Film Review: Noho Hewa (The Wrongful Occupation of Hawai’i)

By Owen Lloyd / Deep Green Resistance News Service

What does it mean for a land to be under occupation?

For most of us, the surest indication of an occupation is the most sensational: a strong military presence, working to intimidate and silence any and all resistance.  Along with this, we would expect to see governing institutions operated by a foreign power, working to ensure that decision-making will represent the interests of the occupying class.

In order to bolster their strength and fortify their presence, the occupying power will encourage their own citizens to immigrate– and pressure the local peoples out of the country or into ghettos. With the law on their side, the entire landscape can be taken under colonial control.

The material benefits for the occupying class should be clear,  but there is also a powerful symbolism in such a takeover. It allows them to reshape the entire cultural landscape into a place that not only welcomes the occupying class, but also humiliates and oppresses those whose land was taken away from them.

As Anne Keala Kelly’s film Noho Hewa spells out in clear and painful detail, this is the state of Hawai’i under United States occupation. The title of the film itself translates to “wrongful occupation” in the Hawaiian language.

Military occupation

As the indigenous Hawaiian activist Haunani-Kay Trask wrote in her book From a Native Daughter:

Hawai’i is a militarized outpost of empire, deploying troops and nuclear ships to the south and east to prevent any nation’s independence from American domination. Fully one-fifth of our resident population is military, causing intense friction between locals, who suffer from Hawai’i’s astronomically high cost of housing and land, and the military, who enjoys housing and beaches for their exclusive use. [1]

The United States military physically controls about 6% of Hawai’i, including nearly a quarter of O’ahu, the most populous island of the chain. On an island less than half the size of Long Island, the United States maintains an incredible 26 training ranges.

These sites are often home to numerous endangered species as well as Hawaiian sacred sites. For instance, the training base in Mākua valley is known to be ringed by hundreds of cultural sites, and numerous endangered species make their home in the surrounding forests. In 2003 a military burn scorched more than half of the valley, causing untold ecological damage and destroying numerous sacred sites.

In another example of abusive action, when the US military wanted to expand the sewer facilities at Pearl Harbor onto a Hawaiian burial site, they gave indigenous people two options: either the kūpuna (elders) could be dug up and moved elsewhere, or the military could build the sewer system directly over the burial mound. Never was consideration made that building a sewer system over a burial site would be impermissibly wrong. As Kaleikoa Ka’eo says in the film, “We’re always, always at the threat of being evicted from our homelands, even when we’re under the ground.”

Despite all of this, and despite intense opposition by Native Hawaiian people and environmental organizations, the land remains under military control. In a horrible reversal of terms, the military refers to campaigns intending to liberate occupied land as “encroachment issues”. [2]

My Oxford dictionary defines the word encroach as “[to] intrude, especially on another’s territory or rights”. Alternatively it can also mean “[to] advance gradually beyond due limits”. [3] Etymologically, the word encroach comes from the same root as our word “crook”, and has been used in the sense of “seize wrongfully” since around 1400. [4]

Beyond simply having the power to control and occupy indigenous land against resistance, the power to desecrate sacred sites and iwi kūpuna, and the power to destroy entire ecosystems, by using this language the military is attesting that these are legitimate actions, and that resistance by indigenous people is wrongful, intrusive, and crooked. Insofar as the military is continuing to advance their military bases “beyond due limits” and onto indigenous land, it becomes very clear who is actually encroaching and who is being encroached upon.

The insanity of this situation is further demonstrated by the knowledge that 60-70% of all land occupied by the military in Hawai’i is “ceded land” (J. Kēhaulani Kauanui reminds us that “Ceded is a polite word for stolen”) taken from the Hawaiian monarchy and rightfully belonging to Native Hawaiian people.

This arrogant belief in a rightful dominance over indigenous people, over the land, and over the control of language is characteristic of the occupation of Hawai’i.

Tourism industry occupation

The other side of occupation in Hawai’i is the tourism industry, who are complicit in many of the same crimes as the military. As Haunani-Kay Trask points out in the film, these two industries hem Hawaiian people in from both sides: the military subjects the people to a foreign power, and the tourism industry binds them into racial servitude for the benefit of wealthy white travelers.

The film explores the methods the tourism industry uses to exploit Hawaiian people and Hawaiian culture. Luxury resort developments are constructed next to token archaeological sites. Golf courses and wedding venues are located adjacent to burial mounds. These combinations are not accidents. Constructing grandiose colonial facilities next to ancient Hawaiian sites feeds the unending American appetite for feeling superior to so-called “primitive people.”

As Hawaiian activist Kaleikoa Ka’eo says in the film regarding one of these developments, “We are the Hawaiians! Hawaiians are moved from the area, banned from the area. And all that’s kept are the artifacts of the Hawaiians, the archaeology of the Hawaiians. It’s a right to have those things protected but keep the Hawaiians out.” The historian Noenoe Silva adds, quoting George Vizenor, “The simulation of the native presence always signals the native absence.”

The landscape is a colonial landscape of power, a landscape that says white people are in control and that the presence of non-whites is only welcome insofar as they are there to entertain and service wealthy tourists. American tourists travel to Hawai’i craving the enactment of a myth, a sexualized myth where Hawaiian people (particularly women) crave nothing more than to service American people (particularly men), a myth enacting the logic of what Trask has called “cultural prostitution”. [1]

Hawaiian people have recognized this about American tourists, and have recognized the power of confronting this mythology. For instance, as the film shows, Hawaiian activists are very vocal in telling tourists that they are not welcome on the islands, that their presence is intrusive. In this way, they are both able to assert a control over their space, and to fight the mythology that Hawaiian people are eager and complacent servants for wealthy tourists.

