“Aloha my brother” he pronounced as he placed a sweet smelling Maile lei around my neck at my surprise 64th birthday party. It was a highlight of my life to have had this great man open his heart and his family to me as he did. I was honoured again on February 15th 2015 to be present, with many of his family (‘Ohana), when Robert Keli’iho-omalu Sr., passed away on the anniversary date of the passing of his son Puna. He knew his time was coming and at his Kalapana home on that day his mind could finally rest, his work was done, he was proud and he slipped gracefully into a state of eternal peace.
Word spread quickly of his passing. TV stations, newspapers, and social media shared his incredible life story. Condolences and donations for his funeral came from every corner of the globe. I drove an escort vehicle, with Dena, in his funeral procession from Hilo to Kalapana and have never seen such a turnout of people lining the streets throughout the whole journey. A beautiful three day memorial was held at his home where thousands gathered to pay respect, give condolences, sing songs and share stories about this remarkable man.
‘Uncle Robert,’ as he was generally known, was a humble and noble man and his spirit remans alive in Puna, on the Big Island and far beyond – carried by everyone he touched. He was from Kaimū, Kalapana, a family patriarch, Hawaiian sovereignty activist, former soldier, strict sustainable farmer, retired county worker and a sincere man of faith who lived the true meaning of aloha.. He stood strong in his faith until his last Ha (breath). His mantra was ‘Aloha Ke Kahi I Ke Kahi’ (love one another) and while he fought tirelessly for the restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom he prepared for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Robert Keli’iho-omalu was born on June 14, 1939. War was beginning in the pacific, the U.S.A. was occupying the islands, Hawaii was under martial law and the American military was building bases everywhere. Times were tough. Growing up in Kalapana, he and his brothers were taught to be hard workers; gardening, hunting and fishing. In the Hawaiian culture, being sustainable was a way of life. Everyday, he and his siblings, would walk to the ocean to wash clothes by the sea, using the heat of the sun on the smooth rocks to dry them, and walk back home to work in the gardens and feed the live stock. Life for him was true country. Living without electricity or refrigeration, he and his family ate meals of dried fish and salted meat with fresh vegetables, by the light of kerosene lamps. Times were very different – in this story he talks about eating donkey.
Known for being quiet and serene today, the Kalapana area was even quieter back then. In his childhood days none of the roads were paved. He said, “We saw maybe five or six cars a day.” The nearest school was in the small town of Pahoa about nine miles away. “Those days our bus was a truck with chicken coop screening all the way around it, but far from seeing the long trek as a burden, we would sing Hawaiian songs every day – on the way to school and at school and at home. We had a lot of fun.”
Robert joined the army soon after graduating from high school in 1958. After his four year service tour in Germany ended he returned to find his home land had changed and the life he knew in Kalapana was gone forever. Hawai’i had become the 50th state, roads were paved, there were endless vehicles, and modern utilities were spreading into rural areas.
It was that year that he met his soul mate, Philmen ‘G-girl’ Kawehilani Tolentino. She was a Hawaiian Filipino girl from the small town of Hana in Maui and was a very talented song writer and musician. Soon after meeting, Robert and ‘G-girl’ got married and later had their first son, Robert Jr. As their love grew so did their family. There were seven more sons Sam, Patrick ‘Puna’, Paul, Peter ‘Kalapana’, Philip ‘Kukui’, Prince and Primo and three daughters Patricia ‘Noenoe’, Lohelani and Princess. In addition to their eleven children, they had three Hanai (adoption in the traditional Hawaiian way) children Shaun, Leialoha, and Gwen.
Robert and G-girl, raised their children to be grounded in Hawaiian culture. They learned discipline through daily chores – working the gardens, cleaning the yard, hunting, fishing and cooking. Play time for the Keli’iho’omalu ‘Ohana was surfing and making music together and they were always regulars at the local church on Sundays.
In 1990, Kilauea erupted and sent out a massive flow that inundated Kalapana. It was a devastating time for the small village. Everything in its path was destroyed, except for the property of Uncle Robert and Aunty G-girl. Believing in faith and prayer, G-girl stood by the edge of their property everyday and watched as the lava slowly approached at her feet. What happened next was a miracle, she said. After lavishly praying to god to spare her home she was in tears. Then the lava stopped before her and continued to round the property and flow towards the ocean, where it claimed the ‘Kaimū Black Sand Beach’; now located about a 20 minute walk out across lava terrain. ‘Where the road ends, the Aloha begins’ has been the family slogan since then.
