by Sue Dixon
Though some will remember Kahale Smith as a martyr, his brother says that would be wrong. "He just snapped," says Henry Smith. "If they hadn't kept hassling him, he wouldn't have set the house on fire."
And if law enforcement officers hadn't physically restrained him, Henry says, he might have been able to talk to his brother into coming out of the house alive.
As it was, Kahale perished in his burning home last Thursday morning and, says Henry, "the department of Hawaiian Home Lands said the Commissioners murdered my brother."
It was a standard Hawaiian Homes eviction gone crazy. A crowd had assembled at Kahale's Anahola home, DHHL officials, law enforcement officers, movers and a deputy attorney general were at the scene. One minute Kahale, 59, was cooperating, the next the house was in flames.
The first time he was ordered to vacate. In 1984, Kahale, a gentle giant of a man, chained his 300-pound frame to a wooden railing on the front porch of the home he purchased in 1977 on property leased from DHHL. He won that battle and another in 1986 when the state Supreme Court ruled that he could stay until a settlement in his dispute with DHHL could be reached.
He was ordered to vacate again on September 30, 1993. He lost appeals to both the Circuit and State Supreme courts and was ordered again to vacate in April 1995. A court order finally set the date for January 5, 1996. Officials showed up on January 18.
Kahale never gave up. The house he had bought from DHHL in 1977 was defective and he wanted it fixed.
Even after years of receiving notices to vacate and losing appeals, no one was prepared when officials finally showed up to evict.
Henry said Kahale called him at 8:00 a.m. and said officials and movers had arrived to move him out. When Henry got there he found his brother frantically trying to save personal property and important legal papers such as tax returns that he was preparing for clients.
"DHHL people were all over his case for moving too slow," Henry says. All of a sudden, Kahale just headed for the house. Two or three minutes later it was on fire.
Sometimes people snap over something they could have handled a day or an hour later. But Kahale had been handling his frustration for years. In fact, says Henry, his brother had been released from the hospital only a few days earlier. "Chest pain," says Henry. "Stress."
The stress stemmed from something Kahale didn't believe was right. He had been sold a defective house. So had some of his neighbors. DHHL sued the contractor, was awarded a settlement and agreed to fix the faulty homes.
"They told him they would fix his window, shower and the roof," Henry says, Kahale got an estimate for repairs that totaled $65,000. He got another estimate for a new house. That came to $46,000. He wanted either a complete repair job or a new house. Windows, showers and roof weren't satisfactory.
Henry says as the dispute went on, his brother kept paying a little on his mortgage. A little wasn't enough. That's why DHHL officials showed up last Thursday ready to evict.
Kahale knew he was fighting a lopsided battle. Last summer, he told the Kaua'i Times his ship was sinking but he was determined to stay with it.
That's why it's not hard to link him to martyrs like the Buddhist monk who went up in flames in protest of the Vietnam War. Kahale's private war erupted last Thursday morning. He was out-numbered and overpowered. Chaos reigned and no one would listen to him.
But, says Henry, his brother wasn't trying to be a martyr. He just snapped.
I wouldn't call Kahale a martyr either. I'd call him an unsung hero, a man who represented hope to more native Hawaiians who have stood up despite overwhelming odds to fight for their rights.
The Reverend Kaleo Patterson had called for an end to Hawaiian Home evictions until DHHL can get its own house in order. That's a sane piece of advice.
For years, DHHL has found excuses for playing by a duplicitous set of rules. Challenge to those rules is met with force against homesteaders like Kahale, force that leads to retaliation and sometimes tragedy./
Sure Kahale snapped. His house was falling apart. He wanted to have something to leave one day to his wife and four children. He'd been given a take it or lose it remedy by the department. He'd lived under the threat of eviction for more than a decade. And the stress was taking its toll.
Kali Watson, Hawaiian Homes Commission chair, has expressed shock and sympathy at the recent events surrounding Kahale's death.
Mayor Maryanne Kusaka announced her regret. "I knew him as a good, mature, gentle individual, positively involved in community projects. He was particularly proud of what he contributed to Anahola park." She said in a press release, "It is a tragic end to Kahale's life".
Tragic unfair but in a very real sense a heroic statement that reflects the frustration of generations of homesteaders who, in their beliefs have never quite accepted the white man's rules.
Slowly, slowly the outlook for Hawaii's native people is brightened. But for Kahale time ran out.
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