George Jarrett Helm, Jr. was born on March 23, 1950 in the small town of Kalama’ula, Molokai in the state of Hawaii. He was one of the seven children of George and Melanie Helm. The Helm family lived on Hawaiian homestead land, where they farmed and grew their own fruits and vegetables. They also raised animals, and there were always chores to be done. George Jr. worked along with his four brothers on the farm. They were taught from a young age how to live off the land, and also how to live in harmony with it.
George was no different than the other children in this rural area of Molokai, who were also taught the importance of respect for the land and the ocean. They were told to be caretakers of nature, and to protect and preserve it for future generations. When George was not in school or working on the farm, he would be at the beach swimming or fishing. This was a simple way of life. The culture of old Hawaii still existed. George was only nine years old when Hawaii became a state. The fast paced ways of city life were still a decade away from the islands.
Along with a “love of the land” (aloha aina), the Helms also taught their children to sing and to play instruments. They songs they sung were traditional Hawaiian music. These songs told a story about things important to the Hawaiian culture. Through music, George learned to express himself vocally. While attending school, he also enjoyed playing sports. In 1965 at the age of fifteen, he received an athletic scholarship to attend St. Louis High school on Oahu. This new experience would awaken him to the ways of city life. George would later talk about his move to the city and say, “I came to Oahu to get educated, instead I lost my innocence.”
George’s easy going personality, along with his honesty and sense of humor earned him many friends. At only five foot eight, his heart and determination proved to be another one of his qualities. Reading and writing was another one of his passions. He enjoyed philosophy and was also a powerful speaker. George would often talk about spirituality and “Hawaiian Consciousness,” The connection between man and the earth. “We are in a revolution of consciousness. What we are looking for is the truth. There is man, and there is the environment. One does not supercede the other. Man is merely the caretaker of the land, that maintains his life and nourishes his soul. The land is sacred. The church of life is not in a building, it is in the open sky, the surrounding ocean, and the beautiful soil.” This was his philosophy.
George would soon channel his beliefs into his music and singing. He joined the student glee club in St. Louis, which was directed by John Lake. Mr. Lake noticed something special in George, and introduced him to his cousin Kahau’anu Lake. Miss Lake was a well known teacher and performer, of Hawaiian songs and chants. George learned quickly the importance of Hawaiian culture. Through music and hula, the traditions were kept alive. This balance of nature was a way of life.
Telling a story through song was one of the aspects of Hawaiian music. George used this in his music also, to share his vision of Hawaii’s culture. After graduating from St. Louis, he attended the University of Hawaii. He dropped out in 1972 to get a job. His winning personality got him work as a sales representative for Hawaiian Airlines. George was a great speaker and would later become a goodwill ambassador in the Hawaii Tourist Industry. Traveling to Japan and the U.S. mainland, he spread the “aloha spirit.”
Doing well in the business world, it looked like George had a career, and his future was set. But there was something missing in his life. His spirit felt empty. The land that nourished his soul, was calling him home to Hawaii. George needed the connection to the land. His deeper meaning in life, that which empowered him; wanted him back. After returning from a trip to New York, a change occurred in him. He had got to see all the glamour and glitz of the big city. He had mingled and rubbed elbows with rich businessmen all over the world. But this lifestyle was not for him.
He saw the future coming to Hawaii, and he didn’t like what it would become. George had visions of what needed to be done, to preserve the future of Hawaii’s people and their culture. George soon left his job at the airlines to pursue his musical career. He now felt like he was doing , what he was meant to do. While entertaining he would explain the meanings of songs he played. Traditional songs which spoke of a one time Monarchy, and songs which told of the sad indignities endured by the Hawaiian people. He soon gained a following, and was a much sought after entertainer in the restaurants and lounges of Waikiki where he performed.
His amazing falsetto voice was unlike anyone else. George used these venues to get his views and philosophies to people. During this time, he continued to learn from Hawaiian elders such as Genoa Keawe, and Edith Kanaka’ole. A cultural revival was about to take place in Hawaii. It was still in it’s early stages, but it would become known as “The Hawaiian Renaissance.” The new generation of Hawaii’s youth now seemed interested and awakened to their past. History and pride in ones culture was making a comeback.
