Tevita O. Ka’ili, BYU–Hawaii dean of the Faculty of Culture, Language and Performing arts, was selected as the 2019 Ko’olauloa Person of the Year on Jan. 5 by the local Facebook page La’ie Voice. Ka’ili shared since he is an anthropologist, it is his duty to advocate for his ancestors’ land.
“The people picked [for Person of the Year] in the past are people well-known within the community and have done very important work, so I was very surprised that I was selected Person of the Year,” said Ka’ili. “But last year was a very busy year. I was involved in a lot of things.”
Ka’ili’s efforts in last year’s protests against the AES wind turbines in Kahuku was one reason for awarding him as Person of the Year, according a statement by La’ie Voice.
Last October through November, Ka’ili said he witnessed one of the largest arrests Hawaii has seen regarding environmental protests. There were about 200 local protesters arrested for refusing to move when shipments for wind turbine parts were being transported, said Ka’ili.
Among the wind turbine arrests were several other BYUH employees, Ka’ili as one of the lead organizers, and his wife, Elizabeth Rago, a clinical counselor for BYUH and secretary of the board for the Kahuku Community Association.
Rago said her husband cares for the land of Hawaii. “When it became increasingly clear that the industrial turbines were the beginning of the end of Hawaii’s endangered species, the Ope’ ape’ [a Hawaiian hoary bat], Tevita became involved in the only way he knew how– with dignity, knowledge, research, and kind, articulate discussion.”
Ka’ili said, “I always advocate for culture and advocate for important species that are considered to be significant to different cultures, as an anthropologist that’s what I do.”
Ka’ili said he started fighting the building of wind turbines six years ago when the project was in development.
“The whole part about being an activist and protesting, that’s kind of new. That only started about six years ago but only came because we didn’t have any other avenue.”
Ko’olauloa Person of the Year began in 2014, according to La’ie Voice, as a way to “motivate others to make a difference and give gratitude to those that do.”
Each year in December, La’ie Voice information says it asked the community for nominations and consulted with an advisory board to make a final decision. “Requirements are one must serve not only his/her neighborhood, but neighboring towns; must show consistency in his/her actions; and lastly, must be involved in doing acts of good for the betterment of Ko’olauloa.”
Rago added, “This award is especially significant because it comes from the community he resides, so they know him personally. They know he is a man of his word, a man of integrity and a man of honor. He loves his community and demonstrates this through hard work, perseverance, and service.”
According to Ka’ili, Ko’olauloa, the district from Ka’a’awa to Waialua where BYU–Hawaii is located, is a place of great cultural and ancestral significance to him.
Ka’ili explained in addition to him and his parents attending BYUH, his ancestry connects to Kahuku through the demigod Maui, who is famous not only for his appearance in the Disney movie “Moana,” but also in local stories as the one who hooked the floating island of Kahuku down to Oahu.
“That deep history also has a tie for me because I feel like Kahuku is another place where our ancestor Maui also lived, and I’m also from Tonga. So, all of those ties make me have this passion to protect the land and the ‘aina of Kahuku,” said Ka’ili.
“Brother Ka’ili is one of the most humble, intelligent [people] I came to know as I was one of his students attending BYUH,” said alumnus Pelekina Auaea. “I would say congratulations to him, and he well [earned] it. He is making me proud and our island of Tonga proud.”
In addition to being a homeowner in Kahuku and teaching at BYUH, Ka’ili said he also spends his spare time as president of the Kahuku Village Association and helping to maintain and educate the community about the heiau, or sacred Hawaiian temple, located in Hau’ula.