Until a few years ago, anyone driving by this spot would see nothing but a tangle of haole koa trees and cactuses. Billy Kaohelauli‘i, on the other hand, has always known what’s hidden behind the thicket.
A fisherman who grew up on the edge of Kāneiolouma, Kaohelauli‘i had heard the stories passed down among his family, which has lived here for generations. Since he was a kid, Kaohelauli‘i knew the location of the chiefs’ residences, the sports arena (possibly the only intact structure of its kind in Hawai‘i), the heiau (temple). His family drank the water that flowed from the spring of Waiohai.
Ke Kahua o Kāneiolouma is an ancient Hawaiian village and heiau just inland from Po‘ipū Beach Park, on the south shore of Kaua‘i. It dates back to at least the fifteenth century, and the eleven acres of county land on which it sits are all that’s left of a huge complex of agricultural and habitation sites that numbered well over a thousand features—a highly sophisticated society that prospered for centuries before the village was abandoned in the early nineteenth century.
Growing up, Kaohelauli‘i watched the population of Po‘ipū grow as its economy changed from sugar and ranching to tourism. These days Po‘ipū is ranked consistently among America’s best beaches, and the average rate for a hotel room is $400 a night. Yet Kāneiolouma escaped development because it is not on private land.
Kāneiolouma was slowly forgotten over the years, and Kaohelauli‘i saw the effects of neglect. Vandals and contractors stole rocks from the heiau. Trash piled up, and changes to the surrounding land caused damage. The spring stopped flowing. It was only a matter of time before the destruction would be irreparable and the stories would be lost.
One day in 1998, Kaohelauli‘i was cleaning the heiau as he had done all his life, when an agent from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources tried to stop him. “I told ’em, ‘I’m cleaning my ancestors’ land.’ They said, ‘You can’t, this is county land,’” recalls Kaohelauli‘i.“I said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re not talking about now, we’re talking about before—it was my ancestors’ land. We’re gonna clean ’em.’” He didn’t stop working.
Although the property belongs to Kaua‘i County, the state Historic Preservation Office intervened to oust Kaohelauli‘i because of the cultural value of the heiau. Yet, Kaohelauli‘i remarks, they didn’t stop anyone from removing rocks. Kaohelauli‘i turned to his friend Rupert Rowe, who had recently retired from the fire department, to ask his help to save Kāneiolouma, not only from the vandals but from the state.
“When Billy phoned me and called me Rupert instead of Rupe, I knew whatever he wanted was serious,” says Rowe, recalling the beginning of the campaign in 1998 to save the complex. “I came over, and the first thing we did was pule [pray]. When you pule you ask to open the door and show you your path. When you deal with the past especially, you have to ask permission, because if what you are doing is not pono [proper], the past may not be willing to deal with you, and the doors may not open. We visualized, I saw the obstacles that would come forth, I knew we would have to be patient, humble and compassionate.” The two then set out to draft a plan, rally the community and convince the county that Kāneiolouma needed care.
Rowe and Kaohelauli‘i started by reviewing the work of Henry Kekahuna, who surveyed and mapped Kāneiolouma in 1959. Randy Wichman, whose family has been involved with the Kaua‘i Historical Society since helping to start it five generations ago, was familiar with Kekahuna’s work—his grandmother had commissioned Kekahuna to do the mapping. Wichman joined the core group Rowe and Kaohelauli‘i were assembling, bringing his knowledge of restoration techniques and his hands-on experience from another archaeological project he’d been involved with, at Nu‘alolo Kai, on Kaua‘i’s Nā Pali Coast. “We had been doing mapping and rebuild-ing stone walls at Nu‘alolo Kai for ten years, and from that we learned a lot of what we would need to know to restore Kāneiolouma,” says Wichman. “We had a highly trained stone crew as well as protocol leaders who would be an important part of this journey into the sacred world. They would assure our spiritual safety. We all started to meet and built a vision with the help of many others.”
Despite the DLNR’s warning to Kaohelauli‘i, the group of Hawaiians who had experience clearing sites at Nu‘alolo Kai started work on Kāneiolouma. They left a barrier of haole koa, guinea grass and cactuses around the perimeter so no one would know what was going on inside. This went on for nearly ten years.
