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.”
But it was the spiritual resonance of the site that really sparked Akana’s passion. Moku‘ula was kapu (forbidden) to all but those of the highest rank and housed a royal mausoleum that held the iwi (bones) of some of Hawai‘i’s most exalted rulers: Keopuolani, the sacred wife of Kamehameha I; their daughter Nahi‘ena‘ena; another of Kamehameha’s wives, Kalakua (grandmother to Kamehameha IV and V); Kamehameha’s most trusted adviser, Ulumaheihei Hoapili. These remains and many more were said to be guarded by Kihawahine, the mo‘o kia‘i (lizard guardian) of Moku‘ula.
According to native histories, the mo‘o had once been human. Pi‘ilani and his sacred wife La‘ieloheloheikawai carried a chiefly bloodline that had the power to produce akua (deities). A daughter, Kihawahine Mokuhinia Kalama‘ula Kala‘aiheana, was born e‘epa (in an extraordinary or abnormal state)—a condition that foretold immense power. When she died at age twenty-one, her iwi were wrapped in kapa (bark cloth) and placed in the waters of the royal fishpond named for her, Mokuhinia. A ceremony was performed, kaku‘ai (deification of a dead relative) that transfigured Kihawahine into a mo‘o, among the most feared and powerful figures in ancient Hawai‘i. The nineteenth-century native historian Samuel Kamakau wrote that mo‘o, seen by “na haneri a o na tausani kanaka” (hundreds and thousands of people), possessed “kino waliwali” (violent, dreadful bodies) that measured up to twenty feet long.
In the 1840s Hawai‘i’s economy was centered at Honolulu, and the capital moved there from Lahaina in 1845. Mo‘i Kauikeaouli and many other ali‘i nui (high chiefs) left Moku‘ula. Soon after, the waters that fed Mokuhinia were diverted for sugar cane. The pond stagnated, and the island of Moku‘ula fell into disrepair. On June 14, 1862, a kanikau (funeral dirge) written for the ali‘i Manoanoa appeared in the Hawaiian-language newspaper Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, calling on the people to restore many of the deceased princess’ favorite places. One stanza implored, “E hoi ka nani i Mokuula la, i ka uka wale o Wainee la.” (Return the glory to Moku‘ula, there above the shore at Waine‘e.)
That century-old call to action became the motto for Friends of Moku‘ula, the organization Akana founded in 1990. Akana had a remarkable—many would say unrealistic—dream of obtaining the rights to the land, excavating the island and restoring the waters to the pond. But the land, less than a hundred yards from the beach and sitting on the edge of a burgeoning tourist district, had become prime real estate.
Yet Moku‘ula had a story to tell, and people were listening. A 1993 archeological survey sponsored by Bishop Museum and led by Klieger confirmed the history Akana and others had uncovered and focused new attention on the site. Less than two feet below the surface of the baseball field, intact planks of a wooden pier were found. It was from there that Hawaiian royalty had once launched canoes to cross Mokuhinia. In modern times, runners heading to third base passed directly over what had been Moku‘ula’s royal mausoleum. Recurrent stories of players having “accidents” on that spot—sprained ankles, a broken leg—gave everyone chicken skin.
Still, the games continued, and repeated efforts to garner county support for a restoration went nowhere. Klieger recalls a distressing event during the summer of 1995: “The county had been planning subsurface excavations for a new backstop and bleachers. Our final report had been issued months before, so they were informed where the architectural features were below the surface. Nonetheless, the planned construction at the site went ahead, and in the process heavy machinery breached one of the ancient retaining walls of Moku‘ula.” The resulting controversy—and national attention—halted the construction.
Akana saw an opportunity. He traveled around the Islands and beyond, telling the story of Moku‘ula to anyone who would listen. He gave talks at the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society and at conferences worldwide. His efforts paid off, and in 1999 all public activities at the park were stopped. Political allies, including English and Alan Arawaka—who was then the chair of the county’s Planning, Parks and Land Use Commission—threw their support behind the project. In 2002 the FOM signed an agreement with the county that granted them a lease to property at the site and revenues from a pay parking lot currently located there. An impossibly high mountain had been scaled, and the momentum to climb the next was building.
Akana faced daunting challenges with passion and unyielding determination. But those who knew him describe him as more a visionary than an executive, and his style often ruffled feathers, as did his insistence that Moku‘ula remain kapu so that it would never become a tourist attraction. English recalls a day Akana had in court: He was diabetic and his eyesight was worsening. When a judge ordered his driver’s license revoked, Akana shot back, “So what, now who goin’ drive me to work? You goin’ take me to work? I gotta get to Moku‘ula!” Akana’s relentlessness took a toll: Already slight, he grew thinner. In the spring of 2011 he was admitted to the hospital, where doctors informed him that he would lose either a leg or his life. A week later they took the other leg. Then on March 25, 2011, Akana passed away.
The loss was a devastating blow to the restoration. Shirley Kahai, a project manager and Akana’s confidante, was appointed as the new director. She pushed hard to get the project back on track: A proposed agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers on a $5 million plan to bring the water back to Mokuhinia would have overcome another major hurdle. But a sudden heart attack claimed Shirley’s life, and once again the project came to a halt. Much has been accomplished since—planting native species, constructing a stone ahu (cairn), regular cleanups—but more than twenty years after the founding of FOM, to most the site remains a field of dreams.
“Kuleana” is a word you hear often among those involved with Moku‘ula. This Hawaiian word for “responsibility” carries serious weight, and the people Akana inspired continue to shoulder it. “Akoni saw Moku‘ula itself as a teacher, as a guide,” says Kekoa Yap. “Look at how things are now—we need that guidance.”
A new FOM leader, Blossom Feitiera, has hit the ground running, gathering küpuna and lineal descendents of the area to direct the project’s path. Longtime supporter Alan Arakawa, elected mayor of Maui County in 2010, has pushed for movement. “I went to the County Council last year and asked them to support moneys for planning and development of the project,” he says. “But I told them not to vote for it unless they planned on supporting the larger plan—a completion of the project—which would be $10 to $20 million. If memory serves, every one of them was in support.” While realizing the dream of restoring Moku‘ula is closer than it’s yet been, there are still disagreements over what that restoration should look like. Can it once again be a viable and working fishpond? With continued revenue needed to support the operations, where would a new parking lot go? Those questions remain open, but for now there is very real, if tempered, excitement.
As a historian and former Lahaina resident, I’ve visited the site often over the past few months, called back to this dusty field by something I can’t define. Gazing out over the site, I wonder what Moku‘ula will be in another ten years: a sacrifice in our race toward the future or a cherished link to the past? For some in the community at least, there’s no such uncertainty. “It’s gotta happen,” says Yap. “We need it. Moku‘ula is a place where our kupuna can return to us, a place where we can remember who we were, think about who we are and know who we can be.” If I squint just right, I can almost see it.