See what it’s like at the Nation State of Hawaii Independent and Sovereign.
“Brah, jus hop in—going be fastah dis way,” says Bumpy Kanahele, skidding to a stop in an electric golf cart. Bumpy, Head of State to the Nation of Hawai‘i, is an imposing figure, about six-foot-something with fading tattoos, huge hands, and broad shoulders.
He also has a Starbucks venti-sized cup in one hand, a Bluetooth in one ear, a fanny pack on, and his hair: business in the front, party in the back. “Jus hang on, yeah; brakes is sorta da kine.” Very quickly, I realize that this visit has become a journey. I grab onto a roof handle and away we go.
Moments prior, I had followed a Waimanalo country road toward the mountains. I drove cautiously, as random yard signs instructed, but still got stink- eye from a guy on an ATV who passed me with a look on his face like, slow the fuck down.
The road ended beside a guard shack at a sign that read, “Nation State of Hawaii Independent and Sovereign.” An old man peeked out of the guard shack and hollered, “Wat, you wit Bumpy dem?” I nodded yes, and an electric gate arm hissed ajar.
I followed the lone paved road into Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo, a community commonly referred to as “The Village,” passing about a dozen homes, some party tents, and arriving at an area where Bumpy directed me to park.
Back in the cart, the ground rumbles beneath us as we zoom uphill. Bumpy doesn’t drive a golf cart leisurely. But then again, this isn’t a golf course. Residents wave at him as we pass. He replies with shakas and “Eh, how ya mah-dah?”
Pit bulls beside modest Waimanalo-style homes jump and bark warnings as we proceed. Roosters crow, chickens cluck, the wind rushes through the cart. I’d been to The Village before to speak with Bumpy, but not in nearly two years. Much has changed.
We drive up a small hill, the steep ridges of the Ko‘olau mountain range like fingers reaching through the clouds and into the earth before us. We stop at a plateau above The Village with a 360-degree view. Bumpy pauses as we survey the land. He points to the valley in front of us, a terraced, 10-acre red dirt tract.
“This connects everything,” he says. “This ties into the food we gonna prepare in the commercial kitchen we built for the community. But the main thing is to get this land cleaned up, get it terraced and get it planted. We not prepping the land just for planting—we prepping it for living.”
The large terraced plot looks stark naked among the thick forest that surrounds us. But along its red dirt ridges, there is life sprouting. Lines of ti leaf, sweet potato, cocoa, coffee, banana, and more creep up from the ground. A man at the bottom of the small mountain climbs into a bulldozer and starts the ignition.
Bumpy continues: “We been here for 20 years now, but only in the last few have we discovered some things.” He points to the terraces. “If you took away all the invasive species, this is what you’d see. What we don’t know is hidden a lot of times.”
By invasive species, he refers mainly to the eucalyptus trees that suck large amounts of water and nutrients from the ground, killing native plants beneath them. “For me, taking out the invasives showed the evidence of how the land had been messed with. Once, this area was a mountain, but we discovered that for a long time, people had been top-soiling the ground under the eucalyptus. For us, that might be colonialism’s biggest strong-arm—this eucalyptus or invasive forest, rooted in the ground and killing the native species. That is an occupation. Maybe the worst. These invasive roots are like a hold put on Hawaiians.”
He looks back at the land, and I mull over his profound metaphor. “But in another year, it’s gonna get really nice. We wanna get in a thousand more coffee and cocoa plants, too. After the consumption part with the families in here, then we can try and sell the leftover.”
Bumpy gazes down at the land below, now animated, and says, “Brah, imagine how many people we could feed with these plants?” He shakes his head and smiles. He points to another corner of the land below.
“Over there, we gonna build one old Hawaiian village. Get one stream that flows right through there—see? We’re also growing various species of native dryland and wetland taro, both of which have been taking off.”
I ask Bumpy about the income and opportunities that agriculture might provide The Village. “Some people see opportunities, rather than journeys. But opportunities, you get plenty, all the time. But one journey? That is deep. In a journey, you run across obstacles and barriers, but you face them head-on.”
Head-on has been Bumpy’s approach his whole life. One of the fiercest of Hawaiian sovereignty activists, he’s clashed with the State for generations. Most famously was when he and a few families reclaimed lands around Makapu‘u in ’87, culminating in an armed standoff with HPD’s SWAT team and landing Bumpy in prison for 14 months; then again in 1994, when he led an occupation of Makapu‘u Beach for 15 months before Governor John Waihe‘e finally intervened.
As a resolution to Bumpy and the families’ evictions from Makapu‘u, Waihe‘e would eventually give Bumpy and the 80 Native Hawaiians with him right of entry to the 45 acres of land on which we now stand. Thus was born The Nation State of Hawai‘i at Pu‘uhonua o Waimanalo, a refuge and launching point for Bumpy and the families’ realization of Hawaiian sovereignty.
“Okay, hold on; we going down now.” Bumpy reverses the cart, but pauses, staring straight ahead. He reminisces, “You should see when the sun rises over here,” he says looking out toward the sea. “Sometimes the sun rises, and then the moon stay over here.”
