Living Lāna‘i

Whether it’s hula, hunting or teaching Hawaiian, Anela Evans shares the culture of her home island
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Megan Spelman.

Anela Evans gazes down at her new Glowforge 3-D laser printer. The sleek, glass-lidded machine looks a little alien amid the hunting gear, dog toys and old photographs that decorate her Lāna‘i City home. It’s as if the space-age tool sprang directly out of her imagination. Indeed, that’s what it’s designed to do: turn ideas into tangible objects. 

So far, Anela has used the printer to materialize two ancient Hawaiian concepts. First she made a wooden puzzle in the shape of Lāna‘i, with pieces representing each of the island’s ahupua‘a, or traditional land divisions. Next she fabricated a star compass, the tool Polynesian navigators use to sail across the Pacific. She hands me the laser-cut circle inscribed with Hawaiian directional terms. “I couldn’t figure out how the compass worked,” she says, “so I made one.” 

That’s Anela’s style. The 33-year-old artist is just as quick to join novel technology with traditional practice as her Hawaiian ancestors were. In addition to making things, she hunts, dances hula and rides horseback whenever she has the chance. Her current role as Hawaiian cultural practitioner for the Four Seasons Resort Lāna‘i allows her to share her passion for local history, and today she’s showing me a few of her favorite sites. 

Anela Evans grew up at Kō’ele, in the cool uplands of Lāna‘i. When her parents went to work, she stayed with Ernest Richardson, 
a Hawaiian paniolo (cowboy) who put her to work weeding
 the pasture. Today she leads horseback tours of Kō‘ele for the Four Seasons.

Before leaving her house, Anela scoops up her Shih Tzu, Makanoe, and promises the devoted fluff ball that she won’t be gone long. We climb into a jeep and head toward the ocean. “I don’t think it gets any better than this,” she says, turning down a rutted dirt road. Traffic on Lāna‘i is just her speed; there isn’t a single stoplight on the island, and dirt roads far outnumber the paved ones. “Kids still ride their bikes to school here,” she says. “We leave our keys in our cars when we go into the grocery store.”

Lāna‘i has never had a large population, even after the man-eating ghosts got the boot. According to legend, the island was uninhabitable until a young hero drove the ghouls away in the 1400s. Kaululā‘au, the son of a Maui chief, was more mischievous than heroic; his father banished him to the haunted isle for bad behavior. Once here, Kaululā‘au did what was necessary to survive. He turned his kolohe (naughty) tendencies to good use, tricked the ghosts into leaving and became the island’s king.

Today just over 3,100 people call Lāna‘i home. Anytime someone is born here, dies or gets a new laser printer, everybody else knows. The 140-square-mile island is technically part of Maui County but has more or less belonged to a string of single landowners for the past two centuries. In 1922 James Dole purchased 98 percent of Lāna‘i’s acreage, where he created the world’s largest pineapple plantation—an operation that dominated island life for the next seventy years.

Axis deer are a problem on Lāna‘i where they degrade the forest. Hunting allows Evans to remove the invasive animals while harvesting food for her family and friends. Last year she shot her biggest buck yet.

Anela’s parents were among the few Lāna‘i residents who didn’t work for Dole. Her father, Andy Evans, moved here in 1956 to serve as the island’s sole telephone technician. “He knew everybody’s conversations,” Anela laughs. During his thirty-six years as Lāna‘i’s telecommunication link to the outer world, he was on call essentially around the clock. Still, he found time to hunt, carve wood, tool leather and make candles. Anela’s three favorite possessions came from her father’s hands: a dollhouse, a saddle, an ‘ukulele. Andy taught his young daughter how to drive in a horse pasture and recruited her when building furniture or wiring things. Which is why, when her lawnmower recently broke, she didn’t buy a new one. She diagnosed the problem and replaced the carburetor by studying YouTube videos. “My dad didn’t see gender,” says Anela. “You’re an extra set of hands; you’re going to work.” 

Andy met Anela’s mother in 1976, when he came to install her phone line. Martha Evans was then a new teacher who had just moved from O‘ahu, where she had been active in the movement to revive Hawaiian arts and culture. Her master’s thesis explored how place-based curricula were more conducive to the learning style of Native Hawaiian children. She used the Hōkūle‘a—a replica double-hulled voyaging canoe that was revolutionizing theories of Polynesian migration—as an outdoor classroom. 

