Native Hawaiian neighborhood survived Maui fire. Lahaina locals praise its cultural significance

Sep 30, 2023, 9:44 PM

The ruins of a home destroyed by a deadly August wildfire lay outside the boundary of a Hawaiian ho...

The ruins of a home destroyed by a deadly August wildfire lay outside the boundary of a Hawaiian homestead community in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. The Villages of Leiali'I, a Native Hawaiian neighborhood, lost only two out of 104 houses, even though many homes were destroyed in other parts of Lahaina. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

(AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Shaun “Buge” Saribay felt like giving up. Hours of makeshift firefighting with garden hoses and buckets of water across Lahaina didn’t stop flames from consuming his house, his rental properties and thousands of other structures in his beloved hometown.

Drained, dirty and delirious, he continued anyway, pedaling a bicycle he found during the apocalyptic night of Aug. 8 to one Lahaina neighborhood he was determined to save as a symbol of enduring Hawaiian heritage.

Although Native Hawaiians including Saribay live throughout Lahaina, the Villages of Leiali’i is the only community in West Maui exclusively for Hawaiians. Part of a program Congress passed in 1921 to give Hawaii’s Indigenous people land to live on, Leiali’i and other so-called homestead communities have become not just key to economic self-sufficiency, but reserves of Hawaiian culture and traditions as well.

Just two of the neighborhood’s 104 homes were lost to the fire, an immense relief amid a disaster that destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and killed at least 97 people. Many of the homesteaders have taken in friends and relatives who lost homes nearby. Some homes suffered smoke damage. Water in the neighborhood, like much of Lahaina, remains unsafe to cook with or drink.

“So much of Lahaina went burn,” Saribay said in Hawaii Pidgin. “We no need lose Hawaiian homes.”

Homestead communities across the state, which also are referred to as Hawaiian Homes, represent one of the most valuable benefits available to those with Hawaiian ancestry: land at almost no cost.

Those with at least 50% Hawaiian blood can apply for a 99-year lease for $1 a year. There are about 29,000 people on a waitlist for 99-year residential or agricultural land leases.

Knowing that many Hawaiians have died waiting for a lease motivated Saribay to try to save Leiali’i.

“How long Hawaiians was waiting for Hawaiian Homes? Choke years,” the lifelong Lahaina resident said. “Many years.”

The fire that swept through Lahaina was mostly out by midmorning on Aug. 9. But it still threatened houses in Leiali’i when Saribay and a group of his tenants arrived at the 16-year-old Lahaina homestead community.

Most residents had evacuated as wind-whipped fire spread from the hillsides and surrounded the neighborhood, which is one of the newer subdivisions developed by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

Saribay, who livestreamed his actions for hours on Instagram, focused on flames taking down a house just outside Leiali’i. His group connected garden hoses and he broke down a homesteader’s fence to keep the fire out of the community, he said.

It’s not clear how much the efforts of Saribay and others contributed to the neighborhood’s survival.

Some residents have credited it to a combination of factors. Among them are the willingness of locals such as Saribay to risk their lives fighting the flames; the use of newer, more fire-resistant construction materials, such as composite siding, than was used in older parts of Lahaina; underground utility lines, which did not snap and spark in the high winds as above-ground utility poles did; and the grace of “akua,” which is Hawaiian for a divine or spiritual force.

Keola Beamer, a famous slack key guitarist who lives in Leiali’i, found significance in the neighborhood’s name. “Lei” can mean garland in Hawaiian and “alii” refers to chiefs or royalty.

“We think that our ancestors joined hands and formed a lei of alii around our homes, protecting us from the ensuing flames,” Beamer said. “It jumped over us.”

The home Saribay helped protect by knocking down a fence belongs to Archie Kalepa, a well-known surfer, lifeguard, Polynesian voyager and proponent of traditional Hawaiian canoe surfing. In the ensuing days, the home became a hub for distributing donated relief supplies, including generators, cleaning products and canned food.

Workers with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands erected a temporary black screen to protect Kalepa’s house from any potentially toxic dust that might blow over from a house that burned just outside the homestead’s boundary.

The tragedy would have been compounded if the homestead burned, too, Kalepa said.

“If Hawaiian Homes didn’t exist, all these families — who, most of them, are nine, 10, 12, 15 generations from Lahaina — would have been gone,” he said. “Their genealogy … their children, their grandchildren. They’re all here. And that would have been lost.”

Archie Kalepa’s wife, Alicia, was on the other side of Maui when the fire struck. She initially heard the homestead had burned: “Me and my daughter just started screaming and crying.”

For hours until the morning, they alternated between fits of tears and restless sleep while parked on the roadside, stuck in traffic. Unable to get into Lahaina, Alicia Kalepa sent her 17-year-old twin daughters by boat to check on the family’s property. It wasn’t until the girls returned by driving a winding and narrow road north of Lahaina that she got confirmation that the vast majority of Leiali’i was unscathed.

“I was so relieved, but at the same time I was so sad for a lot of my friends,” she said. “My hula sisters that lost their houses.”

Some residents are wrestling with feelings of guilt.

“Those of us that survived with our houses, you know, we feel a little survivor’s guilt thing going on,” Beamer said. “Why us?”

The two leaseholders who lost their homes are talking about rebuilding, said Randy Awo, the Hawaiian Homes commissioner for Maui.

Soon after the fire, concern spread that Lahaina will be rebuilt into a tropical haven for affluent outsiders, pricing out Hawaiians and other longtime locals.

Archie Kalepa sees the survival of Leiali’i as a testament to the resilience of the Hawaiian people — “the root and soul of this place” — and the need to find ways for Hawaiians to prosper despite Hawaii’s crushingly high cost of living.

“Because when you really think about it, Hawaii was never, ever for sale,” Kalepa said. “Hawaiian Homes is a perfect example. You don’t own this land.”

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Native Hawaiian neighborhood survived Maui fire. Lahaina locals praise its cultural significance