On the Path of the Gods

The waves of change continue to break at Kealakekua, where Hawai‘i first encountered the West
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Megan Spelman.

The Kumulipo, often referred to as Hawai‘i’s creation chant, begins with a coral polyp. From this humble organism springs all of creation. Over sixteen stanzas, the epic poem details the genealogy of Lono-i-ka-makahiki, a deified chief from South Kona.

It describes his family tree, from the first stirrings of the universe all the way down to his human ancestors. Of many such lineage chants, it is the most historically important. In modern times it was sung on notable occasions: The deaths of two high chiefs and the arrival of Captain James Cook in Hawai‘i. King David Kalākaua used it to solidify his claim to the Hawaiian throne.

Kealakekua bay is home to one of Hawai‘i's most vibrant—and most resilient—coral reefs, like the one seen here with its resident lau‘īpala (yellow tang). Spikes in ocean temperature caused two bleaching events in 2014 and 2015, resulting in dead white corals. Researchers were deeply concerned, then encouraged by the signs of recovery in 90 percent of the corals they surveyed. A complete recovery of the reef will take many years, provided the water temperature remains stable.
Tiare and Zed HewLan swim with their children at the spot known today as Manini beach; in ancient times the spot was called Kapahukapu, or "forbidden box". Before fishermen broke through the rock of the outer wall allowing ocean to flood the spring-fed pool, Kapahukapu's waters were said to have healing properties, and royal wāhine would come to bathe here.
A rout boat brings visitors to the Cook monument at Ka‘awaloa, near the spot where the great British navigator met his end. It's not an easy place to access except by boat, and the state manages tourist traffic in the bay carefully. The state's pending master plan for Ka‘awaloa includes toilet facilities and an emergency helicopter pad to evacuate visitors in need of rescue.

It’s no wonder that such a potent chant originated at Kealakekua, where Lono-i-ka-makahiki was born and where corals are so abundant they seem to embody the very genesis of life. Kealakekua is a place of power and poetry. Today most people know it as the site where Captain Cook landed and was killed in 1779. Tourists flock to the monument raised in his honor—though they’re likely more interested in the bay’s vibrant marine life than its naval history. Kealakekua’s serene, undeveloped coastline gives little hint of its past.

“I don’t want to talk about Cook,” says Shane Akoni Nelson when we meet down at Kealakekua bay. For 240 years the British explorer has cast a long shadow on this place. But to kama‘āina (children of the land) like Nelson, Cook is a single, dog-eared page in a dynamic history that’s still being written—or chanted.

Kealakekua bay is a designated Marine Life Conservation District, but subsistence fishers still rely on the south side of the bay for traditional foods: akule (big-eyed scad), ‘ōpelu (mackerel scad), ‘opihi (limpets) and occasional big game fish such as this bright red ‘ahi (tuna).

Nelson says hello to the sweat-drenched state workers gathered in the bay’s parking lot. They’re building a barrier between the traffic and Hikiau, the centuries-old stone heiau (temple) at the ocean’s edge. From this angle, Hikiau doesn’t look like much: a small, truncated pyramid wedged between a few parking stalls and the encroaching sea. Waves slap against the cement seawall, casting spray onto the temple walls.

When Cook arrived in the late 1700s, South Kona was the most populous region in the Hawaiian Islands—likely in all of Polynesia. Thousands of people lived at Kealakekua, beside Hikiau in the village of Nāpō‘opo‘o, and across the bay in the royal compound of Ka‘awaloa. The great warrior Kalani‘ōpu‘u lived here, along with his nephew Kamehameha, who launched his quest to conquer the Islands with a decisive battle just uphill from Nāpō‘opo‘o. Hikiau was dedicated to both Kū, the war god, and Lono, the god of peace and abundant harvests.

Lono reigned over the winter months, the season characterized by the raucous music of migratory seabirds, drenching rains, thunder and thumping surf. Each November, when the stars announced Lono’s return, work and warfare ceased for the duration of a four-month festival called Makahiki. People devoted their days to games, hula and leisure. Strict kapu (rules) governed fishing and harvesting. “The seasons provided a system for government,” says Nelson. During the Makahiki months, “everything is sprouting and spawning, so there was less human activity.”

