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Tuesday, August 16, 2005
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To the east, are the main Hawaiian Islands, plus Nihoa Island, which have evidence that it was once inhabited.
To Mokumanamana's west are the low sandy atolls and coral reefs of the rest of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, home to seabirds, Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles and a handful of researchers and fishermen.
Yesterday, participants in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's cruise for teachers to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands had reached Mokumanamana.
In addition to learning about the biology and natural resources of the area on this 10-day voyage, the group also is hearing about the role of the Northwestern Islands in Hawaiian history.
Kikiloi, a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Hawaii and an employee of the UH Hawaiian Studies program, is one of those trying to find out what the Northwestern Islands meant to native Hawaiians in years gone by.
Kikiloi's hypothesis is that the islands northwest of Mokumanamana may be the "source of creation" — the place where Hawaiian gods live and where the souls of the dead go after they die.
The Hawaiian creation chant Kumulipo tells of the coral polyp being a foundation for other forms of life that came after it, notes Kikiloi.
What if, he supposes, the Northwestern Islands are the physical place that gave rise to the Hawaiian cosmology of how things came into being?
Before he left the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai for a week on Nihoa surveying archaeological sites, Kikiloi shared some of the pieces of the puzzle he's trying to put together:
» There are points on each of the main islands that are referred to as "soul's leaps" — where spirits leave that island after death.
» Mokumanamana has more Hawaiian ceremonial sites in such a small area than any other place in the islands — on a place that doesn't appear to be able to support humans living there. Most noticeable are the 33 rock pillars that line the top of the island's main ridge.
» Mokumanamana sits on the Tropic of Cancer (Kealanuipolohiwa in Hawaiian), the northernmost reach of the sun's annual change of position in the sky.
"The sun, like the god Kane, gives life and this is its limit, it can't go higher," Kikiloi said.
"Coming up here has helped me figure out a lot of things," said Kikiloi, who has been to the Northwestern Islands both on modern ships and on Hawaiian sailing canoes and has spent hours translating Hawaiian language newspapers and writings, searching for mention of the Northwestern Islands.
"There are a lot of coral reefs up here (in the Northwestern Islands)," Kikiloi said. "Maybe our ancestors saw something where the creative force of life is in creative balance between life and death."
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have more coral than all the main Hawaiian Islands put together and about 70 percent of all coral reefs in U.S. waters. They are home to 7,000 known species of plants and animals, half of which are found nowhere else in the world.
Because of their remoteness from the inhabited Hawaiian Islands — and governmental protections that date back to President Teddy Roosevelt in 1909 — the islands have retained a wild beauty, but remain fragile.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees all land forms in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands except Kure Atoll, has a strict permitting process for any landings on the islands.
As part of a group of five spending a week on Nihoa, Kikiloi and archaeologist Kehaulani Souza will map five archaeological sites, including ceremonial, agricultural and house sites. They plan to take small samples of coral placed on ceremonial altars, in hopes that it can be dated to the coral's death as a method of learning more about when people built the Nihoa structures.
Dating the sites by coral is being tried because vast amounts of acidic bird droppings make traditional carbon dating difficult, if not impossible on islands, swarming with hundreds of nesting seabirds.
"This will be a really humbling experience," said Souza, who, like Kikiloi is Hawaiian. "It's been one of my dreams to go there."
Even though she'll be working in her field, "I told my friends I'm going on a spiritual journey. I know that my ancestors were here once."