Smith called "a martyr to the Hawaiian cause of sovereignty"
(IPS) KAUAI, Hawaii -- The fiery death of a Hawaiian sovereignty activist has re-ignited a movement whose members refuse to pay rents and mortgages on land the U.S. government confiscated more than a century ago.
Hilbert Kahale Smith, 58, was burned beyond recognition January 18 as officials tried to evict him from his home.
Smith loved his wood-framed home on this tropical island in the Hawaiian chain often used by Hollywood filmmakers as a backdrop, most recently in the blockbuster film "Jurassic Park". But the house has been at the center of an 18-year dispute over whether the United States should regulate the land rights of "sovereign Hawaiians."
Friends and supporters believe that Smith took his own life to drive home his position.
"This is horrible that a Hawaiian had to do this to draw attention to the real problem," said Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Moanikeala Akaka, who has called Smith "a martyr to the Hawaiian cause of sovereignty."
The indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims
Smith incident has galvanized the often fragmented Hawaiian sovereignty movement. More than 60 delegates of 16 sovereignty groups met January 21 and issued a joint position paper.
Their demands include the firing of all top-level officials of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and their replacement with members of the state and native Hawaiian groups. They also want a moratorium on the eviction of tenants on Hawaiian Homestead lands and a federal investigation into violations of the law by government officials.
"Many Hawaiians have come together today because we're concerned that this should never, ever happen again," Dr. Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii, told reporters. "We feel that Hawaiian Homes is responsible for this death."
The overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 set in motion the occupation and acquisition of Hawaiian islands by the United States. Hawaii's admission as the 50th U.S. state followed in 1959.
Washington created the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and gave it authority over land set aside by the state of Hawaii. This land is held in trust for native Hawaiians of at least 50 percent "Hawaiian blood."
But many homesteaders refuse to pay their mortgages and leases since the "Home Lands" constitute a portion of the 1.8 million acres confiscated by the U.S. government. Their claims are bolstered by U.S. Public Law 103-150, enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1993.
The law says that the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy was an "illegal act of war." It adds: "The indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people or over their national lands."
A recent federal trial at the U.S. District Court supported the claim. In the case of USA v. Marshe, sovereignty activist John Marshe was tried for willful failure to file and pay federal income taxes for several years.
Marshe claimed that he was a sovereign Hawaiian, not a citizen of the United States. He argued that the United States owed him and other native Hawaiians billions of dollars in lost rents and revenues on the "crown lands," stolen by the United States following the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
The federal jury agreed with Marshe and found him not guilty of any charges last November.
But evictions continue if rents and mortgages are not paid. Smith's death last month followed the arrival of officials to evict him.
In 1976, Smith was "awarded" land by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands on a 99-year lease for one dollar a year. The following year, he was granted a 25-year, $25,000 home loan with monthly payments of $206. Smith's house was built by contractors from Hawaiian Home Lands.
In court papers, Smith claimed that the house "had been cursed by faulty workmanship since he moved in." Similar claims were made by neighbors who sued the Department in 1984. An out-of-court settlement was reached four years later regarding some claims of defective construction.
But Smith refused to enter into the settlement agreement. He also refused to pay any money to Hawaiian Home Lands until the defects in his home were fixed.
Smith's attorney, Ken Carlson contends that his client was not delinquent on his lease because he was making payments into an escrow account authorized by the courts but never recognized by Hawaiian Home Lands. Carlson also claims that Smith offered to pay off his mortgage if the authorities fixed the construction defects.
Almost 40 percent of the outstanding loans on Hawaiian Homestead Lands were overdue
Hawaiian Home Lands launched a renewed "get tough policy" eight months ago, cracking down on delinquent mortgages. The department recently issued a report indicating that almost 40 percent of the outstanding loans to Hawaiians on Hawaiian Homestead Lands were overdue. As of June 1995, arrears amounted to $18 million.
The Kauai District Court issued Hawaiian Home Lands a writ of possession last month for Smith's property. Kauai police say Smith was cooperating with the surprise eviction, when suddenly he entered the house with a gas can. Smith was then seen lighting a match. Fire quickly engulfed Smith and the wooden structure.
Hawaiian sovereignty activist Harold Jim, who aided Smith in his fight for more than a decade, believes that Smith deliberately took his life because "he was disgusted and sick of Hawaiian Homes...they drove him insane."
Several hundred mourners recently gathered under a moonlit sky at the "pohaku" stone shrine for a memorial service for Smith. Traditional Hawaiian chants and wailing could be heard around the 125-foot coconut tree and ancient monkey pod trees on the grounds of the preserved Iolani Palace, the scene of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
"Let us not forget his dedication to the fight for the resurrection of the sovereign Hawaiian Nation," said Kahale Smith, Jr. as he eulogized his father.
Hawaiian Home Lands and the state are no longer commenting on the issue, pending an investigation and possible litigation. Administrator Kali Watson has, however, said that in view of the tragedy, "the Commission on Hawaiian Home Lands may review its loan collection policies."
Hawaiian Home Lands has informed Kahale Smith, Jr. that since the property has been foreclosed, the children have no legal claim to the land. The children are consulting with attorneys to determine the next step.
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