Martha had her work cut out for her on Lāna‘i, where indigenous practices had almost entirely disappeared. Foreign disease, warfare and drought had devastated the island’s native population. By the time Dole started planting pineapples, only around 150 Native Hawaiians lived on Lāna‘i; to this day, Hawaiians make up just ten percent of the populace. This resulted in a huge loss of generational knowledge, says Anela. “Part of my mom’s work and mission was to help re-introduce that knowledge.” 

Dancing hula is a way for Evans to share the beauty of her home island. She started performing at age four when the Manele Bay Resort (now Four Seasons) first opened, and went on to compete for the prestigious title of Miss Aloha Hula in 2011.

On Lāna‘i, Martha helped found the Lāna‘i Culture and Heritage Center. She taught kids about Kaululā‘au and his triumph over the ghosts. Anela tagged along on her mother’s field trips and summer camps, learned to speak Hawaiian, sew lei and dance hula. Ultimately, Anela followed Martha’s example and pursued a Hawaiian studies degree on O‘ahu. After finishing she moved back home. A different person might have felt like a fledged bird trying to squeeze back into the nest, but Anela relished the return to rural life. Plus, she wanted to feel closer to memories of her dad, who died in 2014. 

A small herd of axis deer runs alongside the road and disappears into the trees. Anela slows the jeep to watch. She started hunting five years ago and now owns four rifles and a bow. “Hunting is just an excuse,” she says. “It’s a fun sport and you get food to eat, but really it’s just a vehicle for me to be out on the island, to tap into the land and what it has to reveal.” Her neighbors appreciate the supply of fresh meat—as does little Makanoe, who eats only venison. 

At the end of the road, Anela parks the jeep facing the southern sea cliffs. I follow her down a rocky path into Kaunolū, one of Hawai‘i’s largest and best-preserved Hawaiian villages. Petroglyphs decorate the steep walls of the gulch. Halulu heiau, a pyramid-shaped stone temple, sits on the bluff above. We cross a dry streambed and climb the trail up to a dramatic vista. A narrow opening between two huge red boulders frames the wild southwest coastline; the cobalt-blue sea glitters eighty feet below. This is Kahekili’s Leap, where generations of warriors proved their bravery by diving from the ledge.

“This was also King Kamehameha’s favorite fishing spot, the place he came after conquering the other islands,” Anela says. She recounts the star-crossed story of Ka‘ala, a young woman who fell in love with Ka‘aiali‘i, a warrior encamped here. Their romance enraged Ka‘ala’s father, who despised Kamehameha and his army for ransacking the island. He couldn’t bear to see his daughter with the enemy, so he tricked her into traveling down the coast and trapped her in a cave. When Ka‘aiali‘i went searching for his beloved, he found Ka‘ala’s body in the cave. He killed himself so they could be together. The cave, which has a blowhole, is called Puhi o Ka‘ala.

“I was thinking about it the other day,” Anela says. “There are only a few people named in that story: Ka‘aiali‘i’s friend Ua and her brother Keawe. I’m not sure, but those may be my ‘ohana.” Keawe is a family name, and Ua might be, too. “To think that maybe my ancestors walked the same ‘āina [land] that I’m walking now … It’s pretty significant.”

As we hike back to the jeep, Anela stops to talk with a trail-clearing crew. Prior to her job at the Four Seasons, she had worked for Pūlama Lāna‘i managing this project. Her team helped maintain and restore historic sites, including an ancient fishpond and lo‘i kalo (taro patch). She led volunteer trips and reintroduced residents to the island’s native history. “My role at the resort is an extension of that,” she says. “And really everything that I do is just a continuation of what my parents were.” 

She particularly enjoys teaching Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai‘i’s Lāna‘i campus. “Even pronouncing the name of the island correctly is powerful,” she says. “Lāna‘i pronounced ‘LAH-nah-ee’ means ‘day of conquest’ and refers to the story of Kaululā‘au, the young chief from Lahaina who banished the ghosts. The name Lāna‘i has so much meaning and power compared to ‘la-NAI,’ which just means ‘porch’ or ‘veranda.’ By pronouncing it incorrectly you’re stripping away power and identity.”

