Healing Lāhainā, Healing Our World

Photograph Source: Dominick Del Vecchio – Public Domain

When an inferno incinerated the town of Lāhainā on August 8, 2023, the inhabitants received little warning. Hawaii has an extensive open air warning system, but no sirens rang through the air. Maui County stated they sent a cell phone warning, but not until 4:15PM, more than an hour after smoke was first seen billowing downhill toward the town. Even then, very few people I talked to received an alert. At that point high winds from Hurricane Dora had already toppled multiple power lines, cutting off power and cell phone reception. The first sign they saw of danger was the smell and sight of fire. Streets became choked with panicked residents, obstructing the few outlets from town. As of mid-September, 97 lives had been confirmed as claimed by fire: the deadliest mass-casualty event in the history of Hawaiʻi.

While state resources were focused on containing the fire and transporting the wounded to care and federal aid yet to arrive, those left behind in Maui in those first weeks were left to fend for themselves. Many of the residents were afraid to leave the area because of fears of looting or inability to return to their home when access was severely restricted. Immediately the local Maui community mobilized, activating what local Hawaii residents fondly call our “coconut wireless” – informal word of mouth, so rapid in execution that it seems to fly untethered through the air. Our ability to move rapidly is due in part to our experience surviving in an economy with an extremely high cost of living and low wage service jobs, and in part due to intact kin networks, rendering us astonishingly effective at making much out of very little. Included in this great movement of the people was Noelani Ahia, a Kanaka Maoli with genealogical ties to Lāhainā. (The Kanaka Maoli or Kanaka ʻŌiwi are the indigenous people of Ka Pae ʻAina, commonly known as Hawaiʻi.)

I had taught Noelani, an acupuncturist by trade, the integrated, Indigenous-led healing space I had created with the Standing Rock Medic Healers Council. The Mauna Medic Healers Hui had implemented this model during the 2019 Mauna Kea mobilization. On Mauna Kea, Noelani had helped me co-found the Mauna Medic Healers Hui. Our mission was to protect the kiaʻi (protectors) as they defended our sacred mountain from over-development and desecration. The skills that Noelani learned grew and expanded during her time fighting for Kanaka Maoli rights on the island of Maui. When Lāhainā burned, those skills along with assistance from our previously established members helped her rapidly create a sister organization we christened the Maui Medic Healers Hui. Within 48 hours she and a core group were on the ground and in the community bringing in generators, gasoline (electric power and internet had been knocked out by the wind and fire), water (due to fear of toxic contamination of the water system) and food via convoy. When the state blocked road access to Lāhainā, supplies continued to be delivered via jet ski and boat. Within a few more days there were dozens of healers actively on the ground with hundreds of our members rallying throughout the islands and beyond. Traditional healers, mental health specialists, physicians, acupuncturists, and massage therapists and many other healing modalities answered her kahea (call for help), working side by side in nine community hubs along the west coast of Maui.

Maui-born Kaniela Ing, the U.S. national director of the Green New Deal, has provided Kanaka Maoli perspectives to the U.S. media in an unprecedented way. He quickly repudiated the initial mainstream news depiction of Lāhainā as just a tourist town and called attention to the role that colonialism, capitalism, oppression of the Kanaka Maoli, and climate change has played in Ka Pae ʻAina.1 The devastating effects can only be comprehended by understanding the history of Lāhainā, in particular how the once verdant region became the center of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 1820s. It was there that King Kamehameha III instituted constitutional government in 1839.2

Arborist and ulu (breadfruit) tree expert Hokuau Pellegrino of Noho ʻAna Farm shared the historic name for Lāhainā, Malu Ulu o Lele which translates to  “Shady breadfruit grove of Lele”. He described how in ancient times the west side of Maui was a food forest of “ulu, kalo (taro), coconut and many other canoe crops.” Lāhainā was not only able to sustain itself, but was so abundant that it was also able to support other districts and islands with breadfruit and kalo. “Some of our moʻolelo(histories) attest that the first ulu planted on Maui was in Lāhainā.”