“My family’s relationship to this heiau (temple) stems back at least five hundred years,” says Shane Nelson, current caretaker of Hikiau Heiau, which has occupied a site at the edge of Kealakekua Bay for centuries.

The annual Makahiki procession started and ended at Hikiau. From here, ali‘i (chiefs) and priests began their circumnavigation of the island, collecting tribute from each ahupua‘a (land division). It wasn’t a tax collection so much as an inventory, Nelson explains. By surveying what each region offered, the ali‘i could assess how the island’s farms, fishponds and forests were doing. Nelson learned much of this history from his grandmother Lilian Alepoki Nelson. “My family’s relationship to this particular heiau stems back at least five hundred years,” he says. “Even during times when Hikiau was decapitated and fell apart, we still came and did practices.”

He leads me down a path past the heiau into the trees. We sit in the thick grass beside a pool—one of several water sources for the large population that once lived here. The shallow pond is paved with smooth pebbles. Locals sometimes refer to it as a fishpond, but Nelson believes it served a more sacred purpose: washing the bones of chiefs who had died. In Hawaiian tradition, iwi, or bones, carry the deceased person’s mana, or life force. The bones of ali‘i were washed, then hidden. The steep pali (cliff) across the bay is honeycombed with burial caves and bird nests.

Kealakekua’s land- and seascapes are full of treasures ancient and still living. In addition to hundreds of archaeological features, rare native seabirds, bats and fish are found here. Spinner dolphins come to rest during the day and manta rays to feed at night. For several years the State of Hawai‘i has been developing a master plan to manage Kealakekua’s abundant re-sources. Nelson scoured the resulting Environmental Impact Study and found it wanting. “It doesn’t include living Kānaka Maoli [Native Hawaiians],” he says. “Everything is in past tense!”

The creation chant Kumulipo details the genealogy of 18th-century chief Lono-i-ka-makahiki from his birth in Kealakekua back to the first organism: a coral polyp. From left, Glenn Cera, Sanoe Moniz and Jared Carveiro play music along the bay’s coral-strewn shores.

The plan’s deficiencies prompted him to organize a group of cultural practitioners to serve as advisers—or gadflies. They’d prefer to see Kealakekua bay managed according to traditional protocols. “We recall our genealogy to the ‘āina [land],” he says. “When you do that, you have a sense of respect.”

Nelson is interrupted by an ‘ūlili, a shorebird that swoops into the glade and announces itself with noisy trills. The bird alights on a low-hanging kou branch, sending a shower of orange blossoms onto the pond’s dark surface. Nelson smiles at the auspicious scene: ‘ūlili are considered messengers of the divine, and kou flowers are symbols of Kihawahine, a powerful lizard goddess. “I call these maoli [native] moments,” he says.

As we head back to the parking lot, the state workers finish their final task of the day: collecting beach boulders for a paved walkway. They stand on the seawall, tossing stones hand to hand, timing their throws between the crash of waves, their movements mirroring the ones of those who built Hikiau many hundreds of years ago.

I follow Nelson up behind the heiau, where a single smooth stone stands upright in the center of the platform. “It lines up with the sun during the equinox,” he tells me. It’s only a few days past the autumnal equinox, so we wait and watch. High above the bay, tiny bats zigzag in the sky, hunting insects. At the moment the sun sinks into the sea, light radiates from behind the stone like a halo.

The tidepool once located at Manini Beach filled with mineral-rich spring water at low tide. Before its destruction, first-hand accounts from the early twentieth century report healing qualities for ailments like asthma and whooping cough.

Mona Kahele, Nelson’s aunt several times removed, grew up in Nāpō‘opo‘o during the Depression. Notebooks were scarce, so young Kahele kept a journal on hoarded pieces of grocery paper, flattened pandanus leaves and blank pages torn from the back of her Bible. A natural-born historian, she sat at the feet of her aunties and tūtū wahine (grandmother) and recorded their stories of days past. They talked of shipwrecks and shark gods, fire-balls and place-names nearly forgotten.

