Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Musings: Take, Take, Take

A huge ring circled the moon in the middle of the night, but both were gone when Koko and I rose hours later and set out under a sky smudged with gold and crowned by Venus.

All the mountains were clear, though clouds hovered near Waialeale’s summit, and mist hung thick in the pastures and crept across the road. As we returned, the sun rose, smoldering orange, and we found ourselves walking through a sparkling pink haze.

It looked like the perfect day to dry laundry, so I headed down to the Laundromat, where I ran into my friend Jim, another early riser born in the year of the Rooster, and as my clothes washed, we chatted about Kapaa, where he was born and raised, and how the reef fish had pretty much disappeared along that stretch of coastline.

He blamed run-off, including chlorinated water, for killing the reef, but said that people had also overfished — taken too much while giving nothing back, and none of the young kids growing up today had any sense of the culture, much less its spiritual aspects, which were at the core of caring for any resource.

"Now days it's all take, take, take," he said.

It made me think of a conversation I had on Monday with a man who has family on Niihau, and recently returned to that island, after a 10-year absence, for a relative’s burial.

He was struck by how much it had changed in that time, saying that only about 100 people still remain, and they’re dependent on their Kauai relatives because there’s no work for them on Niihau anymore, now that the kiawe charcoal and honey enterprises have gone bust.

All they’ve got to live on are food stamps and money they can make from Niihau shell lei. A few of the old paniolos help out with the exclusive hunting trips that are the only form of tourism, save for the helicopter rides that drop tourists on the beach for a picnic. Hunters, also transported by helicopter, pay about $1,500 for a day’s hunt, but they’re pretty much guaranteed to kill something, because the island is loaded with pigs, goats and the game animals brought over years ago from Molokai Ranch.

Subsistence hunting and fishing is a big part of the residents' existence and helps them remain somewhat independent, he said, so it broke his heart when he saw how many people have started coming over from Kauai to fish and collect opihi.

“They don’t realize they’re literally taking food out of the mouths of the Niihau people,” he said. ‘They have no respect, using bleach, which kills everything, picking every opihi they can find, pulling up on shore and poaching cows and other animals.”

It used to be that no one came close to Niihau. Folks respected the island’s privacy and isolation; they gave it wide berth. But that’s all gone, he said. As the fish are depleted around Kauai, they’re looking for easy pickings, and right across the channel, there’s Niihau, with its relative abundance.

And then you’ve got the curiosity seekers, those who just want to go to someplace that’s “forbidden,” and so they sneak onto the beaches, not realizing how much it frightens the people who live there to have strangers show up, unannounced and uninvited, with no idea of their intentions, in that very isolated place, he said.

“I wonder what’s going to happen to Niihua when Bruce [Robinson] is gone,” he said, noting that the barge that brings drinking water and other supplies only goes to the island very intermittently these days. The caretaker role that the Robinson family formerly played has pretty much disappeared, he said, now that economic opportunities on the island have dwindled.

“People have this idea that Niihau is this little paradise for Hawaiians, the last untouched place,” he said. “But it’s not. It’s really very depressing. The people there have so little, and now other people from the outside just want to grab what’s left. All they want to do is take, take, take.”


Mauibrad said...

Joan, on a seperate note, I noticed they took the poll down from Garden Island News without reporting the final results. As of yesterday the 'No's' were ahead almost 60% to 40%. The total votes were up to almost 3000 total which is more than enough for a sample, albeit the sampling technique was not scientific. Wonder why they took it down without providing a final summary report? Brad

Anonymous said...

So true about Niihau. I've heard the same stories. A friend visited the school and said all they had for the lunch progam for the kids was canned food. At least the Hawaiian language lives on.

Anonymous said...

Throughout human -and natural - history one of the constants has been to adapt, improvise, change....or find extinction within a few generations. Forgetting for a moment the merits of a isolated Niihau (if any), is it really all that surprising that that experimentally primitive culture is dying out? There's always been something creepy and ironic to me about this "fiercely independent Hawaiian culture" that (barely) survives only because of the nobles oblige and welfare of the Robinson family.

Larry said...

The culture survived nicely for ages and ages. Isolation alone doesn't mean extinction at all. I call your nobles oblige and raise you an au contraire. It was contact with European civilization that nearly brought about extinction.

It seems to me to be a racist assumption that a predominantly Hawaiian society cannot either adapt or survive, or that it has to be primitive. I've never been to Niihau, but my understanding is that being primitive is not what it's about.

Joan Conrow said...

I have been to Niihau and it's not primitive, just extremely rural. The people live in regular houses, they've got generators, solar panels on the school roof to power computers for the kids, and trucks that transport stuff and people from the barge and helicopter pad to the village. It even has an unmanned (save for surveillance cameras) Navy installation. But no paved roads or electric lines.

