manifestation of the Independent Nation State of Hawaiʻi. In their first conversation, Borge asked Uncle Bumpy what puʻuhonua meant. “He said, ‘Aunty, it means a place of refuge,’” Borge recalled. “But you — you made a home for people.’”
In many ways, Uncle Bumpy’s village offers a glimpse into the future for Aunty Twinkle’s community. Children learn ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. Residents grow ti (a relative of yucca), sweet potato, and more than 50 species of kalo. Families pay what they can. 66 It is a rare alternative to an unaffordable housing system, and an enactment of Kānaka Maoli self-governance. But there are also important differences between the two puʻuhonua, differences that reveal the entrenchment of neoliberal attitudes toward the provision of housing in Hawaiʻi. Kanahele’s community occupies land included in the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust. Their agreement with the state can be seen as a long overdue implementation of the HHCA’s original intent, or, going back further, a continuation of laws that allowed homesteading on public lands by any group of 25 or more persons. 67 In contrast, Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae’s decision to raise money from private donors to purchase property outright would seem to uphold the current, colonial system of private ownership. 68
According to Grandinetti, Borge was prepared to make a stand at the boat harbor. But, in 2018, when a sweep was announced, the stated reason for evicting the community was to make way for a planned marine science and education center for Waiʻanae High School. “Aunty Twinkle, who has taken dozens of children under her care, felt unwilling to start an anti-eviction struggle if it meant acting against the interest of students at Waiʻanae High,” Grandinetti writes. She quotes Borge: “‘I wanted to fight here, for real, to make this place our home, but when they told me they had given it to the high school for the kids, that’s when I really did back down.’” 69 For Grandinetti, this decision to avoid confrontation or further entanglement with the state is a stark example of the “many ways that neoliberalism fails forward.”
The withdrawal of social welfare and public services produced organized abandonment, which bred an increasing distrust of government, creating a cycle in which the state can continue to abdicate responsibility for social reproduction and offload those responsibilities onto individuals. Despite its subversive power, the puʻuhonua ended up having to move to stay connected in ways that reified private property ownership. They had to answer dispossession with possession and become private property owners themselves. 70
Faced with eviction, the villagers chose to vacate the place that for a decade had offered them sanctuary, and start anew. They understood, it seems, that a puʻuhonua is not only — or even predominantly — a physical space, but rather a set of relations. The puʻuhonua of Waiʻanae is not the boat harbor or even the village’s new mauka home. It is Aunty Twinkle. It is her captains. It is all of the villagers, each a sanctuary for the others.
8. A Kīpuka for the Future
Seventy miles from Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau and its black basalt wall, on the other side of Mauna Loa, stands a small, hump-backed landform called Puʻuhuluhulu. 71 Rising roughly 150 feet from the earth, one side of the hill is mostly barren, an exposed face of rock and cinder. The other side is tree-covered, a green oasis amid an expanse of charcoal-colored lava.
Puʻuhuluhulu is a kīpuka, a phenomenon that occurs when lava surrounds but does not overrun a small piece of land, creating an ecological island. These pockets of old-growth forest and other native vegetation become critical wildlife habitats, as well as vital seedbanks. From these ancient green islands, volcanic landscapes begin to regenerate, as pioneer species like ʻōhiʻa lehua find their way into the crevices of the lava rock, breaking it down into more fertile and hospitable soil. Grandinetti suggests that it is as a cultural kīpuka — a refuge from which Hawaiian self-determination and ʻāina-based forms of governance may emerge — that Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae is most significant, and most revelant to Hawaiʻi’s future.
Such kīpuka aloha ʻāina have been described as “regenerative spaces for Hawaiian culture and ways of being with ʻāina.” The term is most frequently applied to rural communities “that have been bypassed [by] major historic forces of economic, political, and social change in Hawaiʻi,” Grandinetti points out, drawing on a lineage of Hawaiian scholarship. She adds that these cultural seedbanks do not emerge “solely in places that appear untouched by the destructive forces of colonialism and occupation, but in all kinds of spaces where Kānaka Maoli have ʻmoved to stay connectedʻ to ʻāina through change and upheaval.” 72
There is growing consensus among environmental scientists that Indigenous knowledge and stewardship are critical to avoiding the worst effects of climate change.
This understanding of Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae as a kīpuka aloha ʻāina is what makes the village relevant, even critical, to discussions of Hawaiʻi’s climate future. There is a growing consensus among environmental scientists that Indigenous knowledge and stewardship are critical to avoiding the worst effects of climate change. Hawaiʻi is often described as a “green leader.” In 2020, Honolulu joined a handful of U.S. cities suing major oil and gas companies for decades of deliberate disinformation; in 2022, the state received its last shipment of coal. Yet the state’s response to climate change has generally neglected the needs and perspectives of Kānaka Maoli, who remain sidelined in discussions of environmental justice and climate adaptation. The City and County of Honolulu’s Climate Action Plan, for instance, makes no mention of Native Hawaiians. Its resilience strategy does little better, merely mentioning Hawaiians’ historic stewardship of natural resources and including a recommendation that the city partner with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs on a “place-based, climate resilience training program for senior City and County leadership.” 73 There is no mention of displacement or dispossession. No mention of supporting Hawaiian knowledge and practices by addressing the current housing crisis.