Gazing now upon the rocky and arid landscape of Maui’s west side, it is hard to believe that Lāhainā was described by European explorers as the “Venice of the Pacific” because of its abundant water and ponds for cultivation of fish.3 The ensuing story is an achingly familiar refrain of indigenous peoples under colonization

The initial contact between Europeans and the Kanaka Maoli was followed by a population collapse of the indigenous people from infectious diseases4 against which we had no immunity. Many historians imply that inherent weakness led to the demise of indigenous communities after “contact.” Few consider the notion that excellent hygiene and rigorous caretaking of the waterways should be the norm,5 instead of improper mixing of effluent, livestock, and humanity resulting in rampant disease.  Without such a population collapse, it is unlikely that the settler colonialists could have conquered Ka Pae ʻAina so easily.

We have a saying in Hawaiʻi: “The missionaries came to Hawaiʻi to do good and stayed to do well.” The colonial relationship between the white, U.S. American missionary families and the Kanaka Maoli has been characterized by land and water grabs. Lands that were formerly utilized for kalo(taro) farming were turned into sugar and pineapple plantations. During the 19th Century the natural waterways, including those of Lāhainā’s were diverted to feed the thirsty crops. Laborers were brought to Hawaiʻi from China, Japan, and the Philippines to toil in the fields; overseers were recruited from Portugal. While intermarriage has led to Hawaiʻi’s mixed population today, these immigrants were utilized to help the white minority to displace Kanaka Maoli from land and resources as settler colonialists of Hawaiʻi.

The overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom on January 17, 1893, and the illegal Annexation of Hawaiʻi by the U.S. in 1898 was orchestrated by the Committee of Safety, composed of thirteen descendants of missionaries and U.S. American businessmen.6 The overthrow was prompted by Queen Liliuokalani’s efforts to diminish the excessive power of the aptly named Missionary Party and their desire for ever increasing profits from their plantations.

In 1993, in a Joint Resolution, the U.S. Congress admitted to its role in the overthrow of Hawaiʻi, calling it an illegal act of war. “[T]he United States Minister assigned to the sovereign and independent Kingdom of Hawaii conspired with a small group of non-Hawaiian residents of the Kingdom of Hawaii, including citizens of the United States, to overthrow the indigenous and lawful Government of Hawaii.” Signed by then President Clinton, it acknowledged that “the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands.”7

William Owen Smith, son of American Missionary James William Smith, and former sheriff of Maui was one of the thirteen members of the Committee of Safety that overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani and established the Provisional Government. It was Smith who on April 24, 1873,  planted Lāhainā’s banyan tree, a species native to the Indian subcontinent. The banyan which has received much media attention amid calls for aid for its restoration. Few know of its symbolic celebration of the theft of our lands and nation, planted in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lāhainā by a man who helped orchestrate the imprisonment of our last reigning Queen.

In contrast, the greater cultural significance of 7 to 10 ulu trees in Lāhainā that predate the colonial period has received much less attention. These trees have weathered colonial incursions and capitalist development. Of note are the ulu trees located at the Baldwin house and at Lahaina Restoration Foundation, the latter of which has asphalt paved all the way to the trunk of the tree when its home was converted into a parking lot. Given that Hawaiian ulu doesn’t have seeds and the only way for it to promote hehu (young trees) is via its lateral root system, this tree is unable to spread and flourish. I can’t help but feel a sad resonance with our people, imprisoned by development not of our choosing, our ability to stretch out and grow buried under asphalt. Because of limited access to the burn zone, it is unclear if any of the trees have survived the fire. We need to call upon as much attention for restoration of these ancient trees as has been paid for the banyan, a symbol of colonization and predatory Christianity.