For instance, when a Wal-Mart construction project discovered 44 iwi kūpuna and illegally removed them from their resting place, literally storing them under an onramp, Hawaiian people were energetic in protesting the desecration, telling tourists going to the store that they were desecrating their elders. In spite of the protests, for more than three years Wal-Mart refused to reinter the iwi kūpuna, whose rest was only assured after the release of this film.

Hawai’i as Sacrifice Zone

Even when Hawaiian resistance succeeds in fighting the tourism industry, the victories are often hollow. For instance, when Moloka’i Ranch’s plan to construct an exclusive resort was defeated, the ranch decided to lease the land to Monsanto to produce experimental varieties of corn that are not even edible. This is by no means an anomaly in Hawai’i. Honohano Naehu describes the island chain as a “sacrifice zone” for the biotechnology industry. As Naehu explains, “We have the most open field test sites for GMOs in the whole world.”

The military also uses Hawai’i as a playground for experimental research, in particular through its work with the University of Hawai’i, whose Research Corporation received $254,672,192 in funding from the U.S. Department of Defense between 2002 and 2008. The military continued performing tests with Agent Orange in Hawai’i long after it was universally known to cause cancer.

Today it uses Hawai’i as a dumping ground for radioactive waste, a housing ground for nuclear weapons, and as a staging ground for nuclear war games. As David Keanu Sai points out, Hawai’i is one of the most likely targets for a nuclear strike in the event of a war with China or Russia, due both to its location and its militarization, and serves as a convenient lightning rod for Americans living on the continent.

Settler Colonialism

Yet another way that occupation manifests itself in Hawai’i is through the influx of settlers and the establishment of settler culture. When we hear the word colonialism, we tend to think of extractive colonialism– a foreign occupying power stripping the wealth from a country and shipping it home. However, the primary form of colonialism in Hawai’i is settler colonialism, which, as J. Kēhaulani Kauanui explains, is “about  implanting non-Hawaiians in Hawai’i” and “replacing the indigenous people within their own landscape”.

Sheerly through outnumbering Native Hawaiian people, Americans are able to leverage power over them. And for that reason, massive ad campaigns entice Americans living on the continent to move to Hawai’i. These migrations ensure that Hawaiians remain a physical minority in their homeland.

More than this, having a large number of settlers helps prop up and maintain a culture of occupation that humiliates and trivializes indigenous people, hammering home who rules who.

When the military burns a sacred valley filled with cultural sites, or a massive golf course opens next to a burial mound, or Wal-Mart desecrates a burial site and stores iwi under an onramp for years despite vocal protestations, these are acts of war and genocide against Hawaiian people. These are deliberate efforts to subjugate an unwanted class of people, to make them disappear.

Cultural appropriation and the settler’s use of the historical landscape as a prop also helps to reinforce the culture of occupation. As the archaeologist Ty Kāwika Tengan says:

Occupation is one of the techniques for erasing indigenous peoples. By denying their presence today is to show that look, they’re all gone and dead now. We have their bones to show for it. It denies the continued persistence of indigenous peoples and, in many ways, buttresses this kind of narrative of the settler societies that came to replace them.

The tourism industry also serves an important function in a culture of occupation, forcing Native Hawaiians out through sheer economic cost of living. As Trask has written, by some estimates more Hawaiian people now live on the US west coast than in the Hawaiian islands.

For many of those that remain, homelessness is the only option that remains. While Hawaiians make up less than 20% of the population of Hawai’i, they account for 60% of the homeless population. Ghettoized villages abound throughout the islands, some of them home to thousands of people, and are often threatened by developers looking to expand their occupation and exploitation of the landscape.


The Hawai’i that exists in our imagination is not the real Hawai’i. The real Hawai’i is a land that is under cultural, psychological, economic, ecological, and military siege. It is a land where sacred places are desecrated every day to humiliate Hawaiian people and prop up a colonial culture. It is one of the most militarized places in the world. It has the highest concentration of GMOs anywhere in the world. It has more endangered species per square mile than anywhere else in the world.

As Trask says in the film, “This is not our natural environment anymore. This is a tourist environment. This is a military environment.”

There is nothing about this that is inevitable. As the existence of this film shows, and as the voices within it make clear, the wrongful occupation of Hawai’i is not something that has to be taken for granted. It is something that can and will be resisted, and it is something that can and will be won. And this powerful film is an important step in making it happen.

[1] Haunani-Kay Trask, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i (revised), p. 17
[3] Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary, 1991

The film Noho Hewa can be purchased from its website at

6 thoughts on “Film Review: Noho Hewa (The Wrongful Occupation of Hawai’i)”

  1. aloha… educate and up date… a must see movie… aug 10, 2012….Protest and Demand was filed and accepted by UN…yes… the Hawaiian Kingdom still exist today

  2. “Wealthy White Tourists”? Have you been to Waikiki lately? The majority of tourists are Japanese buying fake leis and Hawaiian print shirts at ABC stores. This is such a racist article – decrying racism while simultaneously being racist by blaming one group while ignoring another. Credibility not required here

    1. Hi Kenneth,

      I don’t think it’s at all racist to identify the illegal US occupation of Hawai’i as oppressive, even if many of the tourists in recent years aren’t American. Racism is systems and structures which keep oppression and subordination in place. Stealing land from indigenous peoples, playing war games on their sacred sites, selling a facsimile of their culture to tourists of any non-Hawaiian nationality, and denying that there’s anything wrong with any of it is about as racist as you can get.

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