In 1975 Hui Alaloa was formed, this organization fought to gain access to mountains and beaches that had been off limits to the public for years. Adolph Helm, who was George’s brother was a founder of the organization. George, being well versed and well read, soon joined them. He proved to be a valuable partner. He could speak, write, and communicate with articulation and intelligence. George read anything he could get his hands on while researching land deeds, and access rights. He also enjoyed books by some of the great writers on Philosophy, Religion, Mythology, and Psychology.
Keeping journals, and writing letters on behalf of Hui Alaloa for correspondence was one of his important tasks. Joining this organization was a turning point in George’s life. It was also a turning point for the future of Hawaii. As America celebrated it’s bicentennial anniversary of 200yrs., an ironic change was taking place in Hawaii. This and other events would change George’s life forever. A peaceful revolution was being fought in the islands. Hawaiians now spoke up, and demanded their rights as indigenous people. They wanted access to their land, respect for their religion, and the freedom to live their culture. These protests also included the return of the island of Kahoolawe to the Hawaiian people.
With the atmosphere of Hawaiian pride taking place, more people spoke up about the wrongs done to the one time Kingdom of Hawaii. In 1893 the Monarchy was overthrown by buisnessmen with help from the United States. The Hawaiian people now wanted some of their land back, and were ready for civil disobedeience. The island of Kahoolawe had been used by the Navy sice 1941 for bombing practice. The island and it’s coastal waters were off limits to the public and civilians. George and eight others were to organize a landing on the island to protest the bombings, and the desecration to the land.
On January 3, 1976 the nine men made their way by sea, to the island of Kahoolawe and landed safely. They were arrested by the Coast Guard minutes after arrival. When they got to the island they realized it’s great beauty and spirituality. An archeological survey would later show 29 sites, that were eligible for the national Register of Historical Places. It was found that Kahoolawe played a very important role in Hawaiian culture. The island was said to have been the gateway that the ancient Polynesians used to navigate and populate Hawaii.
Among the artifacts on the island is the famed “navigators chair,” a rock formation that can be used to navigate the ocean, by using that “chair” and the stars at night. This was said to be how the first Polynesians who inhabited the islands traveled and got here. The Protect Kahoolawe Organization was soon formed and George became one of its leaders. He continued his research and correspondence. One of the letters he wrote was to the Navy, requesting permission for the PKO to perform religious ceremonies. George’s efforts finally paid off, and his request was granted.
On February 13, 1976 sixty-five people were allowed on the island of Kahoolawe to perform religious ceremonies. George’s desire was not just to know about the Hawaiian culture, but to live it. His ideas were spiritual. His passion was to uplift the collective consciousness of the Hawaiian people. Once , in a letter to a friend George wrote, “Listen carefully to your inner voices and observe without personal bias the pulse of mankind.”
Now with the PKO moving ahead, more archeological surveys were being done on Kahoolawe. Heiaus were found, along with petroglyphs and other artifacts. The PKO now had religious and cultural grounds to stop the bombing, they filed a lawsuit against the Navy. Elders from all islands teamed up with scholars, religious experts, and lawyers to fight for their rightful claim to the land. This concept of “aloha aina” (love of the land) was used to proclaim the revitalization of the land and the Hawaiian culture.
One day George and members from the PKO went to Keanae, Maui to speak to a group of elders there. When they first showed up with their long hair and Ti-leaf headbands, the elders and people there called them “Hippie Radicals” and trouble makers. But once George started to sing and speak, the people of the community quickly accepted him and found that what he spoke was true and sincere. He was there to unite the people of Hawaii so their voices could be heard by those in government. He wanted the people of Hawaii to have a say in it’s future. He wanted to unite people, and get them involved.
One of George’s greatest attributes was that he could talk with both the young and old. He was able to bring them together and bridge the gap between generations. Through study and research George would educate himself, so he could organize solutions to the problems facing the people of Hawaii. He would often advise people to “do your homework.” George’s insight on Hawaiian culture made him a catalyst for the changes taking place in Hawaii.
