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Critics focus on home land fire death

Honolulu Advertiser
Tuesday, January 23, 1996

By Greg Wiles

The death of Hilbert Kahale Smith on Hawaiian homestead land is renewing criticism and demands by Hawaiian leaders for policy changes at the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

Smith, who died in a fire he started while being evicted from department land, has become a rallying point for a group of Hawaiians who today will call for an end to homestead evictions and for a federal investigation of Smith's death and the department.

"His death is the most egregious wrong in a long line of wrongs," said Haunani-Kay Trask, a member of the Coalition to Stop All Evictions on Hawaiian Homes Lands.

"He is not the first person to be evicted. But we want him to be the last person to be evicted."

Trask, director of the University of Hawaii Center for Hawaiian Studies, was among several Hawaiian leaders who met Saturday at Kaumakapili Church to discuss the aftermath of Smith's death. Others included Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, Bumpy Kanahele, the Rev. Kaleo Patterson, representatives from the Kingdom of Hawaii and Ka Lahui's Oahu Caucus.

Smith died Thursday after an 18-year disagreement with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands culminated in his eviction from his home at Anahola, Kauai.

Smith poured gasoline on the floor of the residence and ignited it.

The department has pledged to investigate Smith's death and expressed its sorrow.

Smith had been arguing with the department over construction defects, but had been paying his mortgage into an escrow account.

His death brought an immediate outcry from many Hawaiian sovereignty leaders who have said the department pushed him to the edge. It also has renewed attention on the department that administers 187,000 acres of land for the benefit . . . {printed text missing} . . . percent Hawaiian blood.

But not all Hawaiian leaders believe that criticizing the department in the wake of Smith's death is the Hawaiian thing to do.

They believe problems with the department should be worked out through ho'oponopono - the traditional Hawaiian resolution process of working through problems by talking.

"This is a time for Hawaiians to come together, to go back to their traditions, to learn to handle this crisis in a Hawaiian way," said Lela Hubbard, a member of Ka Lahui Hawaii. "A traditional concept in our culture is forgiveness."

Said Melvin Kalahiki, Council of Hawaiian Organizations president and former Department of Hawaiian Homes commissioner, "I can sympathize with those who have strong feelings. But at the same time they need to understand those that serve there are looking after the benefits as Hawaiians."

"We need to come up with solutions rather than pointing fingers, because it's easy to point fingers."

Yet some of those who have come together in the Coalition to Stop All Evictions on Hawaiian Homes Lands believe ho'oponopono won't work. Evictions like Smith's involve courts and law enforcement officers who don't respond to ho'oponopono, Trask said.

"The time has long past since there could be any talking about this," Trask said. "Hawaiians have been evicted for 20 years."

Hubbard worries about losing support if Hawaiians criticize too harshly.

"I don't think we should be whipping posts or doormats. But I think the silent majority wouldn't want to see all this fighting," she said. "They would want to see positive things and proposals to make changes that are realistic and intelligently thought out."

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands was created by the federal government in 1920 and was turned over to the state of Hawaiian in 1959.

It has been criticized for poor progress in awarding land leases to native Hawaiians and for favorable deals with politically connected individuals.

At the beginning of this year, some 16,000 people were waiting for homestead land.

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