Issue 20.2: April/May 2017
Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Through an Ancient Village

Story by Liza Simon. Photos by Kent Nishimura.

When Barbers Point Naval Air Station closed in 1999, it opened the way for an undisturbed portion of the former military base to become the Kalaeloa Heritage Park, a seventy-seven-acre cultural time capsule containing more than two hundred historic and ancient sites.

The nonprofit group Kalaeloa Heritage and Legacy Foundation, which has a forty-year lease on the land, has cleared away the kiawe trees and brush to reveal some of these sites. The group’s docents lead educational tours, evoking a time six hundred years ago when the first inhabitants of O‘ahu’s arid ‘Ewa plain eked a living out of the hardscrabble landscape.

Armed with a recent archaeological study, Native Hawaiian legends and a passion for the ‘Ewa plain region he has always called home, docent Shad Kane seizes on just about every natural and man-made feature in sight to tell stories of the area’s original inhabitants. While their quiet and sunbaked world might seem idyllic today, Kane emphasizes the challenges—like no apparent freshwater source. He points to the sandy soil and the deep perforations in coral rock, where, he says, villagers engineered a way to tap into the aquifer.

Kane, a septuagenarian, walks with a spring in his step along a well-worn footpath, explaining that this was part of the mountain-to-sea trail used by the fishermen who traded seafood from the coast, a mile away, for the bananas and taro grown by upland farmers. Nearby are the remains of L-shaped structures, which Kane says were guest houses where weary traders from afar stayed. He points out native plants protected by depressions in the rock that are associated with high chiefs who would have visited the village during makahiki, the festival season. Mostly, though, this was a place for commoners, he says, who needed to work together to succeed.

When Native Hawaiian schoolkids tell Kane they would have preferred to live in Hawai‘i six hundred years ago, he tells them it’s good to be alive today, when they have more choices in life. But it’s also good to understand what their ancestors went through to get them here. “We all need a place to gather and contemplate our origins,” he says. “Learning about the past doesn’t mean you have to live in the past. It just makes you a better person.”