Feeling blessed and thankful, Robert and G-girl set out on a mission to share their blessings with the community. Friends and family gathered at the Kalapana home every weekend to share meals and music with them. There was always a sense of warm Aloha at their home. Life was good. Together they produced two CD’s (Aloha Kaimū and Kalapana – I Ka Wa Kahiko) show casing the amazing vocals of G-girl, Robert Sr. and sons Puna and Sam. The ‘Ohana music group soon became famous for the original songs “Precious Moments” and ‘Aloha Kaimū’. Every child of Robert and G-girl either sang or played an instrument and as their music career kicked off, they found themselves traveling around the world to share their special gifts. Despite this fame, they always left time to nurture their home community, I found them playing at many of the same gigs when I was performing my juggling shows and they graciously agreed to perform at the festivals I organised in Pahoa Village in 1994 and 1995.
1996 was a year of total distress as Aunty ‘G-girl’ passed away while on a trip to California. Thousands gathered to pay their respects and gratitude at her memorial. In the following years Uncle Robert grew his reputation as an avid Hawaiian sovereignty activist. He became a noble and represented the island of Hawai’i. He vowed to fight for the Hawaiian Kingdom and for the Hawaiian people. Knowing Hawai’i was not annexed but occupied by the US government, he made it his daily goal to educate as many tourists as he could about the illegal overthrow of Hawai’i in 1893. Hundreds came daily to Kalapana to visit the site of the continuing lava flows and Robert had a mission to educate them. The visual displays he created are usually the only exposure visitors have to the historical and political events that have stolen much of the Hawaiians country and culture. Many fell in love with Uncle’s aloha spirit and would return to Kalapana every time they visited Hawai’i just to shake his hand and thank him.
Proclaiming his loyalty to the Hawaiian Kingdom, Robert declared his home to be under the jurisdiction of the reinstated Lawful Hawaiian government and he was elected as our local ‘noble’.
After our night market at S.P.A.C.E. was forced to close in 2012 his family decided to host their own market where local farms and crafters could sell produce and crafts on his property while his sons and daughters provided sweet Hawaiian music. Uncle Robert saw it as another chance to spread the awareness of self sustainability as well as educating everyone about the Lawful Hawaiian Government. The market is truly a family affair and many of Uncle Robert’s extended family can be found working either behind a booth counter, directing traffic and parking, or up on stage performing. Today Uncle Robert’s ‘Wednesday Night Ho’olaule’a’ and Kava Bar is a very well-known gathering place hosting events from music concerts to community fundraisers to political candidate forums.
It has grown to become the best place to be on a Wednesday night on the Big Island where the aloha vibes are very real. It is a healthy mix of local produce, food, crafts, art and body work but the Hawaiian music is the highlight. Looking across the crowd seated on long, communal picnic tables in the dining pavilion listening to the Kalapana Awa band Ikaika Marzo, one of Uncle Robert’s hānai grandchildren (who is currently running to be Mayor) said “I don’t call it a farmers market, I call it a social market.” “It’s a family place, reminiscent of old Hawai‘i, and that’s the way we like to keep it,” said Sam Keli‘iho‘omalu.
In 2014 after legal hassles with the Hawaii County government wore us down we moved our very successful S.P.A.C.E. Saturday market to Uncle Robert’s – to sovereign Hawaiian land where permits were not an issue. It became Uncles Kaimū Farmers Market with a mission ‘to promote sustainable community development through exchange of local Big Island goods, services, and local connections in a safe village based market place.’ The vision for both markets is to be an example of economic and sustainable growth, enhancing community health while honouring Hawaiian culture. Without any Federal, County or State government permits it serves as a powerful, and very public, icon for the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. The markets and Keli’iho’omalu family are respected and revered by all.
In his final years Uncle Robert, very successfully, brought to life his vision and missions. What he desired most was to have his legacy passed on through generations to come. He ensured everything for his ‘Ohana was prepared in the ways of self sustainability. gardens, live stock, the ‘Awa Bar, the Markets, his Hawaiian cultural teachings and having his ‘Ohana living on his family compound – his Legal Hawaiian Kingdom home. Today, Uncle Robert’s extended ‘ohana includes thirty three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, most of them live in Kalapana with about thirty family members living in multiple houses on the family property. They have an orange grove, a vegetable garden, fruit trees and multiple taro patches— even an apiary and a chicken coop. He left a strong and vibrant ‘Ohana and he passed on knowing everything is okay. In the eyes of U.S. government officials Uncle Robert may have been another rebellious renegade but in the hearts and minds of those who knew him he will always be the embodiment of ALOHA!
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