Bridging the Digital Divide With Brandon Makaawaawa, Spark Firestarter and Deputy Head of the Sovereign Nation of Hawaii


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By Imogen Rose-Smith

For Brandon Makaawaawa, home is where the heartland is. As Deputy Head of the Nation of Hawaii Makaawaawa is working with his uncle Puuhonua Dennis “Bumpy” Keiki Kanahele, Head of the Nation of Hawaii, to build their community, a sovereign nation state  on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. They and their 90 person village of Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo are heading up the fight for Hawaii sovereignty. But they are also looking at ways to build a new, suitable, Hawaii economy Makaawaawa tells Imogen Rose-Smith

Last November the residents of Waimanalo teamed up with not-for-profit group Internet Society to launch their own broadband. Having secure internet access for the 45 acre village turned out to be especially important when COVID-19 started to impact the U.S. earlier this year, causing an economic shut down and people being encouraged to stay at home. Without access to WIFI it is hard for kids to participate in remote schooling or parents to work from home. 

Makaawaawa and the Waimanalo community have grander ambitions. They want to turn their village into a remote hub, including technology, innovation, and manufacturing. In addition to teleology innovation they are working to make Waimanalo a site for sustainable agriculture. Growing their own produce, including taro root, which is considered a sacred crop by many indigenous Hawaiians. 

“This type of living is sovereignty in action.” Makaawaawa tells Rose-Smith. 
The Nation of Hawaii came into existence in 1995. Two years before President Bill Clinton signed the Apology Resolution. This was a joint resolution by the U.S. Congress formally apologizing for the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and acknowledging the U.S’s role in that event. To advocates of Hawaiian sovereignty the Resolution legitimized their argument, that Hawaii, which formally became the 50th state in the nation in 1952, was illegally colonized.

Bumpy Kanahele was already well known as an activist and fighter for Hawaiian rights and sovereignty. After the passage of the Apology Resolution, on the advice of an international lawyer, he went ahead and formed his own sovereign nation. At the same time, he and a group of supporters had been occupying a beach in Makapu’u Beach Park. They reached with the Hawaiian government. They would give up the beach in exchange for a 55-year long lease on state owned land. What today is the village of Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo.

“In the very beginning we had to cut trails and we had to clear land and we had to do this all on our own, because that was the challenge the state threw back at us,” says Makaawaawa. “They are figuring maybe we’ll last a couple of months, maybe a year, maybe two years at the most. But through the years we’ve just been preserving with a lot of help from a lot of people. A lot of blood sweat and tears went into building our village, but we did it on our own.”

Through hard work the Waimanalo community has thrived. Building their own homes, connecting themselves to the electric and water grid, and growing food. They practice sustainable farming. Including growing taro root, a canoe crop that holds special significance in the Hawaiian community. Now they want to become a digital hub, a center for technology, and technology manufacturing. 

In 2019 the nation worked with Reston, Virginia based not for profit Internet Society, an organization which seeks to make broadband available for all. Internet access on the mountain where Waimanalo is was poor to non-existent. Working with the Internet Society the village set up their own broadband network. 

“A community broadband network is fully managed and built by the community,” as opposed to the large internet providers, Makaawaawa explains. Over a three day period in November the village built their own broadband from scratch.  

The timing turned out to be fortuitous in tragic ways that nobody would have predicted.

When the COVID-19  virus hit the U.S., and communities went into economic  lockdown starting in March it has become clear just how wide the digital divide, and just how important it is for communities to have access to the internet.  

“Our kids have been able to do distance learning” says Makaawaawa. “Whereas before they couldn’t even download their homework from the village. They had to go to MacDonald’s or Starbucks” to get wi-fi. “It would have been impossible for them to actually pass school this year without this internet system.” Kids in communities lacking in wireless infrastructure are struggling to learn, while adults lack access to basic communication tools they need to work and  perform commerce. 

Having access to the communications infrastructure opens up a whole host of potential opportunities for the people of Waimanalo. And Makaawaawa believes that the work he and his community are doing can stand as a model for others, especially as the world starts to reimagine what communities and societies might look like post COVID-19.