She was small in stature but mighty in spirit. Her passionate and poignant speeches brought tears of rage, inspiring her audiences to action. She totally exemplified Rosa Parks’ belief that ‘it is better to protest than to accept injustice’. In the struggle for Hawaiian Rights, few, if any, have fought longer and harder than Moanike’ala Akaka. She was a firecracker born on the Fourth of July. A longtime Hawaiian activist and advocate, former Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and a founding mother of the renaissance of the Hawaiian language and culture which began in the 1970s and has grown stronger each year thanks to her inspiration.
“Mom was very passionate about Native Hawaiian justice and our natural environment and environmental quality, not just here, but everywhere,” said her daughter Erika at her life celebration. “If you asked her what she does, she would have said, ‘I’m a protector of the land and the people,’ and that’s what made her tick.” Moani’s activism was lifelong. Just before she died she was among dozens arrested on Mauna Kea protesting the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the worlds largest, on the sacred mountain top. To understand and appreciate Moani you have to see and hear her passionate testimony for the Hawaiian people.
Born in Honolulu, Akaka spent her childhood years in Kaimuki and attended Kamehameha Schools until her father’s work moved the family to Northern California. After returning to Hawaii as an adult, she was a fixture at innumerable meetings, hearings, conferences and protests connected to Native Hawaiian issues, and her voice was often the loudest and most strident. Her presence, crowned with a traditional hoku lei, was profoundly regal.
I met Moani through her husband Tomas Belsky, a well-known Hilo artist, who designed many of our HICCUP circus banners, T shirts and posters. He described Moani as “the most-focused, single-minded person on Hawaii that I ever met. She was quick-tempered, she didn’t mind speaking truth to power and sometimes people would get upset with her.” Tomas and Moani were soulmates and activists together for 43 years and were a formidable team continuously involved in promoting justice.
In 1971, Moani was one of 32 activists arrested, after occupying roof tops in Kalama Valley, trying stop the eviction of residents from their lands to make way for a tourist resort and upscale residential development. That first prolonged resistance in the post-Statehood era, launched the movement seeking Native Hawaiian recognition, lands and rights. Not long afterward, she was part of a prominent group of activists called Protect Kahoolawe Ohana that protested the US Military’s 49-year bombing campaign of the sacred island.
Tomas said, ” Like Queen Lili‘uokalani, after her overthrow and the occupation of Hawaii by the U.S., Moani believed that the Christian nation of America would do as Queen Victoria had done in 1845 and reinstate the monarchy and the kingdom. Sadly, she was quite mistaken.” Her legacy has, however, left a powerful and educated sovereignty movement growing daily in numbers and determination to restore the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Moani confronted injustice wherever she saw it. In 1978, she was one of more than 50 activists who risked their lives blockading the Hilo Airport runway in an effort to “collect the rent” from the state of Hawaiʻi who had charged the airport just $1 annually to lease 92 acres of Hawaiian Home Lands. She had many successes, including decades of negotiations over ‘ceded lands’ that culminated in a settlement signed into law in 2012, she was a founding member of Ka La Hui, the largest sovereignty group in Hawaiian history, she helped gain funding for Hawaiian language immersion schools, helped found Bay Clinic and served on the board of Habitat for Humanity. I bonded with Moani in 1989 when we were both arrested with sixty other protesters and successfully stopped the Geothermal development that was threatening to destroy the Wao Kele O’Puna pristine rainforest.
Moani never turned away from struggle during her 12-year tenure as a trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in the 1980s and ’90s. There were times she went home crying because she couldn’t get money to build a clinic or fund a program. When she was disappointed, she raised a lot of hell. Her frustration with the board over issues she deemed important led her to chain OHA office doors shut to get the attention of the media to expose inaction. She was a fearless fighter for the betterment of her people.
I know about this firsthand because Moani fought for the HICCUP circus after recognising that our social and community building program had lots to offer Hawaiian kids. She suggested that I start a class in Keaukaha Elementary School which was situated in the heartland of the island’s largest community of kanaka maoli or Native Hawaiians. She arranged for me to talk story with Auntie Luella Aina, who directed the community gym, about starting the circus program we called ‘Na Kamalei O’ Kana.’ (The children of Kana)
This was new territory for me, being invited to bring my program to the Big island’s traditional Hawaiian homeland, and I was really unsure about how my haole ‘new circus’ would be received. I think everyone felt the same. I met Luella and the principal of the school plus a few teachers, the office staff, the groundskeepers, the youth counselors and a few parents. Everyone was super nice and really friendly with me, even enthusiastic at times, but I could tell that there was a lot of skepticism. No-one predicted the outcome.
