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<b>Down South, Out West</b><br><i>Sir Bob Harvey’s son Fraser walks New Zealand’s Karekare<br>Photo by Dana Edmunds</i>
Vol. 17, no. 5
October/November 2014


Raising Moku‘ula 
Story By: Ronald Williams Jr.
Photos By: Sue Hudelson

On a gorgeous Maui day I sit atop the bleachers overlooking what’s been called “the most sacred ballfield in America.” The Lahaina sun is directly overhead, but a breeze from nearby Makila beach cuts the heat: a perfect day for a game, yet there are no players, no cheering fans or anyone else in the stands. The baselines are barely visible under the grass growing over the once-manicured diamond. I’m alone at this ghost field.

This part of Malu‘ulu ‘o Lele park closed in 1999 after it was discovered that the ballfield lay atop one of the most important archeological sites in the Islands. Only a few feet beneath the soil here lies Moku‘ula, the political and spiritual home to some of Hawai‘i’s most venerated rulers of centuries past. Under this nondescript lot is an incredible story of political strife and religious tradition, of royal burials and offerings to the fearsome mo‘o (great reptile) deity, Kihawahine. So significant is Moku‘ula that it has been nominated for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

That the history of this quiet part of Lahaina has become the talk of the town is an amazing story in itself. Cultural anthropologist P. Christiaan Klieger, who led a survey of the site in the 1990s, called it “an axis mundi of the Hawaiian world,” but it was nearly lost. In 1914 the seventeen-acre inland fishpond called Mokuhinia and its sacred island of Moku‘ula were covered with coral and dirt. As the new government in Hawai‘i rushed to embrace its future as an American territory, the Islands’ native past was quite literally buried. The land was converted for public use, and later generations came to know it simply as Lahaina Park. By the 1980s the site had earned another distinction: In addition to being the unofficial town dump and homeless camp, it was where late-night revelers gathered to polish off cases of beer.

Among those evening imbibers was Anthony “Akoni” Akana. Sitting in the shadows of a field that celebrated America’s pastime, a cold one in hand, Akana had no idea of the role he would come to play in unearthing this remarkable Hawaiian story. Akana grew up on O‘ahu among hula dancers and Hawaiian-language speakers. After attending Kamehameha Schools, he studied with kumu hula (hula teacher) George Naope. A dedicated and passionate student, Akana became a kumu hula himself. When he moved to Maui, he met a group of other kumu and cultural practitioners that included Kano‘eau Delatore, J. Kalani English, Kekoa Yap and Keali‘i Reichel among others. “It was natural for us to find each other,” recalls English, now a state senator. “Maui is a small island, and as cultural practitioners we all knew one another. We’d get together and holoholo [cruise around], chose a certain area to visit and learn about. Spend time with the streams, valleys, everything.” English chuckles when he recalls that gaining ‘ike (knowledge) about Maui became something of a competition among the group. “Akoni was always so driven. He did his research, read the books, but never stopped seeking out more. He made sure to go sit and talk with the ‘ohana [families], the kupuna [elders].”

Akana and some of his companions found work at the Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel, a locally owned business consistently named “Hawai‘i’s most Hawaiian hotel.” The company’s training program, Po‘okela, immerses its employees in Hawaiian history and culture—a relatively unique idea when it began thirty years ago. The cultural expert George Hu‘eu Kanahele trained much of the staff. “Uncle George” challenged the employees to do more than just tell stories to hotel guests; he insisted that they find a project and make it their own, that they make a difference.


Akana had heard stories about Lahaina Park, but something more visceral filled his na‘au—his gut—considered the center of intuition and wisdom in Hawaiian culture. He spent time with kupuna and researched the vast archive of nineteenth-century Hawaiian-language newspapers. Slowly the history emerged: Moku‘ula had been the site of the court of Pi‘ilani, the sixteenth-century ruler of Maui. In the 1830s it had been the the personal residence of Mo‘i Kauikeaouli (King Kamehameha III). Numerous canals carried fresh water from upland streams and local springs throughout the area, turning the place known for its “unrelenting sun” (la haina) into a lush, watery garden of fishponds, taro fields and breadfruit groves. The Reverend William Richards, who was in the area in 1823, wrote that it was “far more beautiful than any place we have yet seen on the Islands.”