While Hawaiʻi continued to mainly serve as a source of sugar and pineapples into the 20th Century, its importance to the U.S. as a military outpost was evident in that Imperial Japan chose to attack the U.S. Naval Fleet in Pearl Harbor at the outset of its Pacific campaign. Taken into the U.S. empire in the same year (1898) that the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico was wrested from Spain in the Spanish-American War, the acquisition of Pearl Harbor as a strategic asset was a key reason many U.S. imperialists were in support of overthrowing Hawaiʻi’s monarchy. At present, the Indo-Pacific Command, responsible for coordinating military might over half the surface area of the world, is headquartered in Hawaiʻi. Meanwhile its presence has turned other formerly rich sources of food, like Pearl Harbor, into toxic Superfund sites. Most recently in the Red Hill fiasco the U.S. military, specifically the U.S. Navy, contaminated Oahu’s aquifer with its jet fuel and notoriously poisoned its own personnel.

While Hawaiʻi ostensibly became the 50th state of the U.S. in 1959, many continue to view Ka Pae ʻAina as an illegally occupied sovereign nation.

Hand in hand with the seizure of land came the seizure and diversion of water. On Maui, the West Maui Land Co (WMLC)  controls much of the water on the leeward side of the island. WMLC is a subsidiary of Alexander and Baldwin, one of the missionary-descended companies that benefited from the overthrow of the monarchy, often collectively referred to as the “Big Five.” The huge water diversions mentioned previously were utilized at the turn of the 19th century for monocropping. In sacrifice to agribusiness, the ulu groves and kalo fields were replaced by rows of pineapple and sugar, decimating not only invaluable and resistant biodiversity but also displacing the thousands who lived and thrived on those lands from ancient times.  In the post-war period, labor costs in Hawaiʻi made the sugar and pineapple plantations less competitive vis-à-vis plantations in Asia. Meanwhile, trans-oceanic commercial air flights turned Hawaiʻi into a tourist destination. Even today the Big Five continues to  dominate Hawaiʻi’s political, economic, and resource landscape. In Lāhainā, like the rest of Hawaiʻi, most of the water diverted to plantations was not returned to the streams from which they were taken. The WMLC now diverts the water to its resorts and developments, hotel grounds and the golf courses along the Kāʻanapali coast, surrounded by lush, green vegetation. In stark contrast the drive from Central Maui to Lāhainā takes one past hills covered with bone-dry grass alternating with wide swathes of scorched earth, still blackened from the fires. The invasive scrub that remained on lands not yet developed grew in soil depleted of nutrients by agribusiness, creating the abundant fuel from which the wildfires grew.

Brushfires in Hawaiʻi are not unprecedented. Eighty wildfires, an average of about four fires each year,  directly affected Maui county between 1999 and 2019.8 However, modern day disaster planning in Hawaiʻi has focused on rising sea levels, hurricanes, and tsunamis. While the climate catastrophe for the Pacific is mostly viewed in terms of the loss of lands to sea level rise and stronger and more frequent tropical cyclones, our hard-earned lesson is that we cannot ignore the reality that hotter, drier, and windier weather conditions will continue to contribute to more wildfires.  West Maui is a microcosm of man-made climate change on a global scale horrifically exacerbated by very local, specific, and deliberate changes made to the land and her peoples, primarily in the name of profit for a select few.

Hurricane Lane, of August 2018, was a Category 5 hurricane that resulted in the highest level of precipitation in the recorded history of Hawaiʻi – with most of the rain falling on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. Meanwhile, Maui and Oʻahu recorded wildfires, with 2577 acres burning on Maui and 400 acres burning on Oʻahu.9

Trauernicht points to the invasive grasses10 which grow prodigiously during rains, with root systems that survive burns. They outcompete native grasses and during droughts serve as kindling. The high winds of tropical cyclones, as they come down the mountainside of the leeward coast can pick up distant embers into the air and deposit them on houses. New houses in the Western U.S. are hardened11 against combusting. Most houses in Hawaiʻi are not.