He raises two hands in the air like a director. “They both just still-yet up in the daytime. You cannot believe ’um,” he says with a laugh. “And when the moon come up,” he shakes his head and sighs, “the whole thing jus pop outta da kine, jus right above the islands.”
Bumpy looks back at me and says, “For us, this not just one project, this is our life. We live this. And that’s the love of country. Queen Liliuokalani said, ‘The love of country is deep-seated in every Hawaiian, no matter their station.’ So for me, it doesn’t matter if you are blue-eyed, blonde-haired—whatever—if you’re an inch or hair Hawaiian, you part of this. Part of what I’m trying to preserve and bring back for our people.”
He turns the wheel and the cart tips forward. We fly down the side of the red dirt decline toward the foot of the terraces, and I see him stomping the weak brakes with two huge feet on one pedal.
We arrive at the base of the valley, getting airborne on a couple of bumps along the way. We roll by a few of the residents’ homes and Bumpy shows us how they grow bananas, papaya, ti, and heliconia, essentially each home acting as small nurseries for the community. He points to the chickens and goats feeding in their yards.
We pass a neighbor and Bumpy stops to chat. “Ho, you wen cut your hair?” says Bumpy. The man blushes. “Yeah, was getting da kine, all long,” he jokes. It is clear Bumpy runs operations in The Village. He gets a call and puts a finger to his ear. “Eh, I going call you back, busy right now.” He presses his Bluetooth and says, “Sometimes I feel like I gotta have two faces: my Hawaiian one, which is who I am, and then my American one, to function and survive in this world.”
Nearly looping the entire village, we arrive at a large pavilion with several rooms attached. Bumpy explains that this structure will eventually serve as a commercial kitchen, meant to be entirely solar powered soon.
He tells me how all the food they’ll grow and cultivate, including the wild pigs, chickens, and goats, will be prepared here in this area to feed the people in the community. The pavilion, 200 feet long, can accommodate up to 500 people, and village council meetings will be held here among other community functions.
We look through to the other side of the pavilion out at the thick forest that stretches to the peaks of Olomana. Bumpy motions to the jungle and explains that the older boys are teaching the younger ones how to hunt for wild pigs.
He points to a clearing in the jungle where his guy, Ace, is cultivating species of native and hybrid taro. He tells me about the fishpond below, teeming with koi and tilapia, and about the ruins from an ancient Hawaiian village just behind the lo‘i. He tells me to go see for myself.
We turn around and stroll back to the golf cart. “The point of all this is restoration,” he says. “Sovereignty is our inherent right and that’s a form of restoration, but the main thing right now is this,” he says, motioning to the sprouting terraces.
“You know, I visit the women’s prison sometimes and talk over there. I trip out how many Hawaiians there are, like 90 percent. Anyways, we were talking about healing, and I told them this: ‘Healing, for me, is when I put something in the ground and plant ’um. I wanna talk with the warden, and maybe the women from there can come out and plant with us. ‘Cause I wanna set a good example here, too. I don’t want the less fortunate Hawaiians to always be dependent on the Foodbank. If you’re not working, get your ass in the mountain and start growing some stuffs!”
We get to the golf cart and Bumpy tells me to take a hike while he takes a meeting. He directs me to a trail into the jungle that follows a freshwater flume running from the mountains. “Just be careful of da dogs, some can bite.”
I follow the flume and within ten minutes the trail ends at an Eden-like clearing. Ace and his feisty young pit bull greet us. Ace tends this area and seems to live here full time. He shows me the fertile lo‘i with some taro that has grown to astonishing heights. “It can be tough with the cloud cover back here, blocking the sun,” he says. “But the main goal is to grow as much food as possible for The Village.”
He shows us the fishpond and other crops he keeps: corn, squash, breadfruit, bananas, papaya, sweet potato, tomatoes, and eggplants. He leads us deeper into the forest and points out the stone terracing from Hawaiian villages of old. “Some scientists from UH came and dated the walls back to the early 1700s,” he says.
I bid Ace adieu and follow the trail back to The Village with the young pit bull bounding in front of and behind me, nipping at my heels. Bumpy’s back in the electric golf cart and waves me in. We gun it back up the hill to the top of the terraces with the 360-degree view, back to where we started.
Bumpy clicks the emergency brake and we stare at the scene below. “We started this place with very little experience. Most of it was thick, uninhabited forest. There was a lot of institutional barriers, but we’re committed.”
I ask him if they could ever lose this land, somehow. If that was a possibility. “Brah, anything can happen. You always expect the unexpected. But then you decide what you have to do and stand up for that. Let me put it this way. What would you do if you found out somebody was trying to kill your mah-dah?” I answer, honestly. He looks at the land and then looks me straight in the eyes, “Dis my mah-dah.”
The golf cart beeps in reverse as we swing around to return to our car. “You know, some people think we’re militant, but we’re not,” says Bumpy. “We’re just Native Hawaiians trying to understand our history and rediscover what happened. It’s taken us a long time to understand and it’s been a long journey. But da journey is wild.”