The Year of the Shark: Recognizing Those Who Reterritorialize Hawai’i

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Article published in The Funambulist 13 (September-October 2017) Queers, Feminists and Interiors. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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.