Friends and family are mourning the death of Noa Emmett Aluli, who was born and raised on Oahu but went on to become a Molokai doctor and Native Hawaiian activist instrumental in the fight to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe. He was 78.
“He was a man of uncommon courage, of uncommon humility and uncommon kindness,” said former state lawmaker Clayton Hee. “It’s a devastating loss in a practical sense, because he was a healer — and particularly of the people of Molokai.”
Fellow Molokai activist Walter Ritte on Thursday remembered Aluli as a “soft-hearted man” and the kind of person you wanted to hug.
“He not only cared for the environment, he cared for the people,” he said.
Ritte met Aluli when the doctor chose to complete his residency on Molokai following his 1975 graduation as part of the first class at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine.
“I remember him as a city boy who came to the country,” Ritte said. “I didn’t expect him to last as a doctor, but he really loved it here.”
Ritte and Aluli would go on to fight for Native Hawaiian rights and together organized Hui Alaloa, a group that fought to obtain land access for hunters and fishers on Molokai.
It wasn’t long before they joined a group being organized to protest the ongoing bombing of Kahoolawe. In January 1976 they were part of a fleet of boats that set out to occupy the island, but most of the vessels were turned back by the Coast Guard, which had caught wind of the mission.
Ritte, Aluli and seven others were on the only boat that made it to the island, and the men and women would come to be known as the Kahoolawe Nine.
But while the Coast Guard would soon arrive to arrest the group, Aluli and Ritte sneaked away and spent three days exploring the island in their slippers and following goat trails to avoid unexploded ordnance. They were finally arrested and flown off the island.
As he saw the island from the air and saw even more damage, Aluli said he grew more angry and committed to do something, he told a 2021 Vox film documentary about the incident.
“It was like the land was calling to me, pleading, crying, asking us to do something,” he said.
Aluli would go on to become a founding member of the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, which in 1980 would sign a consent decree with the Navy promising a cleanup of the island. In 1990 President George H.W. Bush would halt the bombing, and in 1993 Congress ended military use and authorized the transfer to the state.
Aluli would help to oversee the cleanup and transfer of the island as chairman of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission.
The fight for Native Hawaiian land rights would continue for Aluli, whether it was marching at Hilo Airport in 1978 or co-founding the Pele Defense Fund in 1985, among many others.
The movement to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe has been cited by many as inspiration for the protests to block the Thirty Meter Telescope.
His medical career also stands out, especially in the area of Native Hawaiian health care.
Aluli maintained a private medical practice, the Moloka‘i Family Health Center and Clinic, serving a large population of Native Hawaiians. He was also medical executive director of Moloka‘i General Hospital and kupuna president of ‘Ahahui o na Kauka, the Native Hawaiian Physicians Association.
He co-founded Na Pu‘uwai, the Native Hawaiian health care system that serves Molokai and Lanai. He also helped draft the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act, which was signed into law in 1988 to promote health and disease prevention among Native Hawaiians.
He also served as a member of the 2nd Congressional District’s Native Hawaiian Health Task Force, helping to set federal legislative priorities and policies to advance Native Hawaiian health care.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, offered a tribute to Aluli on the floor of Congress.
“Uncle Emmett leaves an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of the people of Hawaii, especially those lives he generously touched on Molokai. His imprint and contributions will be felt for generations. He will be greatly missed,” Kahele said.
“Maria and I extend our deepest sympathies to Uncle Emmett’s life partner, Dr. Davianna McGregor; their daughter, Rosie Alegado Kong; son-in-law Raymond Kong; grandchildren Justice and Cassius; and the entire Aluli-McGregor ohana,” he said.