- Historic Sites
Niihau A Shoal Of Time
For a century Hawaii’s westernmost island has stubbornly resisted the tides of change
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
All this gave something of a sharp edge to attempts, originating in the Democratic party, to bring Niihau to conformity with the rest of the territory. Not long after World War II, researchers discovered a legal circumstance which, on the face of things, gave the territory title to some lands on Niihau. The position was this: statute law at the time of the sale to the Sinclairs provided that school and church sites could not be disposed of to private buyers as long as they were being used for their intended purpose. There were certainly school sites on Niihau in the i86o’s, according to teachers’ running reports—four in 1862, three in 1865, two in 1866, and one (at Puuwai village) in 1867. But the whole issue remained clouded because for the crucial years of 1863 and 1864, the years of the Sinclair takeover, no documents could be found in public repositories.
All through the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the clan and the government co-operated to maintain roads on Niihau. Government money was spent on this and on installations at a landing pier; and these facts too were made the basis for government claims against the Robinsons.
Action proceeded slowly, hampered by lack of continuity of personnel in the attorney general’s office and in legislative committees. The Robinson family, of course, showed no interest in initiating activity. Reports were filed, surveys projected, further investigations ordered; but the position remained substantially what it was when the Senate committee brought back its disparaging report just after World War II.
Massive inertia in regard to changing control of land has been characteristic of Hawaiian politics ever since the growth of the great estates late in the nineteenth century; and the Niihau case, in one of its aspects, is merely a reflection of this.
In the meantime the Niihauans live on, happy in their day-to-day life, and, as always, affectionately respectful to Aylmer Robinson. In 1963 he is a spare and vigorous seventy-five-year-old, unshaken in his conviction of righteousness in his dealings with his charges. Change is inevitable, but it will occur at an evolutionary rate as long as Aylmer Robinson stands between Niihau and the outside. The Niihauans themselves recognize that they are different, not only from the rest of the world but also from other Hawaiians. In their non-English-speaking microcosm, they have kept the speech patterns that were peculiar to their end of the island chain in pre-white days, though the allegorical richness of classical Hawaiian thought and expression has long since withered away. In their church they celebrate God in Hawaiian-language hymns of their own composition; their secular festivals are not the holidays observed by most Americans, but birthdays and other occasions of a simple, basic sort. In numerous other ways their universe is bounded by their coast line.
It seems, oddly enough, that change may be forced upon Niihau by conditions over which even the Robinsons cannot exercise control. Over the last decade the economy of the island has been faltering. There were several years of drought between 1950 and 1960, and as water sources dried up, the cattle and sheep population had to be cut back sharply. A cactus blight, introduced on Kauai, where the plant had become a pest, spread to Niihau, where cactus had been one of the principal stock feeds on arid grazing land. This further cut down herds and also lessened the number of wild pigs. A parasite attacked the blossoms of the keawe tree, essential to the honey industry, and production fell off badly. Commercial fishing off the island greatly reduced the Niihauans’ own catches. In drought years Niihau wool, one of the big exports, was at a disadvantage in a competitive market: it was burr-laden and stained by dry red dust; and because of lack of water it could not be washed before export. Hard to sell, it sometimes stayed in storage for seasons before being moved.
Faced with multiple problems, Aylmer Robinson tried to revive the economy. Egyptian cotton would grow very well on Niihau, but the federal government refused the island a quota. Keawe wood made excellent charcoal, but Japan could undersell Niihau on the west coast of the United States. Old Hawaiian fishbreeding ponds were restored to offset losses caused by commercial fishermen, but the principal product was mosquitoes. The situation is made more critical by the fact that Niihau, alone among rural areas in Hawaii, has been in the middle of a minor population explosion, and though the Robinsons have kept every man on the payroll there is clearly no economic justification for maintaining the island in its present condition.