In her memoir, Clouds of Memories, Kahele shared an uncle’s story of how Kealakekua got its name. Long ago the shark god Kua came to Kapukapu—the ancient name for Kealakekua. He lived as a man among the people—fishing, farming and building canoes. When the time came for him to leave, his friends were heart-broken. “You treated me as a relative, not a visitor. From now on, you will always be safe in these waters,” he told them. “I will return someday, when the sun is bright and the horizon is gold.” Transforming back into shark form, he dove into the water and swam between two rows of fins toward the setting sun. Thereafter, people called the trails where he walked “Ke ala ke akua,” the path of the god.

Kahele complained that another place-name—and the place itself—had been lost. Kapahukapu, the forbidden box, was a large tidepool where ali‘i women came to bathe. During low tide the water was fresh and cold. Locals, including Kahele’s tūtū, believed this cold water could heal fevers and bronchial problems. Kahele suffered from asthma, so grandma dunked her in the chilly water five days in a row. Her symptoms disappeared. Later, Kahele’s son came down with whooping cough; she treated him with the same cure. A doctor from Hilo came to investigate after hearing these claims. He tested the water and confirmed that it had various minerals, but could not verify any specific healing properties. Kahele says that fishermen broke a passage through the tidepool so they didn’t need to lift their canoes over the reef. Sand filled the pool, which is now called Manini beach.

A visitor dives into the waters at Ka‘awaloa off the Fair Wind Cruise boat. The cove is only accessible by sea or by hiking two miles down the steep cliffs that surround the site.

Kealakekua was still a busy port of call when Kahele was a girl. Steamers delivered intrepid tourists to Ka‘awaloa, and fishermen operated fleets of sampans, hauling in nets full of akule (big-eyed scad) and ‘ōpelu (mackerel scad), and occasionally snagging big game fish like marlin. Ranchers drove cattle through Nāpō‘opo‘o village to the small pier, where they traded cows and coffee for farm equipment, fabric, canned goods and kerosene. Kahele watched the skilled paniolo (cowboys) tie cows to launch boats and ferry them out to ships waiting in the bay. Old-timers often talked of a Spanish ship that wrecked off of Ke‘ei, the southern point of Kealakekua bay, in the 1500s. According to legend, two children survived, a brother and sister, and they were adopted by ali‘i. Several local families claim to have traces of Spanish blood.

Kahele inhabited a world filled with supernatural phenomena. Her aunties told her that if akua lele (fireballs) streaked across the sky, it meant that someone had cursed her family. When nai‘a (dolphins) jumped out of the water and splashed hard on the surface, it signaled rough seas. “There are so many ‘ailona [omens] within the village that at times you don’t know whether to believe them or not,” she wrote.

She came to believe at least one omen: torches parading up the pali at night. The lights supposedly belong to menehune, a mythological race of little people, who are heading uphill to safety to escape dangerous weather on its way. “The first and last time I saw those lights was in 1960, when the tidal wave destroyed eight homes, one of which was mine. We lost everything we owned.”

Horses graze on upper Napo‘opo‘o road above Kealakekua Bay. During the early twentieth century ranchers drove cattle down to a small pier where they traded for goods.

In November of 1778, HMS Resolution and Discovery sailed into Hawaiian waters under the command of Captain James Cook. They were the first European ships to “discover” the Islands, which Cook named for his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. This was the ships’ second visit; earlier that year they’d been to Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau. This time, for reasons unknown, Cook stood off the coast of Maui for two whole months, trading with canoes and driving his men mad with the sight of land.

Finally, on January 17, 1779, the Resolution and Discovery sailed into Kealakekua bay. Nine hundred canoes came out to greet them. Ten times that number of people waited on shore. “I have nowhere in this sea seen such a number of people assembled at one place,” Cook wrote in his log. “Besides those in the canoes all the shore of the bay was covered with people and hundreds were swimming about the ships like shoals of fish.”

By coincidence, Cook arrived during Makahiki. By greater coincidence, he resembled Lono, its guest of honor. His ships’ white sails looked like the standards carried by Lono’s priests. His cannons and guns bore similarities to Lono’s thunder and lightning. From the ships’ decks, the sailors could see the tall lele (tower) dressed in white kapa (bark cloth) and laden with offerings atop Hikiau.

