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Army seeks to nurture dialogue as stewards of Makua lands

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The Army sees Makua Valley, shown above, as a prime spot for soldiers to practice firing live ammunition. The valley has been used for training since 1943.

The people of Waianae believe the first Hawaiians were created in Makua, a lush valley about 30 miles from downtown Honolulu. The valley also is home to three large heiau, or ancient stone platforms used for worship. So it’s no surprise many native Hawaiians consider the valley to be sacred.

The Army, though, sees Makua as a prime spot for soldiers to practice firing live ammunition.

These widely divergent perspectives illustrate the gulf between the Army and Hawaiians that has contributed to an often antagonistic and deeply distrustful relationship between the two.

Now the Army is trying to narrow the gap. In a series of firsts, the U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii commander hired a liaison for Hawaiian issues, formed a council of Hawaiians to advise him, and brought Army and Hawaiian leaders together to sign a covenant in which both sides vowed to respect and understand one another.

"Instead of going back and rehashing the past, I’m trying to make a fresh start, trying to make that relationship positive, make things better down the line," said Col. Matthew Margotta.

But the Army did not invite several Hawaiians embroiled in ongoing disputes with the Army to join the council or sign the covenant, prompting critics to question how effective these initiatives will be.

The military took control of Makua in 1943 when Hawaii was under wartime martial law. Authorities told residents to leave, and the Army and Navy began using the valley for bombing practice.

The explosions damaged homes and the community’s church and cemetery. Interviews for a 1998 oral history commissioned by the Navy showed residents were embittered by the destruction and the takeover that severed their families, from the land.

Today the Army still controls Makua under a lease with the state that expires in 2029.

In recent years, the Army and Hawaiians have clashed over the Army’s restrictions on access to sites in the valley. The Army cites safety for the limits, though Hawaiians say they’ve long visited these sites and understand the risks.

Hawaiian anger also mounted in 2003 when the Army’s planned burn of brush raged out of control and scorched more than half of the seven-square-mile valley.

Elsewhere in the islands, Hawaiians and the Army have butted heads over the appropriate use of lands at Schofield Barracks, which is home to several thousand soldiers in the 25th Infantry Division, and Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island.

Last month, several Hawaiians objected when an Army contractor leveling land for a new Schofield training ground unearthed an ancient bone fragment. They had opposed the construction of the training ground precisely because they feared human remains would be found if the soil was disturbed.

Margotta says the covenant, signed in March, will contribute to better relations by committing future commanders to partner and cooperate with Hawaiians. This should impose some consistency even as leaders rotate posts every two to three years.

"There’s been commanders out there who have embraced the Hawaiian community and partnered with them and worked with them. And there have been others who have been not so inclined," Margotta said. "We wanted to codify it for successive generations."

Col. Douglas Mulbury, who took over from Margotta in a change of command ceremony last week, agrees with the initiatives and hopes to build on them, said his spokesman Loran Doane.

Neil Hannahs, the director for the land assets division of Kamehameha Schools, said the council and covenant may help ameliorate conflict by spurring dialogue.

Hannahs is on the advisory council. He also signed the covenant, though as an individual and not as representative of Kamehameha Schools.

Annelle Amaral, the Hawaiian liaison for U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii, said she didn’t invite people to join the council who have "site specific" concerns. She instead gathered Hawaiians who represent fields including education, business and religion.

She denied the council omitted people who disagree with the Army, noting it includes the Rev. Kaleo Patterson. The minister has vocally opposed ballistic missile testing on Kauai and pushed for the "decolonization and total independence" of Hawaii.


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