story by Paul Wood
photos by Monte Costa
On the island of Lana‘i, on a stretch of southern shoreline, there was once a fishing village called Kapiha‘a. Today the ruins of the village are obscured by knee-high grass and an extensive grove of kiawe (mesquite) trees; only by getting down into that grove can you really start to see what once was. Then the imagination begins to reassemble the tumbled, umber stones into house foundations and other structuresa three-tiered heiau (temple), cleared patches for gardening, an immense fishing shrine heaped with white coral chunks and crowned with an iconic spire of smooth basalt.
It is here, above the shrine in the simmering heat of midmorning, that I sit with the new director of the Lana‘i Culture and Heritage Center, Kepa Maly. We gaze out at the squared-off seastack called Pu‘u Pehe (“Sweetheart Rock”) and across the porcelain sea to Haleakala, Mauna Kea, Kaho‘olawe. In the middle distance, whales spout.
Kepa tells me that the coral-capped shrine, properly called a ku‘ula ‘ia, corresponds to a matching structure atop Pu‘u Pehe that is believed to be a ku‘ula manu, a bird-catcher’s shrine. He names each of the valleys that cut into the seacliffs beyond Pu‘u PeheKapo‘ili‘ili, Kapokoholua and othersand interprets the name of each valley as a specific projection of the Hawaiian mythic imagination. He calls them “storied places.” For Kepa, the entire island of Lana‘i is a network of storied places, a constellation of legends and former lives. It is also the place that forged him, that took him out of one world and deep into another.
Kepa is an anomaly of the rarest kind in the Islandsin fact, I think as we sit together, there may be no one else quite like him. When he tells me that he sometimes has difficulty with the “new” Hawaiianthat spoken by students from the universitybecause he speaks in the manner of the old days, that thought is confirmed.
Let me explain. The man telling me this is light-skinned, fair-haired, slim in face and physique. He would be perfectly camouflaged on an Orange County golf courseat least until he opened his mouth. Then an old Hawaiian in a haole body would emerge, speaking in the manner of the kumu, the teachers, who have guided him: storytelling vivid, diction careful and genuinely me ka ha‘aha‘a, full of humility.
How Kepa became this personhis unique destinyis a tale with all of the resonance and drama of a great Hawaiian myth. He was 10, living on O‘ahu, when his birth parents’ marriage failed. A professional associate of his father suggested that there was a Hawaiian couple on Lana‘i who were willing to hanai the child.
Hanaithe traditional Hawaiian practice of giving a child to other parents, in this case to more capable parents of the grandparent or tutu generationdefined Kepa. Already in their mid-70s when Kepa came to them, the Reverend Daniel Ka‘opuiki Sr. and Hattie Holohua Ka‘enaokalani-Ka‘opuiki spoke Hawaiian as their native tongue. “Their kupuna saw the kapu overthrown,” says Kepa, a way of noting that his hanai parents’ lives (and thus his own) ran directly back to pre-missionary days. “I was really fortunate,” he says.
His own name, “Kepa,” was given to him by the Ka‘opuikis. It means “embrace” or “encircle.” “Hawaiians are the great embracers,” he tells me. “They embrace freely even in adversity.” His transformation was total. “I threw away my English name long ago. That person is dead.”
As a kid, Kepa hiked the island, looking for the places the old folks talked about, places of myth and history. “I was the weird one,” he says. “I would hear them talk story, and I always wanted to go find what they were talking about.” He picked pineapple on the night shift so that he could hike the island in daylight.
When he finished high school, Kepa left Lana‘i and the home of his Tutu Papa and Tutu Mama, moved to O‘ahu and began inventing a life commensurate with his childhood. He started at Kualoa Regional Park, first as a volunteer until he was hired as a park naturalist. Later he worked for Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park as a specialist in cultural interpretation programs, a skill he took to positions at the Grand Canyon and Point Reyes National Seashore. He worked as a curator and exhibit designer for the Kaua‘i Museum.
Throughout, he continued learning from the Hawaiian elders. “Aunty Maiki Lake was my kumu to ‘iniki me,” he saysin other words, he graduated from the halau (school) of one of the most influential kumu hula (hula teacher) of the Hawaiian Renaissance. He also speaks with reverence of Tutu Ho‘ohila Kawelo, a chanter of the old Pele line. Other influences, he says, include Aunty Lokelia Montgomery, who was Aunty Maiki’s kumu, and Mary Kawena Pukui, a scholar with the Bishop Museum who surpassed all others in her dedication to the preservation of Hawaiian culture. Kepa married Kawena Pukui’s granddaughter, Onaona, and the two have been partners for over thirty years. In fact, when Kepa left his position at the Kaua‘i Museum, he and Onaona moved to the Big Island and created a business, Kumu Pono Associates, offering research into and translation of Hawaiian documents such as royal patent grants, land history records, old Hawaiian-language newspaper accounts and other such untapped cultural resources.
Through all of this time, Kepa kept collecting information about his home island of Lana‘i. In Denver, Colorado, for example, at the US Geological Survey office he discovered a written account of a walk across Lana‘i in 1820. He also found a photograph of the now-vanished “pipi chute,” or cattle-loading ramp, at Manele Harbor. In effect, he has spent a lifetime collecting information about Lana‘i, most of it lodged only in his mind and memory. “I was worried. I thought, ‘I’m going to die before I get back to Lana‘i and do something with all this information.’”
The solution arose in 2005 when he was asked to put some life into the quiescent Lana‘i Culture and Heritage Center (LCHC), a teeny museum whose doors were usually closed. He helped the center structure itself as a bona fide 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. He arranged for the Bishop Museum to return numerous Lana‘i artifacts, such as awls, adzes, fishing lures, sling stones, old records and maps. Then, when the time came for LCHC to hire an executive director, he accepted the position. Last September, he came home, with Onaona as his assistant and mission partner. I ask how he felt to return, and he replies instantly: “Ecstatic! I have the opportunity to give back to the people who gave me my life.”
The museum, located on the edge of Dole Park in Lana‘i City, is headquarters, but the embrace of Kepa’s mission is island-wide and historic in scope. He’s alarmed, he says, at the cultural discontinuities that have occurred even within his own lifetime. “We have kids now who have never picked pineapple on Lana‘i,” he says, and he laments the fact that the island is no longer a place where drivers wave as they pass each other. But Kepa’s vision of the island goes far deeper into the past than a single lifetime. In his mind, the gods of the forest still live, and his imagination still sees the land as capable of sustaining a population of 6,000as it did in premodernitywithout outside supply lines. “Today,” he says by way of contrast, “there are 3,200 people here, and if we miss Barge Day one week, we’re in trouble.”
I suggest that Lana‘i is small enough to give the feeling that one person can really make a difference. He says, “I hope that I’m humble enough to remember that we all need to be in it togetherkakou, all of us together. It’s what I was taught by the old people. They took me for a reason. Whether it was Tutu Kawena, Tutu Kawelo, the Ka‘opuikis, whoever it wasI believe that the kupuna had their reasons to talk story and share. Because they don’t just teach to anybody. That’s what we’re always told, right?” He pauses and his face fills with a radiant smile as he thinks of his past and of his future. “Ah,” he says. “I love it. It’s a way of life. We have the opportunity to help the island retain its place, its spirit.” HH