Another kind of invasion currently afflicts Ka Pae ʻAina. Tourism accounts for 44.7 percent of total water consumption in the islands.12 While local residents suffer from droughts and face restrictions on watering their lawns or washing their cars, the tourism industry enjoys seemingly unfettered access to Hawaiʻi’s water supply. The tourism industry also consumes a significant amount of energy. Researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa found that at one point, hotels and their guests consumed around 60 percent of Hawaiʻi’s fuel and electricity. Tourists are also largely responsible for propagating an already dire affordable housing crisis. For decades, tourists have participated in illegal short-term vacation rentals, eager to capitalize on the islands’ popularity. Expensive rentals on Airbnb and Vrbo and the rising prices of homes, condos and apartments make housing practically unaffordable for local communities. In addition, service wage residents have to compete with billionaires such as Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison for real estate. Even with surplus taxation from the tourism sector, most of the revenue from tourism leaves the islands to the portfolios of shareholders of the Hilton, Marriott, Hertz, and other multinational hospitality companies. The effects of this economy had a significant impact upon the makeup of the residents of Lāhainā, which we will explore in greater detail below.

Maui as an idea and experience to be consumed by visitors permeated our work even in the aftermath of the disaster. A Red Cross coordinator attempted to evict one of our bodyworkers from a gazebo where Maui Medics had established at the very beginning, providing much needed massages to those displaced by the fire . . . because they wanted to use the space for their volunteers to eat lunch and gaze out over the ocean.  Queuing up for services provided by and for Maui community residents, the overwhelmingly white and affluent volunteers were unable to understand the medley of local accents. When asked if they were from Maui, one said, “I wish!” completely oblivious to being surrounded by so many living their worst nightmares. In the main community hub at Honokowai Beach Park, a huge group of blond, blue-eyed surgeons marched in, ready to be saviors, then complained that there weren’t enough surgical cases to be seen. They were promptly ejected by the community from that kipuka (safe place). Countless messages were sent to us from voluntourists, eager and willing to pay for their ticket to be in the middle of the trauma, but not willing to donate to support the work of local healers who would remain on island to do the long grueling work that true healing would require. While help is needed, what is not needed is external “saviors.” We have learned too much at Standing Rock of how the violence of entry and exit hurts our people, even when the people involved have the best intentions. What is most needed for those who have lost everything, is care from people who will continue caring in the years to come.

The attacks on our resources are ongoing and insidious. On August 8, the day of the inferno, WMLC demanded that the Commission on Water Resource Management allow the filling of its reservoirs citing the need to allow the Maui Fire Department to use the water for firefighting via helicopter drops. However, as we all know, due to the high winds from Hurricane Dora, the same winds that stoked the small blaze into a huge wildfire, meant that the helicopters could not fly that day. When Kaleo Manuel, the deputy commissioner of the Commission on Water Resource Management, and the first Native Hawaiian in that role, turned down West Maui Land Company’s request, they tried to blame Manuel for the fires. Immediately in the aftermath of the fire, WMLC successfully petitioned Governor Josh Green to strip Manuel of his power to make such decisions. In a press conference, Governor Green echoed their accusations stating,  “There are currently people fighting, still fighting in our state giving us water access to fight and prepare for fires even as more storms arise.”13

Many are calling for Manuel’s reinstatement, identifying it as yet another water grab in an ongoing struggle lasting for more than a hundred years.  Manuel has been, prior to his removal, a successful advocate for subsistence kalo farmers (who under Hawaiʻi law have appurtenant water rights) especially those with kuleana lands (native ownership predating the overthrow). Support for stream restoration has been viewed by commercial developers, accustomed to determining the fate of this precious resource since the early 1900’s, as obstructing their interests.  Indeed if the waters had never been diverted in the first place, leaving the wetlands unharmed, fire prevention wouldn’t be such a daunting task.

So part of what’s happening in Maui Komohana right now is plantation disaster capitalism at its worst, right? Where folks are taking advantage of this tragedy to continue or even expand their water diversions, something that wasn’t possible before the governor’s emergency proclamation.13 – University of Hawaiʻi law professor Kapuaʻala Sproat, Director of the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law.

In Shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism, Naomi Klein argued that terrorist acts, wars, and disaster become opportunities for advancing the profits of the private sector disaster complex.14 Klein and Sproat have characterized what is happening in Maui now as “plantation disaster capitalism.”15 The West Maui Land Company’s water grab during the unfolding disaster represents pre-existing corporate designs on the community’s human right to water.

While the waterfront area of Lāhainā had been turned into a tourist attraction with art galleries and boutique shops and restaurants – much of Lāhainā was residential, housing the workers who worked in the resorts along the Kāʻanapali coast as housekeepers, groundskeepers, servers, and entertainers.

. . . 32% of Lahaina residents are foreign-­born, compared with 18% statewide, and a language other than English is spoken at home in 36% of families, compared with 26% for Hawaii overall.

Data from the 2010 census indicates Filipinos comprised 40% of the population in three census tracts covering Lahaina.16

 The tourist industry of Hawaiʻi, dependent on international commercial air travel and private jets, contributes directly to the climate catastrophe.17 While grieving their losses, many locals were not keen on serving tourists and many heeded the initial calls to stay away. Now, according to the New York Times, the business sector and the working classes want the tourists back.18

But perhaps the working classes are actually more concerned about hunger and homelessness. Hawaiʻi claimed the top spot as the most expensive state in terms of cost of living, where the income needed to afford basic necessities is $55,491 per year. In Hawaiʻi the average income is $61,420 with the lowest amount of monies available annually ($5,929) for “disposable income” also known by those of us with greater means as home repairs, orthodontia, retirement, meals beyond basic sustenance, or as in Lāhainā, disasters and emergencies.  “Hawaii ranked as the most expensive state for home prices, with a staggering median price of $837,324 and an average monthly mortgage payment of $5,004.” To put this into context New York, often described as the most expensive place to live in the US, had the fourth-highest cost of living nationwide, yet its residents, on average, have $25,427 left annually after paying key expenses.19

Compare that with the average income per person in Lāhainā $30,803, $15,000 below what is considered the basic cost of necessities and $30,000 less than the average income of our already struggling islands.  This is consistent with what we have witnessed providing care on the ground. In the community hubs and hotels where the displaced are sheltering, the majority of those displaced were already struggling with poverty in low wage, service jobs, with little alternatives or options now that they have lost everything.

How could we be keen about having no other means of economic support other than serving tourists, tech entrepreneurs, and billionaires? Some realize that we are working for an industry that destroys the planet and all living things on it. The blame lies not with the workers but with the owners and captains of industry. As physicians and healers, we and many of our colleagues are doing our best to support the people of Lāhainā as well as the Maui community who are also being affected by this tragedy. Yet it seems we are like the ulu tree of Lāhainā, constrained by the choking asphalt of a fragmented medical industry. We want to provide care, but like the community, we are struggling to expand and flourish. We are now experiencing conventional medicine as a seemingly insurmountable wall of bureaucratized class prejudice dictated by an inscrutable set of laws that separate the poor and the well off by tethering health coverage to a specific employer, locale, or age.

One of the primary tasks we as the Maui Medic Healers Hui carried out immediately after the fire was to mobilize Hawaiʻi providers to community hubs to meet urgent medical needs.  While sitting in tents and along roadsides, we replaced hundreds if not thousands of medical prescriptions and scrambled via our networks for much needed supplies like gastric tubing for nourishment and nebulizers to open up airways for already asthmatic lungs choking from smoke. Items such as wheelchairs and dental appliances had also been left behind in the rush for survival. It was striking how hardly anyone we talked to could name a primary care provider (PCP) from whom they could receive ongoing care. Hawaiʻi has such a critical shortage of doctors and nurses that the state recently passed a $30 million educational loan repayment program designed to entice health professionals to the islands. The situation is even more dire on Maui or the other islands that we call the “neighbor islands.” What is needed, and what we are calling for, is the ability to continue providing the care we have been providing over this past month. The ability to pull the thorns from feet that ran barefoot in panic, then have the time, not enforced by productivity demands, to sit with them as they cry, recounting the horrors they faced. To give muscles– wound tight be fear and loss– salves and lomilomi (traditional Native Hawaiian therapeutic massage), releasing them for a little while from the pain.