Her name tells a story, too. When her mother, Martha, was barely seven months pregnant, she began having contractions. An air ambulance took her to O‘ahu, where she gave birth to a tiny, premature baby. Martha christened the newborn Anela Marie Kawehikulaonalani Evans. Kawehikulaonalani means “golden adornment of the heavens.” Anela means “angel.” Tears well up in Anela’s eyes. “My mother named me that because she almost lost me,” she says. “People have told me, ‘You know, your name is protecting you.’ But my name is also a responsibility, something I have to live up to.”

Sometimes Anela pushes herself too hard. While finishing her master’s degree, she was also working part-time, helping care for her brother’s children and dancing with a prestigious hula hālau (troupe). Her kumu (teacher), Maelia Loebenstein Carter, was impressed by the girl’s rigor.“If I gave her an assignment, it was done. Her costumes were ironed, her leis were beautiful,” Maelia tells me later. “I watched her bloom from this really shy tomboy to this young woman who isn’t afraid to be herself. Anela is as comfortable in couture as she is in camouflage. I want ten of her!”

Maelia chose Anela to represent the hālau at the Merrie Monarch Festival, the most important event in the hula world. Anela would compete for the title of Miss Aloha Hula, an endeavor that requires months of dedicated preparation. True to form, Anela chose to perform mele (songs) that celebrated her home island. She painstakingly fashioned lei with flowers collected on Lāna‘i. On the first night of the contest, a loud motorcycle nearly drowned out her chant. And on the second night, she was about to go on stage with her hālau when she collapsed.

She spent the night in the emergency room wracked by convulsions. People close to her suspected supernatural causes—not uncommon in the hula tradition. “I don’t believe in playing the victim,” Anela says. “I was dehydrated, I wasn’t getting enough sleep and there is a lot of intensity at Merrie Monarch.” She woke up the next day, returned to the stage and danced her heart out. Not to win, but to finish what she had come to do. “She did a beautiful job of honoring her hometown, her hula lineage and her family,” says Maelia. “She’s going to be a force of nature as she gains more of her ‘ike [knowledge] and finds where she wants to be in this world. She’s going to be unstoppable.”

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Evans earned a degree in Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa. Today, she puts this knowledge to use as the Hawaiian cultural practitioner for the Four Seasons Resort Lāna‘i.

Already Anela has been a powerful voice for Hawaiian causes. She spoke out against the development of a controversial wind farm on Lāna‘i and advocated for the continued restoration of Kaho‘olawe, the island decimated by US Navy target practice. She visited Kaho‘olawe regularly over ten years, first as a volunteer, then as a volunteer coordinator in the effort to restore the island’s native ecosystem. During that time, Larry Ellison, one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, purchased most of Lāna‘i. His management company, Pūlama Lāna‘i, functions as the island’s de facto government. When Anela returned home, she went to work for Pūlama. 

“People always ask how I feel about the land being owned by a single landowner,” she says. “The truth is, I don’t know any different. The general attitude towards this particular landowner is cautiously optimistic. Because of the historic precedence of mismanagement, people are going to be skeptical. But nowadays there’s an effort to stress natural resource management and conservation.” 

We drive past an example: Pūlama Lāna‘i’s plant quarantine station. All imported landscaping plants come here to be tested for pests before continuing on to their final destination. Inspectors recently burned a huge shipment of hāpu‘u tree ferns suspected of being infested with fire ants. Sometimes unilateral decision making can be effective.

Anela takes a back road that leads to the manicured entrance of the Four Seasons.“We’re not that busy on Lāna‘i,” she says. “That’s our advantage. It allows us to extend our lifestyle to the people who do come here. If we treat them like family, we’re giving them a responsibility to also care for our traditions.” She shakes the red dirt from her boots before heading into the resort. “I try to be a placeholder for indigenous knowledge so that the ways of our ancestors can be passed down to future generations: not only to preserve, but to perpetuate. Because,” she says with characteristic determination, “what’s knowledge without action?”  HH