Issue 11.2: April / May 2008

A Heiau in the City

story by Priscilla Pérez Billig
photo by Ann Cecil


Most of Honolulu’s ancient history lies buried beneath urban overgrowth; a few stones along a hiking trail may be the only evidence that a civilization thrived here before the arrival of Captain Cook. But at the 100-year-old Cooke family estate in Manoa, a stone wall pre-dating Western contact lies nestled among rare native plants; it’s easy to overlook if you’re unaware that it’s a magnificent relic of the past.

According to one Hawaiian legend, a chief, Kawelo, climbed to the top of Konahuanui, the highest mountain of the Ko‘olaus, and threw an ‘o‘o, a digging stick, that landed on a hill below. There the Hawaiians built a heiau (shrine). Another legend tells that the Menehune, a race of small people living in the Islands when the Polynesians arrived, built the heiau. While legends differ, the heiau has come to be called Kuka‘o‘o, or “standing digging stick.” The Hawaiians cleared the surrounding forest and created a breadbasket of kalo (taro), banana, sweet potato and other crops that sustained the ahupua‘a of Waikiki, a community of thousands.

Following contact with the West, the Native Hawaiian population swiftly declined. Over the last 200 years, the valley has been used for cattle, sugarcane and coffee plantations (the first in Hawai‘i), and later for the suburban development we see today. Kuka‘o‘o heiau, estimated by the late Bishop Museum anthropologist Kenneth Emory to be 1,000 years old, was left in ruins. Overgrown by trees, its once-sacred stones lay scattered.

In 1992, Samuel and Mary Cooke purchased the garden and hired preservationist Nathan Napoka to restore the heiau. What was left of it had to be disassembled to clear the overgrowth. Then, working from still-visible outlines and survey drawings from the 1930s, stone mason Billy Fields reconstructed the walls using only the rocks found on the site.

Today, Kuka‘o‘o heiau provides a breathtaking view of Manoa valley and the Ko‘olaus. The restored heiau and gardens are now entrusted to the stewardship of the Manoa Heritage Center, founded by the Cookes to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of the property. “We want to be good stewards of this place and encourage others to be good stewards,” Mary Cooke says. “We were born and raised in Hawai‘i and feel responsible for leaving Manoa a better place.” HH

To arrange a tour of the Manoa Heritage Center and Kuka‘o‘o heiau, call (808)988-1287.