By Joan Conrow
Lihue -- Hawaiian rights attorney Paul Lucas says Hilbert C. K. "Kahale" Smith's fiery death could either widen or bridge the gap between the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and its critics.
Activists yesterday weren't talking reconciliation.
"This is the beginning of our true fight, to see our warriors going down," said John K. "Butch" Kekahu, Jr. of Anahola. "It's remotivated us to pursue what he's done and make sure his work wasn't in vain."
Smith, 58, burned to death Thursday after setting his home on fire during an eviction for delinquent lease payments. He and the department had battled for 18 years over repairs to the Anahola house that Smith alleged had been defective from the start.
"Hawaiians fighting this issue are so disgusted that Kahale would have to resort this low to get our government to pay attention to us," said Kekahu, who lives in the same subdivision as Smith and is still pushing for repairs to the house he has since deeded to his parents. "I'm sticking with it."
Harold Jim, a member of a Big Island group protesting the use of Hawaiian homelands for a Hilo Wal-Mart store, said he wants to FBI to investigate.
"They were waging a personal vendetta against Kahale," he said, referred to department officials. "We can't back down now, because we know just how far they'll go."
The state attorney general's office is investigating, and Hawaiian Homes Chairman Kali Watson met yesterday with his staff to go over the events leading up to the fire. Agency official John Hirota earlier said Smith had been treated the same as other lessees and that the department tried to avoid the eviction.
Kekahu said he is planning a May 20 civil disobedience action in Anahola and will use Smith's plight as a rallying cry to attract Hawaiians from around the state.
"The Hawaiians are a sickly people, but we're not afraid to die now," he said. "And you know why? Because most of our sickness is on the inside, the hurt and the emotions we feel."
Lucas, an attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., said Smith's dispute with Hawaiian Homes was an extreme case, but many other homesteaders are frustrated by the shoddy workmanship on their homes.
"Most are just living with it, and that shouldn't be. In Kahale's case, I think he had a legitimate defense," Lucas said. "I don't know what happened. It's very sad to see his fight ended this way."
Most of the complaints revolve around homes built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he said. Disgruntled homesteaders often must hire attorneys and construction experts to prove their case.
"It's a very long, drawn-out process and very expensive," Lucas said. "Most Hawaiians can't afford it."
So the state Legislature created a review panel that in 1993 began accepting claims against the department for the period of Aug. 21, 1959, through June 30, 1988. More than 4,300 claims were filed by last August's deadline, but only about 2.5 percent dealt with construction issues, said the panel's executive director, Melody MacKenzie. Most of those, however, were filed by homesteaders from Kauai and Molokai, she said, and only one has been resolved.
Lucas said Hawaiian Homes cut back evictions for a time, apparently recognizing that "to dispossess a person whose race or class of people have been dispossessed for years is a difficult thing."
Watson renewed the practice, however, seeing delinquent mortgages as another source of homes for Hawaiians on the waiting list.
"That can be good," Lucas said. "But it has to be done with sensitivity."
Lucas said he hopes Smith's death will help the sheriff's office improve the way it approaches evictions. Hawaiian Homes also has been criticized in the past for handling evictions unprofessionally, he said, but the agency is slowly changing.
"It's going to take time," Lucas said.
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