The people of Hawaii were finally speaking up. Polls showed that two-thirds of the state wanted the bombing of Kahoolawe stopped, and the island returned to the Hawaiian people. They wanted the land to be protected and preserved. It would no longer be “business as usual” for politicians and lawmakers. For too long the morale of the Hawaiian people suffered. Ever since the wrongful takeover of the Hawaiian Monarchy, the aura and conciousness of Hawaii had been bruised.
The welfare and living conditions of many Hawaiians were below average. The Hawaiian race as a whole had been struggling for survival, both economically and socially. The issue to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe was quickly gaining support. Members of the PKO found it disrespectful that the Navy intended to continue bombing the island, even though archeological surveys showed historical sites, artifacts, and other evidence of being inhabited by an ancient civilization.
The PKO would randomly stage landings on the island to protest the continued bombing. Earlier, George had avoided politics and the bureaucracy of government while protesting. But now with facts, and evidence showing that Kahoolawe played an important role in the early colonization of Hawaii. George felt that it was time to take the issue to politicians. He spoke with Legislators and worked with a legislative committee formed to look into matters dealing with Kahoolawe.
Whenever he could get people to listen, George would speak. He used the media to get a bigger audience and to inform people. He gave interviews and made appearances, educating whoever he could. When George and members of the PKO would go to Kahoolawe, they would often experience spiritual changes. They would feel enlightened and awakened to an energy within them. They would have visions and gain knowledge through their interaction with the land. Something had touched them and moved their soul. It was because of this, that the fight for the bombing to stop would continue.
Arrests and court hearings plagued the PKO. The Navy ignored the protests and continued to bomb the island. On February 10, 1977, George and PKO members marched to the state capitol, where they gathered in a circle to pray in a peaceful demonstration. There they displayed the unity of the “stop the bombing” movement. On February 11, 1977 in a unprecedented event. George spoke to the state house legislature, something that had never been done before,
George’s speech moved house members to tears. His words of truth, his honesty, and down to earth nature convinced Representatives to temporarily suspend house rules to let him speak. The house soon introduced a resolution to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe. A few days later, on February 14, 1977 George deceided to take his requests to Washington D.C. and to meet with President Jimmy Carter. Two weeks earlier, George had sent a telegram to the president but got no reply. He deceided to try and get a meeting with the President personally.
Unfortunately, Carter had been vacationing out of state at the time. This was a disappointment to George, but he continued his pursuit of being heard and recognized.
While in Washington D.C George met with the assistant secretary of defense, Tom Ross. Ross admitted that he had “no idea of what the situation was” with Kahoolawe or the campaign to stop the bombing, but that “he would look into it.”
George felt that he wasn’t getting much help from politicians in Hawaii, or from representatives up in Washington D.C.. He began to see that Hawaiians had no voice in matters of the bureaucratic big picture of government. The PKO planned a landing of Kahoolawe for February 20, 1977. News of the landing leaked and the coast Guard had been tipped off. The landing was aborted. In secret, ten members of the PKO made their way to the island but were caught by Marines.
On February 26, 1977 George flew back home to Molokai to spend some time with his family. He informed some people who were close to him that he had “big news to break” about high level political corruption. He was worried about threats that might be made on PKO members lives. George had uncovered evidence regarding the misuse of Hawaiian lands. By now the PKO had grown into a big organization. The media had helped to gain interest in the cause.
Now, with so many members, some felt that the spiritual focus of “aloha aina” was being forgotten. With more new members came different ideas on how things should be done. This inner struggle caused tension in the group. Some older members felt as though the spiritual concept was not being realized by some new members. George dealt with the situation the best way he could, while keeping focused on other issues that were unfolding regarding Kahoolawe and land rights.
His love for Hawaii overcame any fears that he might have had. Now when he spoke, he spoke as though he might not be around much longer. He mentioned to a friend that “what I’m doing is going to cost me my life.” George often felt alone, he could not understand the doubt that people had. For he truly believed that his mission to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe would be accomplished.
During this time, George dug deep into his music and his writing which he used for self-reflection and spiritual guidance. His dreams often gave him visions of what he must do next. He once said, “Kahoolawe can teach the rest of the world aloha aina, and save us from becoming evolutionary dropouts.” George envisioned a future for Hawaii, as a sacred land with offerings of knowledge to share with the world. He lived aloha. He lived in balance with nature, and in tune to the harmony of the earth.
