Island of Kahoolawe

By Team

Originally named after the Hawaiian god Kanaloa, the island now known as Kaho’olawe (pronounced ‘kaw-ho-oh-la-vay’) has long lived a rough existence. According to one legend, the island was once at the heart of a disagreement between two goddesses — which, as the story goes, led it to be cursed into desolation.


This curse has been played out more than once. In the early 1800s, Queen Ka’ahumanu banished criminals to the island. By the 1860s, it was overrun with goats and sheep, which did a great deal of damage to the native vegetation. Designated a forest reserve by the Territory of Hawai’i in 1910, in 1917 a failed attempt at reforestation began — the only tangible result being the removal of some 13,000 goats in a single year. At the outset of World War II the United States government confiscated the island for use as a bombing target, a practice that continued until 1990.

Malama ‘aina (protect the land)

Even so, Kaho’olawe has played an important role in modern Hawaiian history. In the late 1970s, with the formation of the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana (PKO), the quest to stop the bombing and restore the island emerged as a focal point for the ongoing, statewide cultural and political movement popularly known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance.”


In 1994, Kaho’olawe was turned over to the state of Hawai’i, which has established legislation prohibiting all commercial activities on the island. Now that the bombing has ceased, clean-up efforts are ongoing. And while it is doubtful the island will ever be completely rid of the military ordnance dropped there, strong efforts have been made to replant native vegetation and restore important historic sites.

The island has no infrastructure or landing strip, and authorized visitors arrive via small boats guided by members of the PKO, which has been designated an official guardian of the island. As such, Kaho’olawe has become a living symbol of the Hawaiian tradition of malama ‘aina — that is, responsible stewardship of the land that sustains us all.

What’s More…

• At 45 square miles, Kaho’olawe is the smallest of the main islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. Its highest point, Pu’u Moa’ulanui, rises to 1,483 feet.

• The ocean channel separating the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe and Lana’i is named Kealaikahiki, literally “the pathway to Tahiti.” While it is believed seafarers from the Marquesas first inhabited Hawai’i somewhere between 500 and 800 A.D., it is generally agreed that Tahitians made up a second wave of settlers sometime around the 12th century. Thus Kealaikahiki points the way south to Tahiti, while the huge mass of Maui’s Haleakala volcano could very easily have served as a navigation point for those arriving from the south.

• Kaho’olawe’s official flower is the hinahina (beach heliotrope)

• The island’s official color is gray

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