Stone worker Keaka Flores, who worked on Nu‘alolo Kai, has been clearing and restoring Kāneiolouma since the beginning.“You could see the remnants of where vandals were taking rocks. We started repairing the walls, putting the rocks back up that were there, not altering anything, just fixing them and not bringing in new rocks,” he says. “This is one of those places that has never been touched. You walk around, you can still feel it. Most of the structures are practical. No sense bulldoze it down. Leave it how it is, find a practical use of the ‘āina [land] the way it’s been. It’s why the ‘auwai [water ditches] came down in certain places, the planting grounds are in the best places, the fishing grounds are all connected with each other. It calls us, it always has.”
Ke‘eaumoku Kapu is a cultural practitioner and natural resource manager on Maui. Rowe knew of his ability to use contemporary management skills to perpetuate traditional values and brought him in. “Rupert uses me when it comes to management, when it comes to the county,” says Kapu. “We made sure everything is for education purposes rather than religious, and that’s where Randy came in. We had to bring the traditions of the past to our contemporary lives and show how we’re going to draw these things together to create something to benefit the future while applying the values of the past to things
The ongoing theft of rocks from the heiau, even after the group had started clearing the site, gave urgency to the mission. When Bernard Carvalho became mayor, everything changed. “The mayor saw the potential and made it a priority,” says Mauna Kea Trask, who grew up on Kaua‘i never knowing there was a heiau under the brush. Trask worked in the county prosecutor’s office, and he heard Kaohelauli‘i and Rowe talking about Kāneiolouma.“No one in the county government saw the opportunity to really work with Hawaiians at such a high level, versus against or around them,” Trask says. In 2009, more than a decade after Kaohelauli‘i and Rowe embarked on their mission to save Kāneiolouma, the newly formed Hui Mālama o Kāneiolouma signed a first-of-its-kind agreement with the county, penned by Trask. The county would retain ownership while granting stewardship to the hui. This achievement marked the beginning of the next phase of restoration.
Hui members removed the perimeter of protective brush while a team of masons constructed a four-and-a-half-foot-tall perimeter rock wall around two exposed sides of the kahua (village) for security. Wichman had already been researching the history of this wahi pana, or storied place, and worked with other hui members to create interpretive signage in English and Hawaiian, which now stands at a corner of the site. With much of the land cleared, 3-D laser scanning of the land was performed, which provided extremely accurate baseline mapping without the need for damaging excavation.
“This is baseline data,” explains Wichman. “We don’t have to draw in every contour, but the future is gonna know what you did. If you want any kind of scientific integrity, you need the cultural integrity. But you also need the respect of the scientific community, and by having the respect of both, you have a learning laboratory that is multifunctional and hits all different types of people. As you go through this, you think about how to raise the bar. It is a lifetime project—it will never be done.”
Wichman directed the construction of an observation platform adjacent to the complex, with celestial patterns embedded into the floor. Four carved ki‘i, or temple images, stand on the platform facing the four directions where the sun rises and sets during solstices and equinoxes. Celestial observations from the platform are already teaching modern-day Hawaiians how their ancestors read the sky.
The first two phases of the restoration have been completed. Future phases include restoring the fishpond, taro patch and pathways; building an interpretive center; and hosting cultural activities including exhibits of Hawaiian art, sporting competitions and ceremonies. While the county provided grants for the first two phases, future phases must rely on fundraising.
Rowe remains po‘o (head) of the hui, and when he sent out the call for help at Kāneiolouma on a chilly Sunday morning last December, more than twenty people arrived at 7:30 with chain saws and garden tools, ready to remove tough, thorny kiawe
“I traveled the farthest to get here, from the north shore,” says Tyson Nu‘uhiwa-Gomes. “I work with the pōhaku [rocks]—we built the outside wall. I love working with rocks. I’ve been a cultural practitioner all my life, I just got called to this. My mom passed away while I was working on this place; I brought her ashes and they’re in there. It’s been all good since then. I love this place. People show up and put their heart into it and are gratified by looking at it.”
“This is not even for our generation,” says Peleke Flores, one of the young men who has been involved with the project from the beginning. “If we can bring this back, then our kids will have a resource they can mālama [care for], and they will be the next keepers. The generation before us pushed through the political movement, reclaiming identity, everything. Now we gotta do the physical thing, bring it back without getting physically, mentally or spiritually tired. We can never replicate [what was originally there], but as long as you get it up and strong, then it will connect us more to our kūpuna [ancestors] spiritually and physically.”
“It was a very good adventure in the early stages,” Rowe says. “We never gave up. We still here.” HH