After the first landing on Kahoolawe, George never went there without some kind of spiritual sign, either from an elder or from his dreams. Prior to his next landing on the island, he was told by several people that something bad was going to happen. At the time, two PKO members were on the island and George felt that they might be in danger. Despite advice not to go, he organized a landing for Saturday, March 6, 1977 to try and make contact with the two members on the island.
On Friday, March 5, the day before leaving for Kahoolawe. George went to Keanae, Maui to meet up with Kimo Mitchell, a friend and experienced boatman. They packed up their supplies and headed for Kihei, Maui by boat, to rest before leaving for Kahoolawe the next morning. On the Saturday morning of March 6, 1977 George Helm, Kimo Mitchell, and Billy Mitchell (no relation to Kimo) left Kihei for Kahoolawe. The rest of the story remains a mystery. Only the statement of Billy Mitchell, the only known survivor exists as too what happened.
According to his story, the three men got as close to the coast of the island as possible. Then they jumped out of the boat, and paddled inland on their surfboards. Once there on Kahoolawe, they searched for the two PKO members but could not find them. (The two PKO members had been picked up earlier by the Coast Guard, but no one knew this)
Mitchell says that upon arrival to the island George seemed to be “experiencing visions and spirits” he would fall to the ground and be unable to move as if he were paralyzed.
That night a pick-up boat had been scheduled to meet the three men. Ominously the boat had sunk, back in Kihei. Not having made contact with the pick-up boat, the three men supposedly paddled their surfboards to the island of Molokini. They would wait there to be be picked up later, or try to make it back to Maui. Mitchell says that he, George, and Kimo entered the surf at 3:00 a.m. Sunday morning on March 7, 1977, off the coast of Kahoolawe to try and get to Molokini. Survivor Billy Mitchell says he last saw George Helm and Kimo Mitchell in the high surf near Molokini.
The two men mysteriously disappeared. Although a massive search was conducted, nothing but a surfboard belonging to one of the missing men, was ever found. George Helm left a legacy for the people of Hawaii. His death was not in vain. His vision to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe eventually became a reality. On October 22, 1990 President George H.W. Bush ordered that all weapons delivery training on Kahoolawe be stopped. A few weeks later President Bush signed a law that ended the bombing of Kahoolawe and returned it’s ownership to the state of Hawaii.
In 1993 President Bill Clinton signed “The Apology Bill” or Public law 103-50, which acknowledged that the United States Government participated in an illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. This Bill committed the United States to a continued process of reconciliation, and began the massive clean up of Kahoolawe at a cost of $460 million dollars. It took ten years to clear, and dispose of unexploded munitions and debris. Finally in April of 2004 the United States Navy completed the hand over of Kahoolawe to the state of Hawaii.
A final note on the music of George Helm. In 1997, twenty years after his disappearance. George received a Na Hoku Hanohano Award, from the Academy of Recording Arts for his contribution to Hawaiian music. George’s live recordings made at the Gold Coin restaurant, remains a testament to his love of Hawaii and it’s music. His beautiful falsetto voice is haunting at times. He leaves behind the voice of a culture that is disappearing and struggling to remain. At other times his fast paced “Molokai Stroke” guitar playing, and genuine interpretations of song, paints a vivid picture of the happiness and joy in the Hawaiian culture.
George Helm leaves behind a legacy, his CDs continue to sell. His niece Raiatea Helm is a great musician in her own right, and also a Na Hoku Hanohano Award winner. Some of old Hawaii still prevails, in it’s music and it’s culture. The aloha spirit and aloha aina is still around. It can be found, if you look for it. The traditions of the elders are passed down, and a legacy is left.
George Helm’s dedication to Hawaii gives us hope and inspiration, for a better Hawaii and a better world. Let us remember those who came before us. Those few who made the sacrifices and journeyed on the rough roads that lay in front of them. They did this for us, so we could walk a better road. Let us try to do the same proudly, yet humbly with humility, and let’s leave something enlightening for the future generations.