Pearl River I was shocked at the news. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. Death waits for everyone, and as the years add up, it becomes more impatient and intolerant. Still, whenever I thought about Hawaii, I thought of my friend and comrade, Emmett Aluli. He was ageless to me. He was a doctor. He was the heart and soul of the island of Moloka‘i, and for decades was THE doctor there.
Mi companero, Drummond Pike, sent me the news that Emmett had died. I only had the privilege of knowing and working with Emmett, thanks to Drummond, because we both served on the board of the San Francisco-based Tides family of philanthropic enterprises together for decades. Supporting native Hawaiian organizing and rights had been at the heart of Drummond’s portfolio along with ACORN’s early organizing in the 1970s when he was director of the Shalan Foundation.
Emmett was a big deal. He had been one of the Kahoolawe Nine in the only boat that made it past the Coast Guard’s blockades to land on the island to protest the Navy’s bombing there. He and one other evaded capture for three days as they explored the island until arrested. As the Star-Advertiser reports,
Aluli would go on to become a founding member of the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, which in 1980 would sign a consent decree with the Navy promising a cleanup of the island. In 1990 President George H.W. Bush would halt the bombing, and in 1993 Congress ended military use and authorized the transfer to the state.
The list of organizations he helped found or served to advance native Hawaiian interests and all of Hawaiian’s healthcare is endless, whether he did so as a doctor or as an activist. His congressman memorialized his work and his death on the floor of the US House of Representatives within hours of his passing, as television news alerts blasted out the sad news.
My memories of Emmett are a mixture of the personal and political. Visiting ACORN’s office in Honolulu, I left my daughter and one of her friends on Oahu, and flew the quick ride over to Moloka’i to visit with Emmett and his partner, Daviana. The island isn’t large. He took me by his clinic. We saw the hospital. Early one morning, I ran on the dirt roads around their home on the island. We looked at an exclusive development on the island that they were opposing. We swam nearby in one of his secret places in beautiful, pristine Pacific water that the project might soil. We joined some folks early one morning and Emmett, Daviana, and I hiked up a mountain. From a distance, Emmett pointed out the old Hansen’s Disease Center similar to the one in Louisiana where our union represented the workers. They showed me the sunken outline of a ship’s hull which was used to measure the harvest by cane workers. We joined some on Maui and took zodiacs across the water to trespass on Kahoolawe for a traditional celebration commemorating and healing the land there, wading into the water to launch the boat back. Some of the details are hazy, but it was all a gift and unforgettable.
Another time, Emmett’s crew of associates and activists were in New Orleans for some kind of healthcare convention. We all met for lunch at Elizabeth’s in the Bywater near our home. What a great time! In Honolulu, we once went by their house in the city. I met more of his family. Several times he had generously offered to have either of my children spend time in Hawaii to experience the islands and learn more about themselves.
At a Tides board retreat south of Half Moon Bay on the peninsula, Emmett and I went out early one morning to hike as near as we could to the cove where sea lions came to nest and breed at that time of the year. The trail was hard to find, but after awhile we could first hear, and then see, the huge lions far down below. Emmett asked about my family, as we walked back. I mentioned that my dad had to have a pacemaker installed in the wake of Katrina. Emmett replied positively, but with some reserve, saying something almost elliptical that I didn’t quite understand. It was only when my dad passed away two years later in 2008, that I realized that as both my friend, comrade, and a doctor true to his oath and profession, that what had confused me then, but that I understand finally, is that Emmett in his kind and graceful way was telling me to honor the time left, because my dad would be dead soon. The pacemaker was a reprieve, not a cure.
Drummond had visited Emmett in September of last year. They had eaten together, and of course swam together as well. Talking to Drummond after he returned, he told me that Emmett had asked after me at some length. Drummond said Emmett was hearty and hale then. Now I wonder? As I reflect again over our hike above the sea lions and how he counseled me about my dad’s impending death without pressing on me his likely diagnosis from the perspective of a doctor familiar with such fate, both honestly warning me, but also allowing me to persist in my denial, whether he knew as well that his time was coming, but wouldn’t spoil his time with a friend with its shadow, just as he had done almost circumspectively with me.
I’ll never know, but this I do know. Emmett Aluli was not only a great man and freedom fighter for his and all people, but a kind and compassionate friend who will not only be missed, but whose time with us all was a true blessing, and whose likes we may not see again.