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I stared out the backseat window of our rented Jeep Wrangler as the concrete sprawl of Honolulu gave way to lush jungle. We had spent the last three days working the Hawaiian Cannabis Expo, and all four of us were happy to be getting out of the city. I jokingly prepared the crew for what was to come. “There’s probably going to be men with machine guns,” I warned, playing on the anxiety that was building in the car. “They may make you wear a blindfold for the last part of the trip.”
We were on our way to see our first large scale Hawaiian grow, and none of us knew just what to expect. Large-scale grows are almost unheard-of on the islands and never spoken of, especially to off-islanders. This was my fourth year working the cannabis scene on Oahu, and while we had seen our share of home grows and good island weed, this was a step beyond—a step into a world few people even knew existed.
Steep mountain peaks rose up into the clouds, bursting out of the ground like a scene from a James A. Michener novel. Jurassic Park was filmed nearby, and it was easy to see why. More than 2,000 miles from the mainland, the eight-island chain is one of the most remote in the world. We turned off the two-lane road into the parking lot of a small BBQ spot, the droning voice of the GPS announcing our arrival. The smell of island pork filled the car. I found my contact waiting at a small picnic table outside, eating his lunch from a Styrofoam clam shell.
He quickly briefed me on what was about to go down. Turns out my tales of men with machine guns were not too far from the truth. “You are about to meet a man who many people recognize as the King of Hawaii,” he explained, his voice somber. I briefed the crew as we fell in line behind his 4×4, all the humor gone from my voice. “We have to make sure we carry ourselves with respect,” I said, turning to face my business partner, Jeremy, and his wife, Mari, in the back seat. “I have the feeling they don’t get many visitors.”
Veering off the one-lane road we followed the 4×4 onto a winding private drive, diving straight into the jungle, the mountain peaks now looming over us like protective giants. An eight-foot tall iron security gate halted our procession. An armed guard in a small security shack buzzed the gate and two trucks hummed to life, backing out of the way to let our procession through before retaking their positions.
A series of small houses lined the dirt road. Massive caged Pit Bulls crossed with a breed I didn’t quite recognize greeted our arrival with howls and bays, clawing at their wire enclosures as we passed. We pulled to a stop in front of a large community building. One of the massive dogs ran up to me untethered as I stepped out of the Jeep, her face scarred but friendly. I ventured out a hand, holding it in front of her giant wet nose as she gave me a lick of approval.
Our contact motioned us into the building, leading our small party to a conference room. A giant, weathered table encircled by office chairs dominated the space. We took our seats only to quickly rise again as two large Hawaiians entered the room and stepped briskly to the side to make way for a third, an older, heavy-set, muscular man who introduced himself as “Uncle Bumpy,” extending his oak tree of an arm to shake my hand.
“Welcome to the Hawaiian Nation, my brotha,” he said. He motioned for us to take our seats and one of the men, who he introduced as his nephew, Brandon, began to pass out small, hand-printed pamphlets bearing the seal of the Sovereign Nation of Hawaii. I flipped through mine. The carefully typed print was highlighted in yellow, outlining a timeline of events leading up to the establishment of the Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo, loosely translated as place of refuge.
“I told them we were going to take all this land back, but it all started with our occupation of the beach at Sea Life Park some 300 strong.” Bumpy’s tone was low and serious, almost ceremonial, and our group sat quiet as he went on. “We just camped out. We built wooden structures up. This was a major tourist destination, and we stayed there for over 15 months, from 1994 to 1995. By the time they offered us the land I didn’t want to sign, but I was worried because the beach was becoming crowded with unknowns using the beach to hide from the law.”
I checked my recorder to make sure I was getting the audio. Uncle Bumpy went on. “I wanted to hold them accountable. It was like having your most prized possession taken away. We were colonized, brah. They taught us American ideals and American purpose. They tried to take our culture away, the same way they have tried to do to all Indigenous Peoples throughout time.”
Hawaii had remained an independent monarchy until January 17, 1893, 100 years to the day before Dennis “Bumpy” Pu‘uhonua Kanahele, AKA Uncle Bumpy, would lead his band of 300 Hawaiian natives to the occupation at Sea Life park, the eight-island nation taken over by a handful of American religious missionaries with the backing of a small contingent of U.S. Marines. Then-president Grover Cleveland reacted by rejecting the illegal takeover of a sovereign nation, demanding that power be returned to ruling queen Liliʻuokalani. Seven months later, Congress declared the coup an “Act of War” on a friendly and independent nation. In spite of the lobbying, commercial and religious interests managed to pervade and the temporary republic was eventually adopted as the fiftieth U.S. state.
Bumpy went on. “We had treaties with over 20 different countries, trade, navigation—we had all of this, brah.” His tone was somber now, and you could feel the loss in his voice. “We are no longer looking for a win brotha—we are looking to survive.” His nephew Brandon spoke up for the first time, his voice surprisingly powerful, easily filling the small room. “In April we will speak before the United Nations. We want to present our issues, but then quickly pivot to the solutions we already have in place. This is applicable to all Indigenous Peoples. They can do what we have done, if properly supported.” He motioned to the 50-acre compound around us.
Bumpy leaned in, locking eyes with me from across the table. “Imagine helping to create a country . . . Inside our country, inside these gates, we can do what we need to do. We have a monetary system; we are embracing cryptocurrency. The stuff we grow over here is helping people all over the place—real Hawaiian medicine, brah.” The energy in the room was rising, and I could feel the hairs on my arms starting to stand up.
“We into making justice show up again,” said Bumpy, his hands raised in exasperation. “It’s been around the corner hiding for too long, because it’s been suppressed. Your tattoos give you away, brotha—you are one of us. Cannabis, cryptocurrency, they are the same; they need a country to embrace them, and we will be that country, brotha.” With that he stood, motioning for us to rise as well. “Come, we will show you the land and then you can see what you came here to see,” he said, smiling. We exited the building into a pair of waiting ATV’s and raced off further into the jungle.
We spent the rest of the afternoon touring the kingdom, smoking oversized joints, and exploring the community cannabis gardens. As we hugged our goodbyes and promised to return again, one thing was certain: what they’re doing here is groundbreaking. This little-publicized victory in the jungle was a win for the people. Like the cannabis movement, this land represented a chink in the armor of the powers that be. Whatever the future would hold, we all left wishing our best to this tiny sovereign nation holding its own in the South Pacific.