Rob Parsons

Les is More

How a cultural specialist became the Superferry hearings' unsung hero

by Rob Parsons

September 20, 2007

At the end of a long first week of testimony in Judge Joseph Cardoza's Circuit Court hearings on Hawai'i Superferry, Leslie Kuloloio of Kahului took the witness stand. His testimony as a fisherman and cultural practitioner went unreported in the media, but made a great impact on those listening in the gallery.

"Uncle Les" was the third kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) to testify as to whether Hawai'i Superferry should operate their inter-island fast-ferry service while preparing a Supreme Court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

(Like Uncle Les, I was on call most of the week. I testified at the end of the day on Friday as a witness to the Mayor's Office and Maui County's position dating back three years that a full EIS should be required for Hawai'i Superferry and Kahului Harbor impacts.)

Earlier, Iokepa Naeole spoke of his own childhood growing up and around Kahului Harbor, and of his Hawaiian Outdoor Education (HOE) program-a hands-on program that teaches 16 children how to paddle, surf and fish. Naeole once told me that when 'Iao Stream ran to the sea without any diversions or concrete waterways, Kahului Harbor was fed by the fresh water of underground springs. His father said it was possible for a person to dive to the bottom, open his mouth and drink the upwelling fresh water.

Kema Kanaka'ole of Hana was also concerned about the Superferry's impacts. He said people in the Hana ahupua'a (region) are "scared" of the Oahu passengers that will be driving to their area to hunt and fish. Kanaka'ole's wife and two children joined him in court; they wore bright red "East Side Hui" t-shirts, contrasting sharply with the blue Superferry logo shirts worn by the company employees watching the deliberations. Kanaka'ole said he formed the Hui to educated visitors how to maintain the area's ecosystem balance, which they rely on for subsistence fishing, gathering and subsistence hunting.

Uncle Les had sat in the courtroom all week before taking the witness stand late Friday afternoon. Much of the hearings were tedious, as the State Attorney General's counsel and Superferry's lawyers objected to many lines of questioning from attorney Isaac Hall, working on behalf of three Maui environmental groups pushing for an EIS. But when Kuloloio took the stand, the room quieted to a hush. Defense lawyers respectfully remained seated.

In customary Hawaiian fashion, Uncle Les described his lineage, sharing that his genealogy can be traced back 500 years. His family name traces to names of the ocean and fish, not Ali'i names. Kuloloi'o translates to "mind of the upright fish" as well as place names throughout the islands, including the Honolulu Harbor area, when it was still a vital reef and fishing grounds.

He said his lineage is part of the old system of papa kai 'ohana, or families of the sea. Citing the cosmology of the Kumulipo, or creation chant, which links all the elements, he said, "Our ancestors come from the deepest depths of the ocean."

Uncle Les said he's familiar with fisheries on the dry and wet sides of the island. His mother's side of the family ranged from the Wailuku ahupua'a to Hamakualoa, while his dad's side encompassed shoreline areas from Ma'alaea to La Perouse, including Kaho'olawe. The maka 'ainana were the traditional "eyes of the land." As coastal inhabitants, they held knowledge of the resources of each ahupua'a stretching from the mountains to the sea.

"I've been a subsistence fisherman and cultural practitioner for the past fifty years," Kuloloio said, now a youthful 66 years old. He related that the near-shore fisheries from Hulu Point (near Waihe'e) to Ho'okipa Park "subsidized the deep sea fisheries? I'm very concerned of the impacts to our resources, from the deepest to the shallow."

Kuloloio said Kahului Harbor was a fishery before it was a harbor, and supplied the Kanaha fishpond (now a wetlands reserve). Hawaiians didn't have harbors, he said: "They'd hapai (carry) their canoes onto land, so not to upset the fisheries."

When the sugar industry came, their railroad transportation systems disrupted the traditional practices of native Hawai'i, building a coastal corridor from Haiku to Paia, Spreckelsville and Kahului. Where the makaha system, or sluice gate for the fishpond once stood, a railroad now sat.

"It changed the whole ancestral, traditional system of my marine ancestors," Kuloloio said.

The kohala, or whales, were also part of that ocean family, and were called the "directors of life."

"I'm concerned about this new kind of super wa'a or canoe that will bump, injure or kill the whales, my ocean ancestors," Kuloloio said.

Kuloloio believes those arriving on the Superferry will visit areas where Maui still has the kind of resources that may have vanished from Oahu. "So there's a chance where the families, the residents of Oahu visiting Maui will come to the place to pick opihi, come to the place to pick the number and varieties of seaweed, limu that we have on Maui," he said. "Of course, if my place has no more, come to the other place."

"Maui has to protect our resources," Kuloloio said. "Every island has kuleana (responsibility) to protect their resources."

Protection of cultural places and practices is something Uncle Les has diligently pursued. He's an original member of the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana, dating back to 1976, and his grandfather and grand uncle helped establish place names there. He worked to preserve the King's Trail in South Maui, establishing Hui Alanui O Makena in 1985, when Seibu-then the Japanese owners of Makena Resort-sought to close a portion of Old Makena Road.

Uncle Les also worked with the Ritz-Carlton Resort towards proper treatment of hundreds of burials found in Kapalua. He worked to establish protocol and procedures for handling native Hawaiian iwi (bones) and artifacts, and is a member of the Maui-Lanai Islands Burial Council. He said he's also honored to have been able to return the bones of Hawaiian ancestors from the Bishop Museum to Moku Papapa, at the furthest reaches of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Kuloloio also served on an advisory board that sought participation from indigenous people and people of color. From 1989 to their issuance of a final report in 1995, he met with the Federal Facilities Environmental Restoration Dialogue Committee (FFERDC). Mandated through the Departments of Defense and Energy, the FFERDC sought to establish proper guidelines and principles for handling pollution caused by the military. It helped set the rules for the Kaho'olawe cleanup after decades of naval bombing practice.

"I'm also concerned that Hawai'i Superferry represents a supership that will change its role and purpose to a military use, without any input for Native Hawaiians in the process," Kuloloio said.

Kuloloio believes in-depth public involvement is necessary to resolve the questions about Hawai'i Superferry, and to try to put things in balance as we change. "We need to begin the ancient ways of building and developing trust," he said. "We don't want to go back to the old 'D.A.D.' system of Decide, Announce and Defend. What we need is more studies through an EIS that will govern change of impacts on our ocean resources to feed future generations."

While Uncle Les passionately spoke in Circuit Court, he turned and directly addressed Judge Cardoza; most witnesses faced the lawyers questioning them. The gallery was very quiet during his testimony, except for the sniffles behind me of a local woman moved to tears by his words.

At one point, he spoke of "quivering like a naka" (sea slug), which does so as a defense mechanism when threatened. "I'm quivering right now because I have no clear answers to what this Superferry will do to my deep sea ancestors, my marine life, my genealogical family," he said.

The connection is very important, he told me later. He learned traditional, cultural practices from his mother, who learned from her mother before that. "The naka and the loli [sea cucumber]," he said, "were among the first sea creatures ever put in my mouth.

"We are all stakeholders," he continued. "We need to follow na ho'ohanohano i na kupuna, which is honoring the knowledge of our ancestors. We need public participation, especially from those who continue the lifestyles of their kupuna. I am afraid for imbalances, rapid changes, alterations. This is beyond the 2050 Plan, beyond GPAC [General Plan Advisory Committee], beyond highway planning. It's about the way and lifestyles of our Hawaiian Islands."