Maui hate crime case spotlights Hawaii’s racial complexity

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In a case that reflects Hawaii’s nuanced and complicated relationship with race, two Native Hawaiian men are scheduled to be sentenced Thursday for a federal hate crime in the brutal beating of a white man who tried to move into their remote, traditional fishing village.

A jury convicted Kaulana Alo-Kaonohi and Levi Aki Jr. in November, finding that they were motivated by Christopher Kunzelman’s race when they punched, kicked and used a shovel to beat him in 2014. His injuries included a concussion, two broken ribs and head trauma.

Local lawyers believe this is the first time the U.S. has prosecuted Native Hawaiians for hate crimes. The unique case highlights the struggles between Native Hawaiians who are adamant about not having their culture erased and people who move to Hawaii without knowing or considering its history and racial dynamics.

Tensions began over a dilapidated, oceanfront home in Kahakuloa, a small village off a narrow road of hairpin turns and sweeping ocean views at the end of a valley on Maui, an island known for luxurious resorts.

Growing up in the village, Alo-Kaonohi would “hunt, fish, farm, live off the land,” he wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright. “To make a little money, I would sell coconuts, mango, flowers, bananas on the side of the road to tourists who would be passing through to see the beautiful scenery of Kahakuloa.”