Uncle Abel is not really my uncle. You call almost everyone of the older generation Uncle or Aunty in Hawaiʻi. In the twenty years that I have known Uncle Abel we’ve been on the opposite sides of the question more often than not, which is to say in enemy camps, although not exactly enemies. But the differences don’t matter as much as what we have in common. What matters is that we love the same place. We have a shared history with a small bay and section of land called Kāwā. He lived there for years, and I worked there for years.
Kāwā might not look like much at first glance. It’s a small bay with a rocky, pebbly beach where the wind is usually blowing briskly. There is no white sand and no palm trees. The surf is rough and the water cold. However, on a small bluff above the bay at Kāwā are the spectacular ruins of an ancient heiau (temple) and on the flat below the foundations of a village site. These are what we used to call “archeology,” and what we now refer to as “cultural resources.” Not long ago relics such as these were considered of minimal significance compared to the demands of commerce and progress, but now they have become vital links to the pre-contact, pre-industrial past. There is a large brackish pond behind the beach that is considered an important wet-land for multiple species of endangered native birds. Kāwā also has one of the few surf-breaks in the district and that in itself makes it precious to surfers of all ages.
I worked with my family on the ranch lands above the bay where Abel lived. We both impinged on each other’s realm with a casual, lawless tolerance that is nearly un-imaginable now-adays. We pumped brackish water out of the pond and his crew of hippie-hangers-on set up camp on a piece of land inset within the ranch. They had a Rainbow Festival one weekend and a number of the visitors stayed on for months in a constantly dwindling camp. We thought they were funny and harmless. None of that would be possible now. You have to do everything by the book even out here. You have to have all your permits in order these days.
We haven’t spoken much, Abel and I, over the years, but we’ve been on the same land. We’ve known of each other as distant neighbors. Weʻve both heard stories of each other, as one does in a small community; we’ve seen each other coming and going for a couple of decades now.
Abel is politically radical, a native sovereignty activist who camped for years near the beach at Kāwā. I’m politically centrist, non-native, middle-class, highly indoctrinated into conventional life. I can count on my two hands the nights I’ve slept anywhere but on a nice, soft bed. I’m on the slightly unconventional side of conventional; Uncle Abel takes unconventional to a whole other level.
Uncle Abel has the long gray-white hair and the thin, high-cheek-boned face of a Chinese sage, but his skin is dark brown, mottled with sun spots. His eyes, somewhat rheumy now, can glare at you with a manic insistence. Today he is wearing two ti leaves around his neck which he has tied together and shredded. Also he is wearing a pareau in black, green, gold and red. All of these things have a specific meaning: the two leaves – a minimalist ascetic lei -asserts his pure spiritual authority; the pareau echoes the colors of the flag of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
We are both at a county government hearing for an advisory commission that recommends lands for preservation. Abel is giving one of his famous speeches. He is protesting everything. I’ve always admired his gift as a speaker. He had the dramatic genius of a Shakespearean actor. When he was in top form, he was a public enemy to those in power and a cult favorite for those who were not. He was able to keep large crowds spell-bound by his unpredictability and mad prophet oratory. Even if you did not agree with him, even if he made you uncomfortable, Uncle Abel meant “action” – as in quite possibly police action. It was high entertainment.
Abel has a signature line that he uses in every speech I’ve heard him give: “Ka’ū (the name of our district)” he intones meaningfully, drawing out the last vowel, “ has never been conquered.” He says this in a dramatic whisper, turning around to confront his audience his eyes wide, daring anyone to contradict him. His voice rising in volume, he continues: “I no recognize no government: county, state, federal. We was never conquered you see? We the government. We, the people.”
