Lāhainā Was Burning Long Before the Fire

by Dov Korff-Korn

Date: 09/01/2023

The image above is from the time I spent in Lāhainā before the catastrophic fire. There was already a fire burning there at the time. Little did we realize what an omen it was.

My name is Dov Korff-Korn and I’m the new staff attorney at the Lakota People’s Law Project. This blog provides some important context regarding the fires in Lāhainā, Maui. For years, my mentors in Indian law and Tribal sovereignty work have stressed that while the spotlight is often on Tribal Nations on Turtle Island – particularly in the “lower 48” (especially since Standing Rock) – little attention is given to the Indigenous peripheries of the U.S. empire, namely Hawaiʻi and Alaska. The newest addition to the 50 states, Hawaiʻi is known as a paradise for tourists from all over the world. There is no denying the beauty of Hawaiʻi. But there is also a darker and largely concealed reality, one that resembles the period of “Manifest Destiny” that devastated Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island in the 1800s and 1900s.

In recent years, Hawaiʻi, and particularly Maui, have become a playground for the superrich. Billionaires, from Jeff Bezos to Oprah, have bought up huge tracts of land for their vacation retreats. The island of Lānaʻi, immediately adjacent to Maui, is owned almost entirely (98%) by Oracle founder Larry Ellison. These wealthy interests are following the lead of barons from the past: It was a small group of plantation tycoons who orchestrated the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi in 1893. These affluent settlers not only systematically dispossessed Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) of their lands; they deliberately altered the Islands’ natural ecosystems to fill their bank accounts. Across the islands, water was diverted from naturally wetter areas to drier areas to supply sprawling sugar plantations. Unfortunately, these diversions have continued even after the plantations closed. Now, private land-owning corporations divert public stream water to hotels, golf courses, and properties of the wealthy.

In a relatively short period of time, Kānaka Maoli have seen their forests, wetlands, and planting fields dry up. Yet until the illegal overthrow in 1893, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi boasted an abundant, self-sufficient land management system (the Ahupua‘a model) that guaranteed food and water for all. Private property didn’t exist; rather the lands and waters were held in a public trust for the benefit of all. In contrast to today, Lāhainā was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom during the 1800s. Known as the “Venice of the Pacific,” Lāhainā featured canals and fishponds. The royal palace in Lāhainā was surrounded on all sides by water.

The water management situation on Maui has gotten so bad that the state’s water commission was forced to step in. Last June, the commission voted to manage all water in the Lāhainā area, establishing a designation process by which residents would have to apply for water allocations. This process, in theory, would “level” the playing field, by having all users—from billionaire land owners and hotels, to Native Hawaiians preserving traditional and customary practices—apply for access to their share of water. All water users in West Maui, where Lāhainā is located, were compelled to submit lengthy water use permit applications in order to have a chance at securing water access. These applications were due on August 6th. The fires that devastated Lāhainā began between August 7th and 8th.

One of the most formative experiences I’ve had in my 10 years of work and organizing around Indigenous sovereignty occurred in Lāhainā. I spent one of my law school semesters as a visiting student at the University of Hawai’i. I focused my studies on Native Hawaiian law and was fortunate to participate in the law school’s Native Hawaiian rights clinic. The clinic had taken on the weighty task of filing these water use permit applications on behalf of Maui residents, many of whom are Native Hawaiian traditional practitioners. I was in Lāhainā this past winter as part of a team of lawyers and law students working with local residents and traditional farmers to secure their access to water through the newly established designation process. When we arrived, there was a large wildfire raging in the valley up in the hills behind Lāhainā. Friends on the ground expressed concern about the severity of the fire and how fires were intensifying in recent years. This was in November, less than 10 months ago. Parts of Lāhainā town were enshrouded in smoke, but fortunately the fires were contained to the brush area up in the valley.

We spent several days meeting with Kānaka Maoli and non-Native farmers. In our conversations with applicants, we heard countless stories of the dispossession experienced over the generations. I learned how hotels and wealthy landowners would manipulate the system by claiming agricultural uses and Native Hawaiian customary practices to secure access to tax breaks and extra water allotments. We visited one five-star hotel that had planted a few traditional species in its lavish gardens to justify gaining access to water resources reserved for traditional Native Hawaiian uses. Our headquarters during our visit was at Na 'Aikane o Maui, the Native Hawaiian Cultural Center of Lāhainā, a vibrant community space. The cultural center burned to the ground. Its manager, Ke'eaumoku Kapu, a beloved community leader, has since been on the frontlines providing resources and support for community members in the wake of the fires. The pain and sadness is unimaginable, but resilience will win out.


The unthinkable destruction of the fire is beyond outrageous and infuriating.

The news will tell you that the fires were caused by high winds, a downed electric pole, and/or climate change. These factors certainly contributed to the tragedy. However, the underlying truth is that over a century of systematic dispossession by rapacious colonizers, armed with support from federal, state, and military agencies, set the stage for this devastation. Decades of water diversions drained Maui of its water, evaporating ecosystems and suppressing sovereignty.

The Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island are familiar with this marriage between wealthy interests and government. As was the case with the intentional slaughter of the Tatanka (buffalo) to drive the people of the Great Plains onto reservations against their will, greedy entities strike at the heart of Indigenous Peoples and their sovereignty by debilitating once-abundant natural ecosystems. The situation in Maui is no different. As Lāhainā starts out on a path of rebuilding, it is critical that we support our Kānaka Maoli relatives by ensuring that their voices are heard and their sovereignty is respected. Only that way can justice begin to be restored to Islands held sacred by so many.

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