The high priests invited Cook and his officers to the heiau, where they recited the Kumulipo and plied the strangers with food. Kalani‘ōpu‘u, the ruling chief at the time, gave Cook a museum’s worth of goodwill gifts: feather capes and helmets, carved wooden ki‘i (sacred images), shark tooth weapons, fishhooks made of bone and pearl shell, woven mats, bowls, musical instruments and cordage to replace frayed ropes on the British ships.

At the time of Cook’s arrival in the late 1700s South Kona was the most populous region in the Hawaiian Islands, with thousands living at Kealakekua – including the future King Kamehameha I.

In return the Hawaiians collected as much iron as they could: hatchets, knives, nails and any scraps they could fashion into tools or weapons. Makahiki’s four-month armistice was almost over, and the Islands were engaged in a years-long war. Ambitious chiefs—including the future King Kamehameha I—were stockpiling arms and making alliances.

In two weeks’ time the crews of the Resolution and Discovery exhausted their hosts. The sailors consumed a winter’s worth of hogs, vegetables and fresh water. Plus, they committed gross offenses: They consorted with wāhine (women) in their encampment next to Hikiau, breaking a temple kapu (prohibition). Worse, they commandeered the heiau’s wooden railing to use as firewood. Kalani‘ōpu‘u was undoubtedly relieved to see the foreigners set sail for their next port.

When Cook’s ships limped back into Kealakekua bay days later with a broken mast, they received no welcome. The bay was empty. Makahiki was over; the season of Kū, the war god, had come. The Hawaiians were now openly hostile, showing their backsides, throwing rocks and stealing at every opportunity. After a cutter was stolen, Cook went ashore at Ka‘awaloa with ten marines. He intended to take Kalani‘ōpu‘u captive until the boat was returned. Before he could do so, word came that a British sailor had shot and killed Kalimu, a Hawaiian chief out in a canoe. A fight broke out on shore. Cook was struck from behind and killed, along with four marines. In retaliation the British lobbed cannon-balls into the village and set fire to the heiau. A week later they received a basket with Cook’s washed bones—most of them, anyway.

Cook’s death was a tragic failure of diplomacy. The explorer should have known better; he was both more perceptive and more just than many other captains of his era. His hesitation to land may have been due to concern for the Hawaiian people. Cook suspected that the venereal diseases his sailors carried would be deadly to Pacific Islanders; he had witnessed the effects of “pox” during prior voyages. He forbade his crew from mixing with wāhine, and at least one sailor received two dozen lashes for disobeying. But these efforts proved futile; Hawaiians revealed that Cook’s men had infected women on Kaua‘i; the pestilence had already spread. “Thus the very thing happened that I had above all others wished to prevent,” Cook wrote.

The world lost a great navigator, while Hawai‘i suffered a worse fate. Within just forty years, foreign diseases killed between 50 and 90 percent of the native population. Close to a century after Cook’s death, the British erected a monument where he fell—the icon by which most of the world knows Kealakekua. There are four ways to get to Ka‘awaloa, where it stands: swim, take a boat tour, paddle in a kayak or hike down the pali. The trail was built by un-lucky folks who’d been found guilty of moe kolohe, or “rascal sleeping” (i.e., adultery), punishable in the early nineteenth-century missionary era. It passes Puhina o Lono, the imu (earth oven) where Cook’s body was dismembered. For decades foreign ships came to Kealakekua to repaint Cook’s monument and reenact the bombardment that followed his death. Each year on February 14, sailors fired cannons at the pali, desecrating the burials. Locals protested, and this odd ritual finally ended in 1960.

Alonzo Gonzalez enjoys a Kealakekua Bay sunset with friends. The bay is where cattle, coffee and Christianity first gained footholds in the islands.

Those who lived along this coast experienced some of the most intense acculturation anywhere in the Islands. Kealakekua was not only where Hawaiians first clashed with foreign power; it’s also where cattle, coffee and Christianity first gained footholds.

In 1793, George Vancouver—a former midshipman in Cook’s company—returned as captain of his own ship. He presented Kamehameha with four longhorn cattle: a double-edged gift that led to both the creation of the paniolo culture and the destruction of the native forest. The cows took their first unsteady steps at Ka‘awaloa, beginning a voracious march across the Islands. Coffee found its way to this shore in 1828. While nowhere near as destructive as cattle, the spindly coffee tree permanently transformed South Kona’s landscape and economy. The first seeds of Christianity also took root here, in the heart of a boy training to become a priest at Hikiau.

