Hawaiian Cultural Group Sues U.S. Army Over Cultural Access At Makua

The Army’s two-and-a-half year ban on access to cultural sites at Mākua Military Reservation on O‘ahu violates a 2001 court-ordered settlement


On November 7, Mālama Mākua, represented by Earthjustice, took the U.S. Army back to court for violating cultural access rights to sacred sites at Mākua Military Reservation on Oʻahu. The reservation contains 100 sites eligible for listing on the national historic register, including Hawaiian temples, shrines, petroglyphs and other historical and cultural sites.

Mālama Mākua secured the right to access these sites as part of a 2001 settlement over military training on the reservation, and exercised that right routinely until June 2014, when the Army suddenly cut off access, claiming it needed a National Historic Preservation Act memorandum of agreement (MOA) to continue cutting grass on trails leading to cultural sites so that any unexploded ordinance could be avoided. Though that MOA was obtained in September 2015, the Army has yet to allow access to any cultural sites to resume.

“Our patience is at an end,” said Sparky Rodrigues of Mālama Mākua. “There was no valid reason for the Army to cut off cultural access in the first place, and even less justification to continue the access ban. In over a decade of cultural access at Mākua, there has never been a single person hurt. By keeping practitioners from Mākua’s sacred sites based on trumped-up safety concerns, the Army causes those sites to lose their mana (spiritual force), inflicting severe cultural harm.”

Mālama Mākua helped develop the MOA for grass cutting and patiently awaited the outcome of the Army’s year-long investigation into an accident in which two Army-contracted grass cutters were injured by unexploded ordinance. (They were cutting grass for training purposes, not cultural access.) The MOA has been in effect for more than a year and the accident investigation concluded in early 2016, yet access to cultural sites is still being denied, and the Army has refused even to commit to a deadline to make a decision on restoring access.

“In 2001, the Army promised Mālama Mākua that it and other cultural practitioners would have access to sacred sites at Mākua twice each month, and that promise became part of a court-ordered settlement,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who negotiated the 2001 settlement and represents Mālama Mākua in this latest legal action. “The Army’s decision to cut off all access to Mākua’s sacred sites for nearly two-and-a-half years is a betrayal of its promise and blatantly violates mandatory legal duties.”

A letter Earthjustice sent to the U.S. Army on October 12 provided written notice in accordance with the settlement agreement that Mālama Mākua would return to court if the Army did not immediately begin honoring its obligations to provide access to these cultural sites.


The U.S. military evicted local families from Mākua during World War II, converting the valley into a live-fire training facility. The area was subject to ship-to-shore bombardment by naval guns. Large bombs were dropped, and Mākua’s church was used for target practice and destroyed.

The military promised to return Mākua within six months after the end of World War II, but reneged and continued live-fire training at Mākua until Mālama Mākua, represented by Earthjustice, took action against the Army in 1998 to enforce the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act.

A follow-up lawsuit in 2000, also brought by Earthjustice on Mālama Mākua’s behalf, challenged the Army’s failure to conduct the comprehensive review of environmental (including cultural) impacts of military training at Mākua required by NEPA. That lawsuit resulted in a preliminary injunction against the Army, preventing live-fire training from resuming. This paved the way for the 2001 settlement agreement in which the Army agreed to nearly cease live-fire training at Mākua (under the agreement, no live-fire training has occurred since June 2004) while it completes a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement. The Army also agreed to start clearing unexploded ordinance from the area (which usually isn’t done until a range is retired), with a focus on providing access to cultural sites.

When the bullets and bombs stopped flying, archeologists were able to better study the valley. They discovered more than 100 sites eligible for listing on the national historic register, including Hawaiian temples, shrines, petroglyphs and other historical and cultural sites.

The 2001 settlement guarantees Mālama Mākua and other cultural practitioners the right to access Mākua’s cultural sites twice a month, which is vital to allow the community to reestablish a connection with their past and with their culture.

Source: Earthjustice