story by Curt Sanburn
Pretty, finger-like Kane‘ilio Point stretches into the calm blue sea at Wai‘anae on O‘ahu’s leeward coast. The rocky spit of land cradles a big crescent beach that marks the southern reach of broad Poka‘i Bay, the historic heart of the district. Near the bay’s northern end, channelized Kaupuni stream empties through the sand, its mouth framed by twin concrete revetments. Landward, mottled green-and-brown mountain ridges plunge down from Ka‘ala to the rooftops and foliage of Wai‘anae town.
“This was one of the largest coconut groves in Hawai‘i,” says activist and arts promoter Daniel Anthony, 29, standing at the edge of the point and sweeping his arm across the view. “The grove was famous,” he says. “It extended 2 miles inland … it looked like Samoa.”
He tells me an ancient Wai‘anae mo‘olelo, a story about a seafaring Tahitian chief named Poka‘i who landed here more than a thousand years ago and planted one of the coconuts that came with him, somewhere along this beach.
“They say it was the first niu [coconut tree] in Hawai‘i … but I don’t know; check the archives.” Anthony stares across the bay. He grew up in a house just a few hundred yards from where we’re standing, raised by his grandparents. I scan the shore’s greenery. An occasional coconut frond glints in the sunlight, but the trees are few and far between and of no particular height—nothing, certainly, that suggests an old grove.
We drive into Wai‘anae town for another vantage point and stop in the parking lot between McDonald’s and Taco Bell, hard by the coastal highway and the concrete banks of Kaupuni stream. In the midday heat, dogs bark and doves coo, but nary a niu in sight.
“This was about where the middle of the grove was,” Anthony says, looking up and down the stream. “All along here, both sides, from the elementary school down to the bay. My grandfather told me it was choke coconuts around here, before it all got built up.”
In the 1980s, the massive new resort area of Ko Olina, 15 miles south, needed coconuts to give the parched acreage a more tropical feel. Contractors purchased hundreds of trees from area landowners, dug them up, and trucked them out of Wai‘anae.
“If you see coconut trees up here now, it’s usually in the beach parks, and most of those—the shorter ones—were transplanted from He‘eia on the Windward side for one of [former] Mayor Jeremy Harris’ beautification projects. If you didn’t know that, you would think they’re the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen; but if you know it, it’s like a pimple.”
Three years ago, Anthony decided to take action. He contacted his aunt, state Rep. Maile Shimabukuro, who introduced House Bill 2930 in the state Legislature in 2006. The bill called for a pilot program that would essentially allow the community to cordon off a patch of suitable state land in Wai‘anae and plant a new coconut grove that would grow naturally, a place where falling coconuts would be the norm and not a lawsuit waiting to happen. The public purpose? Providing access to coconut foodstuffs and other plant materials in keeping with the state’s constitutionally expressed commitment to traditional Hawaiian cultural practices and gathering rights.
But bureaucrats fretted about cost and liability, and the bill, which passed the House, did not survive the Senate. Anthony says he’ll try again.
“I just want to get it going,” the wiry and intense young man says. “You get around liability through education. I’m no expert, but you know, generations used to care for the groves—there was a science to it, a science built out of values, because they used the coconut tree to survive.”