Any planning for climate adaptation undertaken without Kānaka Maoli knowledge and leadership is bound to fail, not least because such a process will lack access to the centuries of environmental observation contained within moʻolelo and other Hawaiian-language sources. Such planning could even exacerbate the ongoing dispossession of Native Hawaiians. As Max Liboiron points out, “Environmentalism does not usually address colonialism and often reproduces it.”
Hawaiʻi cannot build its way out of the housing emergency, because the lack of regulation for short-term vacation rentals, combined with the state’s popularity among real-estate investors and second-home buyers, means that demand is essentially insatiable. Nor can a significant investment in government-subsidized or government-built social housing address the fundamental injustice that is the theft of Hawaiian land. Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae offers another way.
Hawaiʻi cannot build its way out of the housing emergency. State-sponsored housing cannot address the theft of Hawaiian land. Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae offers another way.
The village now owns its 20 acres. Yet the community still fundamentally challenges colonial frameworks in which land is taken as property. “Aunty Twinkle’s understanding of a puʻuhonua as a place of refuge and safety is inseparable from a kuleana to steward the ‘āina that provides such refuge,” Grandinetti writes. 74 Moreover, residents own the mauka parcel collectively, through the nonprofit Dynamic Community Solutions, which Borge and several long-time residents founded in 2017. In much the way that community land trusts enable groups of neighbors to exert control over speculative development and build collective wealth, Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae Farm Village will be governed by the villagers, with costs and benefits shared.
It is tempting to treat Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae as a model, as indeed Governor Josh Green and other state officials are attempting to do. But puʻuhonua cannot be appropriated by the state without losing that which makes them sanctuaries. Of Governor Green’s “kauhale” initiative, for instance, Grandinetti concludes: “Indigenous values and practices that served as organizing principles for Puʻuhonua o Waiʻanae are reduced to aesthetics, while the non-commodified relationships that provided refuge from capitalist displacement are erased completely.” 75
To be sure, a proliferation of puʻuhonua-like villages could preserve community ties and attachments to place, easing the traumas of living unsheltered, and offering life-saving support to LGBTQIA+ youth. Borge has said that every island should have a puʻuhonua like the one in Waiʻanae. But building more puʻuhonua does not explicity address the fact that the current housing system depends on scarcity — producing, then criminalizing, houselessness and trapping unsheltered individuals in endless cycles of displacement, while generating profits for developers of “affordable” housing. It is precisely Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae’s existence outside current systems of power and social control that generate its symbolic power. As an unsanctioned collective, the village represents a radical expression of Indigenous autonomy and belonging, in defiance of a political and economic system that seeks to erase both.
In response to the pandemic, which revealed the everyday precarity experienced by many Hawaiʻi residents, the state legislature has taken several actions intended to make housing more accessible. In 2022, the State of Hawaiʻi allocated an historic $600 million to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, seven times the amount the agency received in 2021. Most of the money will go toward developing new housing. The state legislature also passed a law incrementally raising minimum wage from $10.10 to $18.00 per hour by 2028. And a new Honolulu ordinance prohibiting rentals of less than 30 days took effect in October 2022. (Also in 2022, after seven years, my family joined the thousands of other residents who are forced each year to leave the islands due to the cost of living.) Meanwhile, there is a small but growing recognition of Native Hawaiians’ special right to housing in Hawaiʻi. In a 2021 op-ed in Honolulu Civil Beat, Williamson Chang and Abbey Seitz argued that the “affordable housing crisis is not only a threat to the very existence of Native Hawaiians — it is also a threat to the existence of Hawaiʻi as we know it.” 76
These developments are welcome. Yet Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae asks us to dream bigger, to imagine not a proliferation of places of refuge, but a society in which such spaces gradually become unnecessary — a society organized around the needs of its most vulnerable, that honors relationality and regeneration over the urge to measure, to divide, to own.
What would puʻuhonua thinking look like? The village is a refuge, and also a seedbank, awaiting conditions under which the life it protects might take root beyond.
What would such “puʻuhonua thinking” look like? In the immediate future, it would look like the City and County of Honolulu permanently ending sweeps, supporting unsheltered communities where they are, and investing in critical infrastructure, including accessible public bathrooms, functional water fountains, and shade. It would look like support for organizations such as Na Hale O Maui, a group committed to building affordable housing through community land trusts. It would look like continuing to fund the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands at or above this year’s historic level, abolishing blood-quantum requirements, and incentivizing the agency to experiment with less costly, less carbon-intensive housing models. It would look like reclaiming all lands currently under military lease and adding them to the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust or transferring them to another Hawaiian-led entity.
In the longer term, puʻuhonua thinking moves beyond harm reduction to become a fully fledged —and richly heterogenous — expression of what Young dubs “counter-Empire.” “By contesting the settler state in ways that evade captivity, punishment, and shame, puʻuhonua provide rigorous forms of accountability and access to resources without failing connections to community, humanity, self-care, and preservation,” she writes. “It is in this spirit of puʻuhonua then that we find solace at [Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae], a place ‘elsewhere,’ a place between the forest and the sea where we return to the source of our ea, our relations to everyone and everything, and our ability to bounce back — to heal beyond the settler colony.” 77 (Ea means sovereignty or independence, and also life or breath.)
This is the imaginative work that Puʻuhonua O Waiʻanae asks us to do. Not to conceive merely of a world with more puʻuhonua, or even a world in which puʻuhonua are supported and celebrated, but a world that is a puʻuhonua. The village today is a refuge, but it also a seedbank, an island awaiting the conditions under which the life it protects within its borders might take root beyond.