Opinion: I’m still watching Lahaina burn. Are you?

Maui Fires
Meg Tomonari/The Occidental

Just a month after the nation’s deadliest wildfire that left at least 115 people dead, residents of Lahaina, Maui and families across Hawaiʻi, including my own, have just begun mourning.

Lahaina represented eras of Hawaiʻi’s long-winded and diverse past: first, as the seat of the Hawaiian kingdom and a central whaling port in the 1800s, then attracting Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Filipino immigrants to the sugar cane fields. Later, the town evolved into a popular tourist destination.

But Maui’s heartache remains anything but a story of the loss of a tourist town — while the island’s unbreakable community has survived the wildfire, it is the relationship between Hawaiʻi residents and the U.S. government that continues to smolder.

The fires exposed the complications corroding the relationship between Native Hawaiian people and the U.S. government, one that’s been chipping away for over a century, following the 1893 illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by a group of American businessmen. Even more disappointment arose a century later when, in 1993, former president Bill Clinton issued a formal apology for the illegal overthrow that yielded no tangible results.

Despite the argument that the wildfires are related to colonialism and exploitation of Hawaiʻi’s natural resources, the U.S. government had no direct hand in causing a natural disaster; yet, it is the U.S. government who continues to generate mistrust in the tragedy’s aftermath.

Immediately after the fire, Hawai‘i’s local people took the lack of urgent relief from the government as not merely a slap in the face, but a validation of an already existing wariness. Without government aid, local residents mobilized relief efforts, sending their own boats strapped with boxes of clothes and non-perishable food to Maui. While the world watched television broadcasts and social media clips of local organizations, Hawai‘i’s people expertly crafted a “stick-it-to-the-man” message under the guise of communal togetherness — a bond that remains but is made stronger by the mistrust of the government.

After all, this is the same federal government that imprisoned Hawaiʻi’s Queen Liliʻuokalani in her own ʻIolani Palace; the same government whose Navy bombed the island of Kahoʻolawe for target practice; the same government that created the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921 that still has roughly 28,700 applicants waiting for homes they were promised; and the same government whose Navy’s fuel tanks leaked fuel in an aquifer that supplies 20 percent of Honolulu’s drinking water in 2021, despite decades of assurances that the tanks were safe. As a result, generations of rural communities largely comprised of Native Hawaiians — even on the Windward and Leeward sides of Oahu — do not vote and have little faith in the government process.

It’s not that Native Hawaiians are too isolated from the mainland or are misguided by bad apples at the local level — quite the opposite. Native Hawaiians and longtime Hawaiʻi residents have simply learned that when the U.S. government comes to the islands, they bring nothing but loss.

So, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began to offer essential relief on properties damaged by the fires to local residents, it’s no wonder that Hawaiʻi’s people took to the internet to warn others of the unpredictable consequences that would entail.

The hatred isn’t necessarily targeted at FEMA; rather, the videos and warnings are evidence that Hawaiʻi has generational trauma and the fear of losing any more land to the U.S. is tragically imaginable.

In the wake of the current disaster, a necessity remains for any suffering state to rely on external resources and expert opinions. But for Native Hawaiians, that can be hard to do when the people stating the facts bleed from the same vein that took their land and culture from them generations ago.

While President Biden’s Aug. 22 visit to Lahaina provided a sense of hope to residents, it still drew the attention of Native Hawaiians who expressed their indigenous resilience against U.S. ventures.

During Biden’s visit, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that Native Hawaiians and other community members waved the Hawaiian flag not in protest against Biden, but rather as a display of the strength of Hawaiʻi, not the U.S. — a difference that must be starkly understood.

These displays of symbolic strength are harmless, but their message continues to seep into the actual decision-making of some Lahaina residents who perceive government-issued warnings of poor air quality containing arsenic and asbestos as a means of pushing survivors out of Lahaina altogether. The same phenomenon occurred in March 2021 when only 8.8 percent of Native Hawaiians had received COVID-19 vaccinations despite making up 40 percent of COVID-19 cases across the islands.

This deviant behavior, however, compels Native Hawaiians with religious and working-class backgrounds to identify as conservative and reliably serve in America’s armed forces. By doing so in a predominantly blue state, this act of defiance and resistance remains a symbol of Hawaiian sovereignty. This going-against-the-grain attitude emboldens Hawai’i’s people, not necessarily to support a specific conservative leader, but rather to challenge mainstream beliefs that, in their view, plague the state to be more trusting of federal action.

In the midst of a disaster — even a pandemic — it’s easy for the national media to get coddled by ideas of community strength and resilience, particularly the sentiments of a strong American nation, but we must be the ones to ask why communities must rely so much on local manpower in the first place. Why is there more trust in strangers on a neighboring island than the nation’s president?

A day after the Lahaina burned to the ground, I pondered these questions as I walked along a shoreline near my home on Oahu. Maui, usually visible from my location, was invisible that day. While Maui’s future remains uncertain, I believe that rebuilding Lahaina will require a massive amount of coalition-building between the U.S. government and the Native Hawaiian people. No progress will be made in the island’s recovery if there is no trust between the two.

Until that happens, we must not lose sight of Maui’s exhaustive recovery. Simultaneously, by understanding Hawaiʻi’s complicated history with the same people who will provide them aid, we uncover a current crisis that attacks government trust due to colonial histories. Let this tragic fire serve as a reminder that history burns an ever-blazing trail, even in the dampened shorelines of Hawaiʻi.


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