Kamokila future is up in the air as eviction looms
WAILUA — With an eviction deadline approaching, the future of the Kamokila Hawaiian Village in Wailua is hanging in the balance.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources allowed the Fernandes family lease on the land to expire in December, citing alleged violations of the agreement. The village has been out of operation since then, leaving the family and 10 employees out of work.
The family has been given until May 1 to remove their personal property from the area.
“The entire community has been impacted, from our kupuna down to our keiki, to our employees, who have been here through hard times and hurricanes and even a pandemic,” said William Kihei Fernandes, one of the caretakers of the land.
The village has been in the Fernandes family for 61 years and four generations — a project envisioned by Kihei’s great-grandfather, Ben Ohai.
Though Ohai did not live to see the project built, it was completed by his children and grandchildren. The village was destroyed and rebuilt twice, after hurricanes ‘Iwa and ‘Iniki.
Many residents have expressed disappointment over the shutdown of the Kaua‘i institution.
State Rep. Jimmy Tokioka, who represents the district where the village is located, along the Wailua River, reported that several parents had reached out to him regarding the closure.
Mical “Kit” Owen was homeless and broke at 18 years old when he found a job at Kamokila.
“Kamokila was my refuge when I was lost. It was a place I could slow down and gain a deeper perspective, but most importantly a place to learn,” said Owen. “All that I know about the Hawaiian culture is due to this special place and the family who took me in.”
There is still a possibility that the lease could be extended.
The family has met with Tokioka and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs regarding the status of the state land. Fernandes reported that OHA is in negotiating talks with DLNR, which he feels optimistic about.
Why did the lease expire?
On Nov. 19, 2021, DLNR sent a letter informing the family that the department would allow the lease to expire and would consider “both commercial and non-commercial proposals” for new use of the land.
DLNR gave two primary reasons for the decision to let the lease expire: unsanctioned kayak rentals and inadequate bathroom facilities.
The department accused the family of renting two-person kayaks, a violation of the lease agreement that allows them to rent “traditional Hawaiian four- and six-man outrigger canoes and surfboards.”
Fernandes said that they had been renting canoes, not kayaks (the boats are built by the company Mad River Canoe, and are seen in pictures accommodating as many as four people), and found the DLNR definition of “Hawaiian culture” to be too narrow.
“Who are these guys to say that that’s not part of our culture?” asked Fernandes. “It’s like they’re trying to write our culture, and they’re not letting us evolve.”
“A ‘ukulele is not Hawaiian,” he added. “It came from Portugal. The guitar came from Spain. But they became part of our culture because we adopted them. So, it’s like saying you’re not allowed to play Hawaiian music using a guitar and ‘ukulele because it’s not Hawaiian.”
In the letter, DLNR also brought up issues with the restrooms, which are serviced by a large-capacity cesspool that would need to be changed into a septic tank to comply with Environmental Protection Agency regulations. DLNR reported that the restrooms, which were ordered to be shut down in 2020, could make their agency subject to fines as the landowners.
Fernandes said that when asked to shut down the restrooms they immediately did so, and receipts show that he purchased temporary restrooms shortly thereafter.
He said that he was willing to install a septic tank, but not until he was confident the lease would be renewed.
According to a DLNR statement, the family was not quick enough in developing a plan to deal with the restroom issue after an August meeting where they requested a proposal.
“State Parks provided the family one month to submit a proposal. Approximately 60 days later, State Parks reiterated the need to receive a proposal, or the lease could not be considered for extension. State Parks did not receive a proposal, a response, or a request for more time,” the DLNR statement said.
Fernandes pointed to a letter his father William Kimo Fernandes had sent asking for an extension of the lease and requesting a meeting with the state Board of Land and Natural Resources during this time frame.
He said that his family had been unfairly targeted by the agency, describing it as a “racial injustice” and feeling “criminalized” by the allegations.
The Garden Island toured the facility last week, which, though cleared of many of the artifacts that usually are present, remains a fascinating look into Hawaiian history.
The 4.5 acres, located down a steep back road along the Wailua River, features thatched-roof hale, roaming peacocks, native plants, spear throwing and ‘ulu maika (Hawaiian bowling).
William Kihei Fernandes’ brother Benjamin Braga Fernandes led the tour through the hale, including a canoe house, a birth house, a dancing house and a drum house, to an underground oven, to ancient petroglyphs and rock foundations that have sat on the site for centuries.
Cultural education is an important facet of the village, which generally sees visits from 20 to 30 schools each year from Kaua‘i and other islands.
“We want to get back to doing what we’re doing,” said Benjamin Fernandes. “We want to get back to doing these cultural tours.”
William Kihei Fernandes reported that they had to cancel several school groups because of the DLNR decision.
“I have a boy that’s in the fourth grade — that’s usually the age when they have these excursions,” said William Kihei Fernandes. “He’s asking me, ‘Is my class going to be able to go down to the village?’ It hurts that he’s not going to get to have that experience.”
Guthrie Scrimgeour, reporter, can be reached at 647-0329 or firstname.lastname@example.org.