Tag Archives: Sand Island

Roselani Highlight – Learning About Sand Island

One of the many projects that our Roselani Intern, Lily, has been working on is the enhanced descriptions of some of our news tapes. Since she is doing her work remotely, she is doing a lot of learning about Hawaiʻi without the benefit of being in the archive to chat with all of us in person. However, through her communication with us over email and through meetings and through the mountain of material she’s been working on during her internship, Lily has been getting a real crash-course in Hawaiʻiʻs more recent history. During her hours of research and viewing, she has found some topics have stood out to her as particularly impactful. Read on to see what caught Lily’s attention this summer.


One thing I’ve really enjoyed during my internship this summer is how many opportunities I’ve had to learn more about Hawaiʻi’s history through the various collection footage I’m going through. In particular, there was one recurring piece of history that I found significant to gaining a deeper understanding about the relationship between the State and Native Hawaiians in the 1980s — the events of Sand Island. 

What I found while watching the news segments on Sand Island in the KGMB Electronic News Gathering (ENG) File collection, and then comparing it to Victoria Keith ProductionsThe Sand Island Story — a documentary filmed at the same time — is that the news withheld a lot of information which, in turn, negatively framed Sand Island residents as squatters and derelicts.

The news segments from November 1979 through January 1980 follow the efforts of the Sand Island residents as they attempt to negotiate with the State and Governor Ariyoshi on their decision to turn Sand Island into a State recreation area and evict the community that had built their homes on the shoreline. 

Abraham “Puhipau” Ahmad talking to State Officials about the bulldozer blockade at the settlement. (KGMB ENG #58)

A primary difference that I observed was how the footage and interviews with Sand Island residents, such as Abraham “Puhipau” Ahmad, are filmed and presented in both the documentary and news segments. The KGMB news segments manage to capture the frustration of residents and highlight their inability to move to another home — but they conveniently fail to mention why most people living on Sand Island are unable to find a new residence; which was largely due to unreasonable housing costs and arbitrary evictions that pushed many Native Hawaiians out of their homes. One couple in the documentary even mentioned that their names had been on the list for housing since 1949 — at the time of filming they had already waited 30 years. 

It appears that the only time the news focuses on the efforts of Sand Island residents to compromise with the State are during ENG File #56, where the community has proposed a cultural park that preserves the Native Hawaiian lifestyle and allows for combined public use and resident living. Unfortunately, as mentioned by the reporter, the State refused every request for a meeting between the parties. Personally, I feel that the lack of information about the Sand Island residents’ attempts for compromise contributed to the negative image the Sand Island community had on the news. It’s unfortunate because the documentary emphasizes the efforts the residents made to create a cultural space to pass down Native Hawaiian traditions. An interviewee in the documentary even points out that the news makes them out as squatters who want a free place to stay, but they have knowledge and desire to pass down Native Hawaiian traditions and culture. 

Another thing I noticed after watching the documentary is the information the news does not include. Important contextual information about the history of Sand Island is absent from the news segments which only further frames the Sand Island community negatively as squatters and illegal tenants. Although at this point I feel that it should be noted a major benefit that I have which the employees and public viewers of KGMB news in 1979 did not have: access to the World Wide Web — which has vastly changed the way we receive our information. 

Clement Apolo reacting to the bulldozing of the Sand Island settlement in Victoria Keith’s “Sand Island Story.”

A quick search of the island’s history is this: Sand Island, originally nicknamed “Quarantine Island” in the 1800s because the area was used to quarantine ships that carried contagious passengers. It was then used as an internment camp during World War Two for primarily Japanese-Americans until 1943. After the war, the neglected space was used as a dumping ground and until the 1970s when there was a cleanup effort by Native Hawaiians — who built homes and cleared away the waste on their own volition. 

It was then that the State reclaimed this land for industrial and recreational development, and in fact, it was only once the State decided to reclaim the land that the community was legally declared squatters on state land. 

Arguably, the absence of this information in the news cycles at that time made it easier to convince the public that the residents are taking advantage of the State, while in fact they were still paying taxes while living on Sand Island. 

Comparing footage from the day of demolition on the homes, there’s a disconnect watching the residents on the news and in the documentary. Peaceful protests are not depicted in that way and the news footage captures the anger and hurt of the residents, yet because of time limitations, the full story cannot be told. One clue that indicates that the news may be presenting the story more one-sided is the involvement — or refusal — of parties outside of the Sand Island community. Both ENG Files #57 and #58 have segments that comment on the outside groups that are in support of the residents. ENG file #57 mentions various activist groups that have joined to protest the eviction –which included People Against Chinatown Evictions, Waiāhole-Waikāne Community Association, Ota Camp, and the Revolutionary Communist Party; and in ENG file #58, a bulldozer operator leaves the job the day that demolition is set to begin. While I can only speculate, I still believe these two segments hint at a larger public concern and engagement than the news was able to broadcast.  

After a bulldozers showed up at 6am to begin demolishing abandoned structures, residents attempt to prevent bulldozing to ensure their homes will not be destroyed. One bulldozer operator left job due to personal feelings on the matter. (KGMB ENG #58)

As ubiquitous as the Sand Island eviction story was for four months on the news, it seems to end with no resolution. In ENG File #73, February 25th, 1980, a solo interview with Abraham Ahmad, “Uncle Puhipau,” outside of the ʻIolani Palace, where he discusses how their option now is to charge the State for breach of trust and bring the attention of the 5F issue to the U.S. Attorney General. ENG File #74 shows a legislature meeting with local community members while they voice their concerns, but the outcome is unclear. 

To my knowledge and from what I’ve been able to determine from research, ultimately the space was not developed the way the State intended when they evicted the residents, and there is still trouble in determining its function; ironically an article from 2014 speaks about a proposal for a homeless shelter in the Sand Island State Recreation Area,  featuring facilities and housing which would temporarily abade the homeless crisis. I’d be curious how the Sand Island State Recreation Area is used today, and what is and is not included in whatever history of the land they might share in the visitor’s center. 

It’s important to keep in mind that KGMB news did not have the same ability to see a broader outline of the events that led up to the State’s reclamation of the land as I did; nor could they have known the failed outcome. The segments tended to frame the conflict with the State in the more positive light.  However, it appears evident in the footage that the reporters were making the effort to interview residents for their side of the story. 

After seeing how drastically the narrative of the Sand Island community can be transformed through the absence of crucial information, I am even more convinced that it is essential to be able to save and preserve as much history as possible from local filmmakers and creators; the ability to see multiple sides of the same story paints a fuller picture. In fact, The Sand Island Story has hours of RAW footage that wasn’t included in the final cut that I’m very interested to check out; especially when the internet doesn’t yield many results on the residents’ side.