Ironically, Niihau residents did adapt to the conditions they were confronted with when their island was sold to non-Hawaiians. They became strict Christians, they voted, they worked in various Robinson enterprises so they could buy stuff. They've been good Americans. And where has it gotten them?

The same place as so many other Hawaiians, who have had to leave their home to survive and thrive.

Anonymous said...


There is no racist intent about my previous statement. I propose that if you put ANY "race" (caucasian, black, asian, etc) under similar circumstances on Niihau the result would be what you're currently seeing; a society that is slowly failing. I call your au contraire and raise you a schadenfruede. I take absolutely no schadenfruede on the plight of the good people of Niihau, or the works of the Robinson family to preserve their culture. Personally, I'd like to see them thrive, but under the circumstances it seems unlikely: my point is that the result isn't unexpected, and due more to the inherent complications and difficulties that Utopian type societies have faced over the years than due to the actions of those on neighbor islands stealing opihi or poaching their livestock. Isolationism doesn't have a very successful record in human history. I see it as an unfortunate experiment b/c what is to happen when Keith/Bruce can no longer afford to subsidize the population there?

Joan Conrow said...

What makes you think Niihau was ever intended to be a Utopian society? A private colony of the Robinsons would be a more apt description -- with all the inherent problems that colonialism brings.

Andy Parx said...

Now wait just a minute here. The Robinsons are what has “destroyed” Ni`ihau life and culture, chasing away everyone with a brain or a soul. In order to live on Ni`ihau or even visit your family there you must:
1) Be 200% Christian
2) Kow-tow to the Robinsons and not only not say anything bad about them but promote them as wonderful caretakers and all the people could ask for.
3) Many of the best and brightest are either banned from coming home or have to shut up about an imposed system that exploits them and gives them little if anything.
4) You are not allowed to start any kind of business or trade that deals with the outside world that is not “approved” by Keith/Bruce- and few are, especially if they don’t get a huge cut. That’s why people are reduced to only making Ni`ihau leis- for years people had to smuggle them out and secretly sell them. Only the Robinsons can run businesses or profit in any way from anything off-island and if you want to come back or not have your family thrown out you’d better do it.
5) The Ni`ihauans would be just fine if it were really their island. But the Robinsons have destroyed almost all elements of the culture.

This is not said in a vacuum- I’ve spoken to many who were banned and many who continue to shut up about the Robninson’s Kiplingesque attitudes and actions. I happened to be friends with Marge Robinson when she was here too and so got the real scoop.

Anonymous said...


Juan Wilson disagrees with you.

"The Robinson family.

Why? Because, even with their eccentricities and tribulations they have demonstrated a long term commitment to Kauai, Niihau and the Hawaiian people of those islands. Also, they are a private family business that can do whatever they like. If they decide to follow an enlightened path, they can... without the kinds of bureaucratic red tape and bickering of the public sector or the dog-eat-dog, bottom-line, interest-of-the-shareholders corporate crapola."

Anonymous said...

It's about private property stupid!
You all castigate the Robinsons for their rules...but its is their property after all.

Would you not impose certain rules if someone was living in your home or on your property? For instance, if you are a non-smoker would you allow smoking house guests to light-up?

Let's say you have a renter on your property who continually bad-mouths you and your family for whatever reason, how long would you tolerate that?

Andy's "huge cut" comment is pure fiction, an unsubstantiated lie in fact. Bruce and Keith Robinson are simply not wired that way. Anyone who knows them would understand that. Seems Marge gave you the wrong "scoop" there, Andy.

You all also seem to have some misguided notions about a pre-European Hawaiian utopia. What existed was a severe feudal caste system with rules that make the Robinsons look like latter day liberals.

Cast your shadow on an Alii's house or person and you are put to death; pick fruit or catch fish in the "wrong" area and once again you are put to death. Get some historical perspective.....


Anonymous said...

Thanks! I was starting to feel a little bit weird about the way the land was stolen and how Hawaiians are now at the very bottom of socio-economic heap here,homeless, making up 70% of the children in foster care, etc., but now that you mention how messed up they were back in the day, I can see how they kinda had it coming anyway.

Except there's one thing that still bothers me: weren't white people doing some - well - slightly weird things back then, too? Slavery comes to mind, as does the genocide of the First nations people...but I guess that's different because they were white.


Pete Antonson said...

No, it's not different because it wasn't us; it was people who are dead now. You can't punish the dead. I guess you can disturb them; but, thats something else you're against. As for the living, you can give them the opportunity to be educated and better their circumstances. However, you can't make them take that opportunity.