As family physicians, we are advocates for healthy families, healthy communities, and a healthy planet. We believe in the human right to clean air, clean water, and livable temperatures for the people. This puts us in opposition to tourism and militarism that has for too long been the basis of the economy of Hawaiʻi, Ka Pae ʻAina. Inherent in the work that we have done on the ground in Maui is the knowledge that in order to truly heal the community, we must also honor our history and struggle to escape the industrial tourist and military economy that has resulted in the destruction of our homeland and so many others across the world.

Note: The first person singular here is Kalamaoka‘aina Niheu. The first person plural mostly refers to Maui Medic Healers Hui and the Kanaka Maoli people.


1. “We’re Living the Climate Emergency”: Native Hawaiian Kaniela Ing on Fires, Colonialism & Banyan Tree. Democracy Now! August 11, 2023.

2. Jonathan K. Osorio. Rebuild Lahaina Not As A Tourist Spot But A Place For People To Live. Honolulu Civil Beat. August 16, 2023.

3. Kapuaʻala Sproat. Plantation Disaster Capitalism: Native Hawaiians Organize to Stop Land & Water Grabs After Maui Fire. Democracy Now. August 18, 2023.

4. Jonathan Kennedy. Pathogenesis. New York: Penguin Random House, 2023.

5. Donald D. Kilolani Mitchell. Resource Units in Hawaiian Culture. Honolulu, HI: Kamehameha Schools, 1992.

6. Curtis Piʻehu Iʻaukea, Lorna Kahilipuaokalani Iʻaukea Watson. By royal command: the official life and personal reminiscences of Colonel Curtis Piʾehu Iaukea at the court of Hawaii’s rulers. Honolulu, HI: Hui Hanai. 1988. p. 144.

7. PUBLIC LAW 103-150—NOV. 23, 1993.

8. Serge F. Kovaleski. West Maui Had Been Warned It Was at High Risk for Wildfires. New York Times. August 12, 2023.

9. Alison D. Nugent, Ryan J. Longman, Clay Trauernicht, et al. Fire and Rain: The Legacy of Hurricane Lane in Hawaiʻi. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. June 2020, pp. 954-957.

10. Clay Trauernicht. “Unprecedented”: Fire Expert Says Climate & Native Vegetation Changes Fueled Explosive Maui Wildfires. Democracy Now! August 11, 2023.

11. Kara Swisher. WTF Can We Do About Deadly Wildfires? On with Kara Swisher. August 23, 2023.

12. Alex Senchyna. The Hawaii Water Crisis: How the U.S. Military and Tourism Industry Exploits Hawaiian Water Sources. Spheres of Influence. August 22, 2022.

13. Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi. Lāhainā Fires Reveal Ongoing Power Struggle for West Maui Water Rights. Hawaii Public Radio. August 17, 2023.

14. Naomi Klein. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Knopf Canada, 2008.

15. Naomi Klein, Kapuaʻala Sproat. Why Was There No Water to Fight the Fire in Maui? Guardian, August 17, 2023.

16. Christie Wilson. Names of Lahaina’s Fire Victims Reflect Town’s Character. Honolulu Star-Advertiser, August 27, 2023.

17. Tawn Keeney. Air Travel by Visitors to Hawaii Major Factor in Global Warming. Honolulu Star-Advertiser, June 29, 2021.

18. Tourists Were Told to Avoid Maui. Many Workers Want Them Back. New York Times. September 1, 2023.

19. Examining The Cost Of Living By State In 2023. Forbes Advisor. August 24, 2023.

Dr. Kalamaoka‘aina Niheu is a Kanaka Maoli family physician and the creator of the integrative healing model that was conceived at Standing Rock, implemented on Mauna Kea in 2019, and now in Maui 2023. To learn more and support the healing work, please go to https://mauimedichealershui.org/

Seiji Yamada, a native of Hiroshima, is a family physician practicing and teaching in Hawaii.