Story by Lynn Cook
Photos by Olivier Koning
William John Kaihe‘ekai Mai‘oho stands on the same spot in Nu‘uanu where he stood when he was three. A youthful enthusiasm overcomes him as he recalls those early days at Mauna ‘Ala, the royal mausoleum. “I lived here with my grandparents. The ‘uhane fell in love with me as a child,” he says, “and they tolerate me as an adult.”
The ‘uhane he’s talking about are the spirits of the ali‘i, the royal ancestors laid to rest in the crypts of Mauna ‘Ala. It’s here that the iwi, the bones of Hawaiian royalty, are interred, and Mai‘oho is their guardian. When he talks about these ali‘i — Kamehameha II, Liholiho, David Kalakaua, Lili‘uokalani, Victoria Ka‘iulani, Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole and dozens more—his tone is intimate, as if they were his close friends. The remains of nearly all the monarchs of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, from both the Kamehameha and the Kalakaua dynasties, now lie at Mauna ‘Ala. It’s one of the most sacred sites in modern Hawai‘i and not just because of its historic value: While they have been physically dead for decades, these ali‘i are very much alive for many Native Hawaiians. Mai‘oho cites both Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui as well as his own grandmother when he says that the mana, the power, of a person remains in their iwi. “That explains why the bones of the great chiefs and warriors were hidden or protected at any cost,” he says.
The name, Mauna ‘Ala, translates literally as “fragrant mountain,” Mai‘oho explains. He parses the Hawaiian, though, to reveal the name’s deeper meaning: “Mau is ‘to perpetuate,’ na is ‘the’ and ala is ‘path.’ So I understand it to be perpetuating the path of our ancestors.” As kahu, or guardian of the mausoleum, Mai‘oho says, “I am here with them, to speak about them in the most reverent way.” And he’s done just that for the past eighteen years, as did his mother before him and his grandparents before her.
In fact the family’s association with the iwi goes much further back. Shortly before his death in 1819, Kamehameha I selected two brothers, high chiefs Hoapili and Ho‘olulu, to hide his remains after his death, thus preventing his enemies from stealing the mana in his bones. Today the official coat of arms of the State of Hawai‘i —and the Nation of Hawai‘i, too—depicts these two warriors. Mai‘oho’s family descends from the younger brother, Ho‘olulu. The Kaihe‘ekai family, which also carries the name Ho‘olulu, has served as “the keeper of the key for the royal remains” since 1819.
When William Mai‘oho was named kahu, he assumed that somber kuleana, that responsibility, with pride and a sense of inevitability. “My mom was ready to retire. She knew my appointment needed to be ‘official,’ so she took me to the office of Governor John Waihe‘e,” he recalls. “When we arrived the governor got up from his desk and gave my mom his big chair. I’ll always remember how respectful he was to her. They talked, the paperwork was started and my appointment was official on January 3, 1995— twenty-nine years to the day after my mother was appointed. It was my destiny: I am the next Kaihe‘ekai in line, and my son will follow me.” Mai‘oho says his mother, Lydia Namahanaikaleleokalani Taylor Mai‘oho, considered Mauna ‘Ala to be a piko, a center or source, open to everyone who wishes to come and find inspiration. “Knowing this was my destiny,” says Mai‘oho, who like his ancestors lives and works only a few yards from the royal graves, “I was happy to be ‘going home’ to live out my life caring for my friends, the ‘uhane.”