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Hawaiians angered by fiery death on Kauai

They're outraged at eviction action

Honolulu Advertiser
Saturday, January 20, 1996

By Jan Tenbruggencate

Anahola, Kauai - Word of Hilbert Kahale Smith's fiery death swept through the state's Hawaiian community yesterday, carrying with it confusion, anger and a nearly universal call for reassessment of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

"I think this thing is going to ignite something in Hawaiians," said Larry Helm, a Molokai small-business owner and Hawaiian homesteader.

"The concern is: Why did it get to this point?" he said.

Charles Maxwell, a Maui activist and commentator on Hawaiian issues, said, "I don't know where the end is, but I know there's a lot of angry Hawaiian people."

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands yesterday referred all calls on the issue to the state Attorney General's Office, which did not return the Advertiser's calls.

Smith, 59, burned to death in the Anahola house over which he fought the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands for the last third of his life. He poured gasoline on the carpet and lit it Thursday morning as sheriffs sent by the Department of Hawaiian Homes Lands were evicting him.

A preliminary autopsy report indicated he died as a result of inhaling smoke and fumes, police said.

Members of his family were gathering in Anahola yesterday, but some were still coming from off-island. A daughter said they wanted to all be together before they discussed the circumstances of his death.

Neighbors were outraged by Smith's death.

"These people showed no respect whatsoever," said Wilfred Kaui, a longtime Anahola resident. Kaui, a victim of a series of strokes, sat on a chair on his lawn as his grandsons mowed.

"People are mad. They're really salty for what happened to that man." Kaui said he awoke Thursday to the acrid smell of the smoke from the burning house.

Kaui, who once owned Kauai's largest security guard service, expressed his own concern that the state sheriffs who were evicting Smith should have been able to prevent him from burning his house.

"We were taught in FBI school, if you're with someone depressed, you should stay with him. You don't leave him alone," Kaui said.

Kaui's brother had one of the houses, and it, like Smith's, had defects. Kaui recalled talking to Smith about the electrical problems in his house.

"He was afraid of a short-circuit. He told me, 'I got an electrical problem. I tell them about it, and they didn't do anything,'" Kaui said.

Smith's good friend, William Aki Sr., said he believes Smith burned his house and himself because he was humiliated by the eviction. The man had tried for 18 years to negotiate with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, had failed, and was being thrown out as all his neighbors watched, Aki said.

"There were about 250 people watching what happened there. That kind of embarrassed him. Any Hawaiian you talk to, they have a heart. They have a softness in their heart. You get everybody looking, you get shame," Aki said.

Smith, aware that the department had a writ of possession that would allow his eviction, had already moved this cars off the property earlier this month, but when no eviction came, he moved the cars and himself back to the house, Aki said. Then, without notice, the sheriffs arrived with a moving van.

"Hawaiian Homes should have given him at least 10 days notice," Aki said. "I talked to this officer, and he said it was suicide. I said it was harassment."

Smith's activism began and ended with his battle over the Anahola house. It was part of a 66-unit development in 1977, in which DHHL hired a contractor to build the homes. Buy many Hawaiians awarded homes in the subdivision complained of multiple construction and materials problems.

After lawsuits and years of confrontation, some of the owners settled with the department. Smith never settled. He argued that when he agreed to pay for a new home, he deserve one without construction flaws. He refused to pay his mortgage to the department, although for many years he paid into an escrow account at the 5th Circuit Court.

When the department gave up on reaching an agreement with Smith, it canceled his lease and got an eviction order. Smith fought in court, and got one such order reversed, but the latest one stood and was the basis of Thursday's eviction action.

"I think this man was trying to prove a point. It shows the frustration of people trying to make the system work," said Maxwell. "This wasn't just regular protesting. This was a long, drawn-out thing."

Helm said the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands let the bureaucracy run away with the situation. Before getting to the ultimate confrontation, the department should have tried ho'oponopono, he said. Ho'oponopono is a Hawaiian technique of conflict resolution in which the parties sit down with family elders or community leaders and work out their differences.

"It is to make a wrong right," Helm said. "To dialogue, understanding both sides. Understanding and getting those two sides together so you can get a happy medium."

In Hilbert Kahale Smith's case, there was clearly an issue in conflict. Hawaiian Homes should have worked harder to resolve it, Helm said.

"I think maybe Hawaiian Homes should have said, 'Let's do a whole 'nother house. This one's not good enough,'" he said.

Both Helm and Maxwell said they fear a new round of animosity between the Hawaiian people and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

Helm is from a family with deep roots in the Hawaiian community. His brother, George, who disappeared at sea while paddling to Kahoolawe, became a martyr to the cause of freeing Kahoolawe from military control.

Helm's brother, Greg, is the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands supervisor on Molokai.

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