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Sunday, April 10, 2005
Sacred sites inspire wonderWHILE most kids his age were reading about the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Dominic Kealoha Aki was immersing himself in tales about Maui, Kawelo and other heroes of old Hawaii.
"To me, our islands' myths and legends are far more exciting than anything Mark Twain or the Brothers Grimm ever wrote," says Aki, vice president of Mauka Makai Excursions, a Hawaiian-owned and operated cultural ecotour company founded in 1999.
"In fact, if you study Hawaiian culture and history, you'll find they're full of stories about amazing characters, landmarks and places, from kings, warriors and kahuna (priests) to heiau (temples), birthing stones and lei na kauhane -- literally 'leaping of the souls rocks,' where spirits of the dead jumped into heaven."
Dozens of these stories are woven into narratives guides share during Mauka Makai's half- and full-day field trips, which spotlight Oahu's wahi pana (legendary places and sacred sites).
Says Aki: "We use these sites as visual props, and through mo'olelo (storytelling), we transport you back in time to the days of ka poe o kahiko (the people of old). We tell you the legends about the place, which gods were worshipped there and what type of ceremonies were conducted there."
Short, easy hikes are required to reach most of the spots. Along the trail, the guide points out native plants and explains how they were used in ancient times.
Aki leads most of the tours, which he describes as "a welcome change from the mass-marketed bus tours."
"We limit the group sizes to 12, and the highlight is the enormous amount of information about Hawaiian culture that participants receive in a short time, while getting off the beaten path and having fun in nature."
He takes his role as educator very seriously: "I've spoken to the kahu (guardian) at most of the sites and have learned directly from them the significance of the sites and the protocol required to enter such places. Through chants, we ask permission to approach, for a blessing to be bestowed upon those who enter, that they gain knowledge during their visit, and that protection be provided to them, for these sites still contain a lot of mana or spiritual power. We always try to be pono (morally or culturally correct)."
For example, Aki says only Hawaiian ceremonies should be conducted at wahi pana. Traditionally, food items were left as offerings; thus, leaving coins, incense, candles and leaf-wrapped rocks at these sites is not appropriate.
"Like everything we do, this is an 'ecotour' -- not just a North Shore sightseeing trip," Aki emphasizes. "My philosophy about ecotours is that they should be education-based, culturally correct, environmentally sensitive field trips that are conducted in small groups. The small group size minimizes the impact to the environment while allowing more intimate, in-depth conversations about subjects that interest our guests. We encourage them to ask questions and engage in discussions."
Aki regards Kukaniloko Royal Birthing Stone as Oahu's most sacred site. "There are only two royal birthing stones in Hawaii: Kukaniloko and Holoholoku in Wailua on Kauai," he said.
"With the proper ceremonies, any chief born at either of these places was considered divine and assured a very high-ranking status. Getting to Kukaniloko was not an easy journey. Alii (royalty) from other islands would have to first sail to Oahu, then hike up to the high plateau of Helemano in order for their children to be born there."
He said that prior to Capt. James Cook's arrival in 1778, Waimea Valley was one of Oahu's major population centers. The alii favored this beautiful ahupuaa (land division) for its rich soil, abundant fresh water, protected canoe landing sites and fertile fish grounds.
IN 2003, the National Audubon Society entered into an agreement with the City and County of Honolulu to manage, operate and safeguard the important cultural, botanical and ecological resources of the 1,800-acre valley, now called Waimea Valley Audubon Center.
Hale O Lono (House of Lono) Heiau, a restored temple at the valley entrance, was dedicated to Lono, god of peace, agriculture, fertility, rain and healing. He presided over the annual Makahiki, the four-month period from October through February when war was banned and people turned their attention to sports competitions and religious festivities.
Situated on a ridge with a commanding view of the northern coast, Puu O Mahuka (Hill of Escape) played a key role in the social, political and religious system of Waimea Valley. A National Historic Landmark dating back to the 1600s, it covers four acres in Pupukea and is the largest heiau on Oahu extant.
Because of its name, Aki surmises Puu O Mahuka probably first was a puuhonua (place of refuge for defeated warriors and those who broke the kapu or laws of the kingdom). But because each new ruling chief could modify and rededicate heiau as they saw fit, it likely also served as a healing, agricultural, maternity and navigation temple.
Scholars agree its final role was a luakini or war temple that Kamehameha I used during his bid to conquer Kauai in 1796.
Tidbits such as this fascinate Aki, for whom Hawaiian culture has always been a passion.
"I have been collecting Hawaiian memorabilia since the first grade when my teacher gave me an ukulele because he was moving and I was the only Hawaiian kid in the class," Aki said. "From there, my interest expanded, so now I've amassed quite a nice collection of books and artifacts, including poi pounders, stone bowls, adzes and kapa beaters."
Aki's family tree is just as impressive. "We are descendants of Piilani of Maui and trace our ancestry back to the arrival of the second migrations of the Polynesians, approximately 1000 A.D.," he says with no small measure of pride. "My grandfather was Henry Kaiwi Aki Jr., territorial senator from Kauai, chauffeur and drinking buddy of Prince Kuhio.
"The hanai (adopted) mother of my grandmother, Lucy Kahaumia, was a lady-in-waiting in the court of Queen Liliuokalani. Grandma told me she frequently visited Iolani Palace and even played patty-cake with the Queen."
According to Aki, Mauka Makai's guests enjoy hearing the old stories, especially personal ones. "But beyond that," he says, "we want to communicate the importance of malama aina (care of the land) and its treasures. If, at the end of their time with us, participants feel the wonder and reverence we feel for the land, culture, history and people of Hawaii, then we have done our job."
See the Columnists section for some past articles.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.
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