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Caption photograph above: Visit to Mākua by the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana group (PKO) on July 17, 1977. / Photograph by Ed Greevy.
In memory of Alice Ululani Kaholo Greenwood
February 15, 1946 – July 8, 2017
When Alice Greenwood begins telling the story of the shark at Mākua—a beach and cluster of valleys on the western shore of O‘ahu island, where the US military now occupies over 4,000 acres—she begins with the caveat, “There are as many shark stories about Mākua as there are people who tell it.” Yet she clearly wants to share her own. Off Mākua Beach in the 1950s, Alice’s family would encounter a shark in the ocean; story has it that it was bigger than a Boston Whaler. Alice describes a cave on the shore, the smell of seaweed and algae in its water, and surmises an underground connection to the sea. In the cave “there was a mo‘o (lizard), who represents land… And there was a mano (shark), who represents ocean, and they fell in love. They had a child, and he was the shark formation.” Alice describes the shark not as animal or supernatural being, but rather as a formation, a configuration forged through layered histories. Alice continues, “He was the guardian of this whole place. That’s how my mother puts it.” Alice describes familial relations to sharks, like many in Hawai‘i who consider sharks aumakua, or deified ancestor. While Jaws conveys a diabolical shark and now popular Shark Week shares the 1975 film’s affinity for war soundtracks and sensationalized shark imagery, Alice’s mo‘olelo (place-based stories, histories) reframes human relations to sharks to reterritorialize space.
Reterritorialization holds particular significance at Mākua, where numerous crops and fishponds once shaped its landscape. Weeks after the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing, the Army evicted its residents, calling the land a war necessity, and promised its return six months after the war. Mākua transformed from fishing village and cattle ranch to busy garrison amidst martial law that persisted until October 14, 1944. For decades, the military used Mākua for joint Army-Navy maneuvers, bombing the valley from planes and using homes as targets. While former residents never returned, the military has not bombed the valley since 2004 as a result of community organizing, lawsuits, and public outcry.
After World War II, the pull to Mākua remained strong. Alice’s family lived in a covered wagon at Mākua while her parents finished building their home, and Hawai‘i’s homeless crisis that was full-fledged by the 1980s spurred the formation of a self-sufficient village. A community leader in the 1990s explained, “People worked all their lives and the system let them down. Programs don’t work. Mākua is like a program in itself…It’s the old Hawaii.” By the mid-1990s, 282 people, 83% of whom were Native Hawaiian, lived at Mākua Beach. On June 18, 1996, they faced their sixth and final eviction. More than 100 law enforcement officials, including police, sheriffs, conservation officials, and National Guard soldiers participated in the arrest of remaining residents and supporters. The State of Hawai‘i then constructed metal gates to manage public beach access. To this day, the military architecture of martial law—barbed wire and fences—unfurled a security infrastructure that continues to police people in Hawai‘i living in intimate relationship with their environment.
In the face of repetitive dispossession engendered by military occupation and its auxiliary police state, stories of sharks represent a territorial practice, a spatial expression of power in a place that people have a vested interest in defending and securing. Sharks propose models of governance and accountability predicated on familial relationships amongst and between humans and our environment—as opposed to militarized national defense. These mo‘olelo depict relationality as the basis of protection, rather than fear. The human-shark relationship disrupts colonial hierarchies that place humans above the natural world, sharing a model of sustainability that recognizes ancestral obligations to place. Shark mo‘olelo also refashion history as an active process linked to continual contestation.
The Mākua of Alice’s childhood had fruit, sugar cane, fish, and pig, but this abundance proved impermanent. Living outside became increasingly criminalized while the cost of living soared. Alice became homeless in June of 2005, when rent for the home where she lived for 35 years skyrocketed from $300/month to nearly $1,000. She moved with her young son, Makali‘i, to Ma‘ili Beach Park, nine miles down the road from Mākua. She became a leader amongst the homeless, maintaining the living space and teaching neighbors about their rights.
Part of an organizing tradition on O‘ahu’s structurally disenfranchised west side, Alice built community and held policymakers accountable while recognizing the ongoing dispossession and exploitation of fellow Hawaiians and the poor. While Indigenous activism often aims critique toward the settler state, Alice knows firsthand the importance of public services. Speaking to me in November of 2013, she stressed the need for accessible public transit to bring her son to school (she doesn’t have a car), lunch and education for children, services to veterans, and the importance of voting. She critiques the military’s domination of resources, including vacant housing and land in Hawai‘i that could otherwise go to the homeless. Yet the military enacts just one of many forms of violence. She speaks of the many getting paid $7.25 per hour assigned only 20 hours of work per week. She says, “You cannot tell me that they’re lazy, no good, drug addict, alcoholic bums. Because I’ll tell you one thing, when they took away my house, my dignity, and everything, I became exactly what you guys wanted me to be: an alcoholic, lazy. But I didn’t create that. The system did.”
Confronting injustices in many forms, Alice never limited her scope of activism to Hawai‘i. Her husband, James Hatchie, who passed away in 2001, visited Vieques in Puerto Rico while serving as a US Marine. He told Alice, ‘What they’re fighting for is exactly what we have at Lualualei,” a 9,200 acre, largely abandoned valley inland from Ma‘ili Beach Park, with the most fertile soil in Hawai‘i and radiotransmitters that some speculate contribute to high childhood leukemia rates in the surrounding area. He said, “And what they had done to the people [in Vieques] is exactly what they’re doing here.” In 2003, Alice participated in a delegation to Vieques, which she described as a “dream.” “I went over there and I listened to the stories the people told….We had the indigenous people around the world from Guam, the Indian nation, the Cherokee were there…And I was one of the reps from Hawai’i.”
Shark mo‘olelo have undoubtedly shaped the activism of Alice and others fighting for Mākua and for demilitarization, breathing power into intellectual traditions in Hawai‘i that give life to these efforts. They reflect Epeli Hau‘ofa’s offering of “Our Sea of Islands,” breaking out of confinement—analytical and otherwise—that limit conceptions of the importance and power of Pacific environment and peoples. This oceanic framing recognizes that the scope of problems facing Hawaiians is planetary, tied to global warfare, environmental crisis, capitalist exploitation, and imperialism. It encompasses the alliances that have been made, as well as those that have not yet been realized. It pushes existing structures to change and also develops relatively autonomous formations. Like the ocean where the shark dwells, these efforts for self-determination are contested and in flux, adapting to shifting conditions. And like sharks, activists in Hawai‘i aspire to protect their land and lives, reterritorializing space to fulfill their oceanic environmental visions.
Laurel Mei Singh, “The Year of the Shark: Recognizing Those Who Reterritorialized Hawai’i” (guest column), in The Funambulist 13 Queers, Feminists & Interiors (Sept-Oct. 2017)
Laurel Mei Singh is developing a book on military fences and grassroots struggles for land and livelihood in Wai‘anae, a rural and heavily militarized region of the island of O’ahu in Hawai’i. She has published articles on this topic in American Quarterly and Pacific Health Dialog. She serves as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in American Studies at Princeton University and Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa. She was born and raised near Lēahi–Diamond Head–on O’ahu. Read more on her contributor page.