Sacred island of Mokuʻula being restored


POSTED: Sunday, September 28, 2008

Several feet below the surface of a vacant, dusty baseball field in Lahaina lie the vestiges of a nearly forgotten chapter in Hawaiian history.






        » Meet at: Lahaina Harbor, Maui (location will be specified when booking)


» Offered: Tour days and times fit the needs of the participants. Advance reservations are required.


» Cost: $42 for adults and $28 for ages 10 to 16 for groups of 10 to 25 people. Cost is $55 per person for groups of fewer than 10. Kamaaina group rates are $30 for adults and $16 for children. There are no nongroup kamaaina rates.


» Call: (808) 661-9494


» E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


» Web sites: www.mauinei.com, www.mokuula.com


» Note: Tax-deductible contributions can be made out to the Friends of Mokuula and mailed to 505 Front Street, Suite 221, Lahaina, Hawaii 96761



In 1992, Bishop Museum archaeologists surveyed the site and discovered retaining walls, stone foundations, a wooden dock, tools, broken china and other artifacts dating to the mid-1800s, when King Kamehameha III, son of Kamehameha I and Queen Keopuolani, ruled Hawaii.

During that time, a 17-acre wetland comprising fishponds and taro fields covered the area. A powerful lizard goddess, Kihawahine, supposedly protected this wetland, in the midst of which was a one-acre islet called Mokuula (sacred island).

The Hawaiians valued such areas for wai (water) that gave life to their food sources, including taro. Those who had access to abundant water were considered prosperous; in fact, the word waiwai means wealth.

It's no wonder, then, that some scholars believe the alii chose the land division of Wainee, where Mokuula is located, as their home as far back as the 16th century.

The first documented evidence of settlement, however, has been traced to Kamehameha III. When his beloved 21-year-old sister Princess Nahienaena died in 1836, the grief-stricken king built a stone mausoleum on Mokuula to inter her remains and those of their mother, Maui chief Hoapili and other members of the royal family.

Kamehameha III and his wife Queen Kalama lived in adjacent pili grass structures on Mokuula, the only access to their complex being a narrow causeway, guarded by sentries, that was kapu (forbidden) to everyone but their guests.

By 1845, the seat of the Hawaiian government had moved to Honolulu, but Kamehameha III returned to Mokuula as often as he could. Unfortunately, the king's successors didn't hold the same affinity for the island, and after his death in 1854, the island and mausoleum fell into disrepair.

In the 1880s, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop directed the move of some of the royal remains, among them Queen Keopuolani and Princess Nahienaena, to a more respectable final resting place in the graveyard at Wainee Church (now known as Waiola Church).

With the rise of sugar as an economic mainstay in Hawaii, plantations began diverting water from the wetland, turning it into a stagnant, mosquito-infested marsh. In 1914, it was filled with coral dredged from Lahaina Harbor and opened for public use as Malu-ulu-o-lele Park. As residents enjoyed picnics and Little League games there, the treasures that lay beneath it were forgotten.

  FAST-FORWARD 72 years. In 1986, the Kaanapali Beach Hotel launched its groundbreaking Pookela program to teach employees about Hawaiian culture and history so that they could share correct information with visitors.

Four years later, Mokuula came to the forefront as Pookela's instructors studied Lahaina's pre-Western-contact history for the program's first off-property class. Unlike two of the teachers, Akoni Akana and the late Kanoeau Delatori, many of the hotel's employees, even those born and raised in Lahaina, didn't know about the site until they took the class.

When Bishop Museum's findings indicated Mokuula, the mausoleum and very likely alii, were still buried beneath Malu-ulu-o-lele Park, recreational activities there halted. Mokuula was placed on the State Register of Historic Places in 1994 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

The nonprofit organization Friends of Mokuula was formed in 1995 to spearhead restoration efforts. Four years later, Maui Nei, a cultural tourism company, was established to help support the cause through proceeds from a two-hour walking tour, “;A Journey Through Lahaina's Past,”; which explores both well-known and lesser-known aspects of the historic seaport.

Highlights include the Hauola birthing and healing stone at Lahaina Harbor; Waiola Church and Cemetery; and the Baldwin Home, where the Rev. Dwight Baldwin and his family, prominent 19th-century missionaries, lived for 35 years.

“;Our guides share stories from the authentic Hawaiian perspective,”; said Akana, now the executive director of the Friends of Mokuula. “;These stories were passed down orally by kupuna (elders), learned through personal studies and gleaned from museum archives and other historical literature.”;

A respected kumu hula (hula master), Akana has spent more than 20 years researching Lahaina's history, oral traditions, chants, legends and genealogy of longtime residents.

“;Mokuula was a sacred place from which Hawaiian spiritual, political and cultural beliefs radiated,”; he said. “;During Kamehameha III's reign, missionaries, whalers, traders, immigrant sugar plantation workers and other foreigners greatly influenced the traditional Hawaiian way of life. The king saw Mokuula as a retreat from the dramatic changes taking place in the kingdom. It was a sanctuary where the old ways were maintained.”;

According to Akana, it will cost more than $24 million and take 10 to 15 years to restore Mokuula. Reconstructing Kamehameha III's compound depends on the results of excavation work scheduled to start next spring. “;We will rebuild the structures as they are found,”; he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers and other engineers are working on plans to revive the wetland. “;It's a complex endeavor,”; said Akana. “;We won't simply be opening up underground springs, planting taro and reintroducing fish.”;

He coined the saying “;I ka wa mamua ka wa mahope”; (the future is in the past), which has become the motto for Maui Nei and the Friends of Mokuula.

“;In order to connect people to the future of Mokuula, they must learn about its past,”; said Akana. “; 'A Journey Through Lahaina's Past' is helping to accomplish that, literally, one step at a time.”;


Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.