In 1807, 15-year-old Henry ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia abandoned his studies at the heiau and swam out to an American ship in the bay. He was meant to succeed his uncle as high priest; instead he became the first to convert to Christianity. He sailed around the Cape of Good Hope aboard the Triumph, then lived with the captain’s family in New Haven, Connecticut. According to the Memoirs of Henry Obookiah, “He was found to excel in every thing to which he turned his hand.” He learned to read and write in English, Greek, Hebrew and Latin and translated the Old Testament’s book of Genesis into Hawaiian—which required the invention of a Hawaiian alphabet, dictionary and grammar.

Snorkelers explore the coral reef near the Captain Cook Monument. The area’s serene, undeveloped coastline gives little hint of its past beyond the tall, white obelisk.

A true disciple, ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia lobbied Christian missionaries to proselytize in Hawai‘i. He was scheduled to lead a mission but died of typhoid before the ship left. He was just 26. Eighteen missionaries traveled in his stead, arriving in Kona in 1820. Princess Kapi‘olani built a church for them at Ka‘awaloa. That church migrated across the bay and is known today as Kahikolu Congregational Church. ‘Ōpūkaha‘ia is buried there, his grave marked by a stone overlooking Kealakekua bay.

When Nelson was a sophomore in high school, he moved in with his grand-mother, who lived alone in the family home in Nāpō‘opo‘o. He once tried to evacuate her in advance of a storm. “What for?” She argued. “You think this is the first house we had? Tidal wave came and picked up the house, turned it around and we still lived in it.” In the last five years of her life, she reverted from Christianity back to the religion of her ancestors.

“That gave me confidence,” Nelson says. He’d already been practicing ancient Hawaiian rites on trips to Kaho‘olawe and Moloka‘i. Then Dr. Emmett Aluli, a respected kupuna (elder), told him to reinstate Makahiki ceremonies at Hikiau. Nelson complied in 2010, along with a handful of other cultural practitioners. Now around eighty people observe year-round practices: praying, observing the stars and growing special plants to serve as ho‘okupu (offerings). “If we continue to do small spiritual things,” he says, “they grow.”

Kealakekua’s waters are full of life. Spinner dolphins come to rest during the day and manta rays to feed at night. Rare native seabirds, bats and fish call the bay their home.

The group is presently waiting for Ka Lupe o Kawelo (the kite of Kawelo), the constellation known to Western astronomy as Pegasus, to pass over Hikiau. They lay lauhala mats down on the temple’s rock platform, wriggle into comfy spots and wait for the kite to appear. A sudden increase in humidity tells Nelson that his ancestors are present. “When Ka Lupe aligns its four corners with the heiau at midnight,” he says,“it’s a pre-indicator of Lono’s return.”

For the past eight years, Makahiki at Hikiau has started with a fun run through Nāpō‘opo‘o village, followed by a pot-luck. “We open with the first stanza of the Kumulipo,” says Nelson. “Then all the kids line up and blow the pū [conch]. The race is on! Let loose! No more rules!” His vision for Makahiki is forward-looking. “It has to be relevant for today,” he says, “and as a foundation for the future. We don’t have an ali‘i system anymore. But as my tūtū told me, we still need the qualities of ali‘i to be in community: selflessness, servitude and a desire to keep the balance between human interactions and nature.”

After sundown, men gather to assemble an image of Lono. Women dress it in lei. Everyone jumps into the ocean for hi‘uwai, a ritual cleansing. “Then we drink ‘awa [kava] and scream and shout, ‘Lono-i-ka-makahiki!’” Nelson laughs. “Sometimes tourists staying in the village call the cops.” A less boisterous ritual marks the end of Lono’s season four months later. The group loads a ceremonial canoe with ho‘okupu and sends it adrift. “We’re not doing this just to do something Hawaiian,” says Nelson. “This is our life.”

Nelson possesses his forebears’ resilience—an adaptability borne of watching houses wash away and new place-names, languages and traditions usurp old ones. Beneath the surface, aloha persists. “We were ruling chiefs of this area at one time, and then we weren’t,” he says. “Governments come and go. It’s the people and community that remain.” HH