Altars, “Distress” Flags Stir Controversy in Hawaii

HILO, Hawaii — Hawaii colleges are divided over stone altars called ahus with inverted Hawaii flags constructed on campuses by students.

University of Hawaii at Hilo and Hawaii Community College have received numerous complaints over the ahus from students, faculty, community members and veterans who say they feel disrespected by the sight of the flags hanging upside-down, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported.

The students responsible for the structures are members of a statewide group of student known as Ahahui Hae Hawaii, or the Hawaiian Flag Society.

Group members built them in response to student arrests on Mauna Kea two years ago and say the upside-down flags are an internationally recognized symbol of a nation in distress, said group leader Kalaniakea Wilson. (An upside-down flag is recognized by the U.S. flag code as a symbol of “dire distress.”)

University of Hawaii at Hilo administrators has no plans to remove the flag on an ahu, said Interim Executive Assistant to the Chancellor Gail Makuakane-Lundin.

Hawaii Community College leaders have chosen to remove the flags but not the stone altars after consulting with its Native Hawaiian council. The council determined that the flag is a form of free speech and its removal would not be offensive to Hawaiian culture.

The community college has removed more than a dozen flags from the ahu, each time notifying the student group “where (the flag) is, and that they are free to pick it up,” said Chancellor Rachel Solemsaas.

Solemsaas said that the college is looking to create a campus policy for free speeches exhibits such as the ahu in the future.

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