On March 23, 1950, a Hawaiian icon was born. The small town of Kalamaula, on the island of Molokai, welcomed George Jarrett Helm, Jr., and, unbeknownst to Hawaii’s political and cultural sphere then, he would become a man who would shape the contemporary consciousness of Hawaiian identity and values for generations.
Literally meaning “love of the land,” it holds many connotations for Hawaii’s people. Since first discovering the Hawaiian archipelago, Native Hawaiians have long held a reverence for the Islands they fished, farmed and called home. It was evident in the tangible record of how they managed their lands as ahupuaa, or land divisions that equitably allocated resources, running from mountain to sea. They immortalized this love in oli (chant), moolelo (stories), hula and mele (songs).
Somewhere along the way, it was lost (perhaps, stripped even, following Western contact and the cultural turmoil that resulted in the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom).
Then, Helm came along.
During the Hawaiian Renaissance, Helm is credited for resurfacing the term in the collective fabric of Hawaii’s social movements of the 1970s. It became the reawakened ethos to many fighting for land and native rights of that era, notably the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana (PKO) in 1976, a collective built around reclaiming Kahoolawe, of which Helm was its most visible voice of protest.
At the time, the U.S. military had been using the Hawaiian island as a bombing range, which began following the attack on Pearl Harbor and continued for decades, further eviscerating Kahoolawe’s landscape. With Helm as its director, “aloha aina” became a rallying cry, for Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike, who sought to have Kahoolawe returned by the federal government, protected from misuse and preserved for cultural and spiritual purposes.
Helm had reawakened his fellow constituents, but despite their activism through formal channels—public demonstrations, speaking with politicians in Hawaii and Washington D.C., a legal suit against the U.S. Navy on environmental grounds—the bombings continued. He then led successful occupations of Kahoolawe, which pulled their cause into the mainstream and raised further awareness of their plight. Restricted access to Kahoolawe made these occupations not just illegal, but treacherous affairs. This persistence would eventually take his life. In 1977, Helm went missing off the waters of Kahoolawe in an attempt to make contact with two other activists who were occupying the island. He was 27 years old.
Helm was so many things: a passionate leader and peaceful instigator; an indelible singer with a wicked falsetto; a chameleon orator whose rhetoric could oscillate from the Hawaii State Capitol to local elementary schools; “a true Hawaiian,” as so many in the community would memorialize him.
It’s better to just watch what you can of him instead. This 25-minute film, produced by the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana in 1977, touches on elements of his character that made him such a natural force in the community—his speeches, a musicality that built bridges between the political and social, a sense of humor rivaled only by his sense of place.
The video also features key scenes from the final years of his life, where he formally files suit against the military actions against Kahoolawe and musical performances imbued with his aloha aina message.