Island History

Governor Burns had plans to take over Ni‘ihau.

In 1970, then Hawai‘i Gov. John A. Burns proposed that the state of Hawai‘i condemn Ni‘ihau through the courts and buy it from its owner, Mrs. Helen Robinson, for $300,000 in order to transform it into a state recreation area. A cultural park would be built on Ni‘ihau and Ni‘ihau cowboys would be hired to act as park guides.

Burns also intended to plant forests on Ni‘ihau to restore it to the “natural Hawaiian environment that existed before the advent of Western culture.”

Apparently, the fact that no forests existed on Ni‘ihau when first Western contact was made by Captain James Cook in 1778 was of no consequence to the governor, nor was the reality that lack of abundant water would have made it virtually impossible to grow dryland forests on Ni‘ihau.

Nevertheless, Burns persisted, even after the Robinson family issued a press release stating “The island has not, is not, and is not expected to be put up for sale to anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

Ni‘ihau’s Hawaiian residents were also wholly against any takeover by the state. They testified that they were happy living under their present peaceful conditions and resented the governor calling them a forgotten people. Some expressed anxiety that they might be put on exhibit like the Honolulu Zoo. Others stated they were free to make the choice between living on Ni‘ihau or not. They said they frequently traveled between the islands and were happy to return home to peaceful Ni‘ihau.

The late Reverend Abraham Akaka, pastor of Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu, and his brother, future-Sen. Daniel Akaka, were very important in helping to defeat the proposed seizure of Ni‘ihau.

Although Burns continued until his death in 1975 to push the issue, his proposal lacked support and failed.

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