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Actually the summit of a single volcanic dome, Kahoolawe’s terrain is a gentle slope with a ridge running diagonally across the island. The highest point is the 1477- foot Lua Makika at the northeastern part of the island, which is also the site of the caldera that formed the island. Kahoolawe is dry and arid, and receives just around 25 inches of rain annually, occurring mainly on the eastern side of the mountain. Little rain is due to low elevation of the land, which fails to generate enough precipitation from the northeastern Trade Winds as is the case on the other islands of Hawaii.

For the native Hawaiians, Kahoolawe is a sacred island, deeply rooted in history, culture, and religion. Called “Kanaloa” or “Kohemalamalama” in ancient times, the island was inhabited by several hundred Hawaiians of 50 generations for over a thousand years. These people who lived on settlements across the entire island, made their living mainly by fishing and farming. Others quarried for stone tools. Indications of these early times can be found in the carved petroglyphs, or drawings, in the flat surfaces of rocks. Other archaeological evidences are the stone platforms for religious ceremonies and rocks set upright as shrines for successful fishing trips. Some of the oldest and largest heiaus (Hawaiian shrines) are located on Kahoolawe. This island was also the place where the navigators and kahuna who guided the ocean voyages of early Hawaiians were trained.

The island’s lack of a freshwater source, disease, and violent wars among competing chiefs led to a sharp decline in the population, and Kahoolawe became almost barren. Sometime around 1830, when the missionaries had arrived from New England, the Hawaiian government of King Kamehameha III replaced the death penalty with exile, and Kahoolawe became a prison colony. In 1853, a law was passed repealing the law that made Kahoolawe a penal colony.

In 1857 a survey of the island showed the population to be just 50 residents, and the land was mainly covered with shrubs. Tobacco, pineapple, and gourds were grown along the shore. The Hawaiian government then introduced sheep and cattle. During the next 80 years, Kahoolawe’s landscape changed dramatically due to drought and overgrazing by the animals. The rest of the harm was done by strong trade winds blowing away much of the topsoil.

In 1910, Kahoolawe was designated as a forest reserve by the Hawaiian government, but the plans of restoring the island through re-vegetation failed. In 1918, the island was leased for 21 years to a Wyoming rancher, Angus MacPhee, who built a cattle ranch there. The ranch was a moderate success.

In 1920, the U.S. Army and Navy began using Kahoolawe for target practice and began routinely bombarding it. In 1939, the Territorial government leased the southern tip of the island to the Army for use as an artillery range. In 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, martial law was declared and the Navy took full control of Kahoolawe. The inhabitants were ordered off the island and MacPhee removed all his cattle as well. The island was now used for gunnery and bombing training by the Navy, and was routinely subjected to torpedo bombing.

Native Hawaiians had begun pressing for the return of the island ever since they were ordered off in 1941. In 1953, President Eisenhower promised to return the island to Hawaiians as soon as soon as its military usefulness ended. The Military continued using Kahoolawe for bombing practice, covering the island with craters formed by the bombs. The largest crater, some 50 meters (165 feet) in diameter, resulted from the then most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever which was detonated in 1965 near Hanakania Bay to observe its effects on ships anchored offshore.

In 1976, some Native Hawaiians laid the groundwork for a series of legal and direct actions aimed at restoring Hawaiian control over the island. This group, called the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, organized protests and conducted a series of occupations which brought national attention to the issue and resulted in numerous arrests and some imprisonments.

The PKO then filed suit in the Federal District Court for the District of Hawaii to stop the Navy’s use of Kahoolawe for military training, to require compliance with a number of new environmental laws, and to ensure protection of cultural resources on the island. The court allowed the Navy to continue using the island, but directed it to prepare an environmental impact statement and complete an inventory of historic sites on the island.

In 1980 the Navy and the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana entered into a Consent Decree. This agreement allowed continued military training on the island, monthly access to the island for the PKO, surface clearance of part of the island, soil conservation, goat eradication, and an archeological survey. In 1981, the island of Kahoolawe was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. At that time, the Kahoolawe Archaeological District had recorded 544 archaeological or historic sites and over 2,000 individual features. As part of the soil conservation efforts, workers had laid lines of explosive charges to detonate them to break the hardpan so that seedling trees could be planted. Used tires were placed in miles of deep gullies to slow the washing of red soil from the barren uplands to the surrounding shores. Ordnance and scrap metal was picked up by hand and transported by large trucks to a collection site.

Through the efforts of the PKO, bombing of Kahoolawe was stopped by an Executive Order of the elder President George Bush in 1990, and a year later the Kahoolawe Island Conveyance Commission recommended that the island be returned to Hawaiian control. In 1993, the U.S. Government approved a $400 million clean-up fund for Kahoolawe, and in 1994 Kahoolawe was officially returned to Hawaii. Bombing was permanently prohibited.

Anticipating the island's return to Hawaiian control, the Hawaii State Legislature established the Kahoolawe Island Reserve in 1993. The Reserve consists of the island and its surrounding waters extending outward two miles into the ocean. By State Law, Kahoolawe and its waters can only be used for Native Hawaiian cultural, spiritual and subsistence purposes; fishing; environmental restoration; historic preservation; and education. Commercial uses are prohibited. The Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) was also created to manage the Reserve.

Kahoolawe is presently undergoing clean-up and restoration. Hawaiians plan on planting the island with native foliage, including edible and herbal plants used in traditional native medicine. For this purpose various soil conservation programs are being implemented, and a catchment system is being created to capture rain water. Under a state law, Kahoolawe is to be eventually turned over to a native Hawaiian sovereign entity recognized by the state and federal governments.

The island will be an educational center for Native Hawaiian culture, where one may go and learn about being Hawaiian. It will provide a place for the Hawaiian and those who wish to be more Hawaiian to experience the intimate connection to the land, the sea, the kupuna, and the akua. Hawaiian arts and sciences such as traditional navigation will be taught to a new generation.

Thus Kahoolawe, as envisioned in the motto "Kukulu ke ea a Kanaloa," will be a cultural learning center where traditional cultural and spiritual customs, beliefs, and practices of the Hawaiian people can be freely practiced and flourish.