Technically speaking he is wrong. Our district was conquered over and over again by various ancient chiefs, but we are dealing with political myth-making here, not pedestrian historical facts. And his favorite line expresses something that is, in a mythical sense, essential. Ka’ū is the hinterland of the island. It has always been sparsely populated and poor. This is mostly because there are few sources of fresh water, because the district is downwind from the volcano, because the soil is rocky, the climate arid, and the oceans rough. It is a difficult place to make a living. Nevertheless, the people of this district, Ka’ū, are passionate about their land and fierce in their politics. Ka’ū is known as a land of rebels. We don’t bend the knee.
But Abel had the calling to take it quite a bit farther than the rest of us. He wonʻt go along with our modern conveniences, like private property, representative government, hot showers and refrigerators, and in his passions he calls shame upon all of it and all of us. (He does have a Facebook page though, of course.) In his radical rejection of all modern forms of life, we part ways with Abel, and yet not completely. We say to ourselves, “Well, he is crazy.” And yet he humiliates us in our acquiescence and opens up a space for questioning the status quo.
He has heart. Even his most ardent detractors would have to give him that. And there are plenty of people who dislike him intensely. Mostly people who he has challenged in their position of public or private authority. My friend who works for the county parks department has had many run-ins with Abel. He says: “Abel doesn’t like me much, because I made him spend his seventieth birthday in the county jail.”
He loves to make trouble to those in power. He’s good at it. Once when the County evicted him from Kāwā he planted a taro patch on the lawn in front of the big glass windows of the Mayorʻs office. He is a political performance artist, a show-boat, an anarchist. But I’ve never heard of him doing anything low-down and dishonorable. At least recently. Well, he used to shake down the beach visitors. From what people have told me, including he himself, he would demand things – hoʻokupu (small offerings) like toilet paper, or money – to support his occupation. He once asked my father if he could kill one of his cows. My dad said no.
There was a rumor that he had murdered somebody in Honolulu a long time ago. Thatʻs why he holed up in Kāwā in the first place. And then somehow he decided that it was his to guard. I would be very surprised if the rumor was true. There is an Old Testament madness to him, but no malice and no sneakiness. He might say outrageous things about you but he’ll do it straight to your face, which is better than some people. Heʻs not a violent person – well, there was that one time that he and his sister got into a doubles wrestling match in the brackish pond with Kyle Soares and his wife. The police had to break it up, evidently. And, well, Iʻm sure there was plenty of blame to go around on that one. But other than that, Abel is peaceful, as far as I know.
Having named himself the konohiki, or guardian of the place, Abel lived at the beach for years, and kept a close eye on all goings on. He was famous for confronting anyone who showed up in an official-looking vehicle and chasing them off. As konohiki he considered it his right to do so, as they were threats to his authority. He also grew native food plants and organized surfing contests at the beach in the heyday of his self-appointed reign as guardian.
Other people in the community had better documented familial ties to the lands of Kāwā than Abel. They considered him a usurper and a fraud. Some people found his retinue of penniless hippies distasteful. But they mostly tolerated Abelʻs antics because his occupation threw a wrench in any attempt to develop Kāwā and helped to maintain their native, familial claims to the land without actually having to live on the beach themselves.
Abelʻs advocacy for Kāwā may have backfired on him. His term as konohiki of the beach at Kāwā ended when it was purchased by the County of Hawaii for public space and natural resource preservation. At first Abel refused to leave and there were many tense confrontations between he and his followers and County officials. Eventually Abel was evicted. On one level he failed, in that he is no longer the konohiki of Kawā. On another level he succeeded in his very failure – the public purchase of the wild beach and ancestral sites of Kawā protect it for the foreseeable future from the commercial developments that transform shorelines all over the world into resorts and other artificial paradises.
Is Abel a saint or a fool? A visionary or a clown? One thing is clear: he long ago stopped worrying about how to make a living or being respectable or playing the game. He gave all that up in a way that makes me slightly vertiginous just to think about. He walks a wild edge of the mind with only the place, Kawā, to return to, to keep him centered. He is a brave person.
Image: Kawa Bay is pictured here in 2011. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)