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Vol. 14, no. 3
June / July 2011


Kulia's Kuleana 

Story by David Thompson

Photos by Jack Wolford


Kulia Tolentino with students Zachary Kerr (left) and Ka'eo Mokiao-Lee.

Just after 9 a.m. on a sunny school day, the seventh- and eighth-grade classes of Ke Ana La‘ahana Public Charter School of Hilo pile out of an old yellow school bus, sling backpacks over their shoulders and start trudging down the wickedly steep four-wheel-drive road into Waipi‘o Valley. Nobody says much. It’s early yet, and the students have a long hike into the valley ahead of them. A cloud of adolescent crankiness follows as they clomp down the hill.


They absolutely hate this road, says their teacher, Kulia Kauhi Tolentino, who has a gentle voice, a sweet disposition and uncommon determination. “Walking down’s not so bad,” she says, smiling sympathetically. “But coming back up— oh boy, do they grumble.” She makes them do this once a month. She would make them do it more often, but school budget cuts have curtailed her use of the bus.


The mood brightens a bit after the students stop halfway down the road and recite a Hawaiian genealogical chant, as they always do at the beginning of the school day at Ke Ana La‘ahana, which has a mostly Native Hawaiian student body. By the time they reach their destination forty minutes later, they’re chattering and horsing around as happily as if they were in homeroom.


But this overgrown corner of Waipi‘o Valley, in a narrow valley-within-the-valley near the base of the twin waterfalls of Hi‘ilawe and Hakalaoa, is no digitally connected classroom. There’s not even a road that reaches it, just a muddy foot trail. You might think it’s the middle of nowhere, but actually it’s the site of what was once the largest of Waipi‘o Valley’s four main villages, Napo‘opo‘o. In the overgrown forest understory, archaeologists have mapped out forty-three ancient house sites and an interconnected complex of some four hundred lo‘i, or kalo patches. Sometimes Kulia gazes into the forest and the trees fade away, the 1,400-foot double waterfalls rise overhead, the view of the distant ocean reappears, high peaked roofs of the grass hale (houses) return and the heart-shaped leaves of thousands of kalo plants fill rock-wall terraces that stretch all the way down to the river. “It looks like heaven,” she says.