I recruited Ari, Jason and Marcellus three of my HICCUP alumni to help me run the classes with Marcus, a new juggler friend who volunteered at Bellyacres. Next, I asked Auntie Luella to let me run my class outside. Thankfully, everyone agreed and I managed to avoid the unbelievably noisy gym and my blossoming class became a very public spectacle. Activities quickly spread over the whole baseball pitch and basketball court and eventually trickled into the school and then outwards into the adjacent residential neighbourhood.
The Keaukaha program holds very fond memories for me. I remember pulling up in the circus van on a Wednesday afternoon and being met by gleeful kids running at full pitch across the school yard. After greetings they, very politely but impatiently, helped unload our props rushing to start playing with their favourite piece of equipment. Each pair of stilts or unicycle that I handed them was like a Christmas present they had waited all year to receive. They were like kids in a candy shop. It was a wonderful euphoric feeling for all of us and on top of all this they respectfully called me ‘Uncle’.
In those renegade HICCUP classes students chose any prop they liked, stuck with it as long or as short a time as they liked and then changed it for something else. Instructors circulated around helping students and suggesting peer to peer hook ups, as and when the need arose. Sometimes instructors got to practice themselves, demonstrating more advanced skills for students to learn and showing that we were all still engaged in having fun and even making mistakes and goofy drops – and we all laughed together.
My approach to teaching circus arts was, community centred, always open and inclusive. When elder siblings or parents came around to see what was going on I would give them the hand of a stiltwalker or pass them juggling props to play with while they waited. This approach always worked to bring them in, getting them engaged and supportive. With Hawaiians I found that their initial shyness and inhibitions could be rapidly bypassed and replaced with laughter and joy at playing a game. The Hawaiians are great games players and the class grew and grew as more kids came to love our circus classes. They all knew one another, had no inhibitions about helping out another person and in fact recognised it as a duty, without ever complaining or acting selfishly. It felt like true ‘ohana’ (family).
Learning circus skills takes lots and lots of practice which is not possible if students don’t have equipment available so I started letting my Hawaiian students take stilts and unicycles and juggling stuff home. The first week I did it Auntie Luella told me she had parents calling her up to check to see if the kids had stolen the gear or had really been allowed to borrow it. After giving them a reassurance I was lending it to them without any charge, but simply with an obligation to take care of it, I apparently won a lot of friends and the trust of these naturally generous people. My own trust was repaid in multiple ways.
Not only did I have parents come up to me and offer thanks but they also told me if I needed any help just to let them know. I took them up on this and organized a half day stilt making session to increase my stock and also to enable their kids to have their own personal stilts to take home. From then on it became a common sight around the Keaukaha homelands to see young Hawaiians cruising on stilts to their homes, playgrounds and to school. The kids were so thrilled to show off their skills that the school had to make it a rule that they couldn’t go into corridors or classrooms on stilts or riding unicycles. The kids were always very polite and respectful and learned really fast. Several of them participated with our other HICCUP members in parades between 1993-1997 and a few went on to successfully perform in talent shows and entertain at community events.
1995 Keaukaha Promo
This was a fabulous period in the HICCUP history and I truly wish that it had never stopped. Unfortunately, while Moani had initially financed the program from her discretionary allowance, the OHA funding ended after about three years and other logistics made it hard for me to do the program. Auwe ! Thanks to Moani, I made lasting friendships with Hawaiian legends like Darlene Ahuna and the Aiona family and many others in the local community. Over many years that followed I would meet young people, sometimes with their own kids, who would recognise me and go, “Eh! you the juggler guy who taught me to unicycle, what’s up bro?” That was my greatest reward of all.
From the struggle to stop the evictions from Kalama Valley in 1971 to the stand to protect Mauna Kea from the Thirty Meter Telescope in 2015, “Aunty Moani” stood strong for more than 46 years. At age 70, her arrest, along with other elders, blocking construction vehicles prompted Hollywood star Jason Momoa (and thousands more) to join a world-wide social media campaign to protect the sacred summit from further desecration and industrialisation. Soon after being diagnosed with cancer, for the third time in her life, Moani rallied once again to battle the disease and although she fought hard just as she fought for her nation and land her whole life, this time, she wasn’t able to recover. The Hawaiian nation lost one of it’s most beloved hero’s when she passed on.
As Tomas says, “Moani was a very, very special individual and a powerful woman, much misunderstood. But that was the price she paid. She was the way she was. She made a lot of very, very solid friends and had some people who vehemently opposed her. But her spirit is very powerful and it will carry on, I’m sure.”
Moani is a heroine and will always be one of my most revered renegade mentors. ‘Imua’
R.I.P. Moanikeʻala Akaka (1944 – 2017)