Issue 7.1: February/March 2004

On Sacred Ground

by Liza Simon

Pu'u Eke (a bog-filled
crater in the Kahalawai Mountains)

In her masterful new publication, Na Wahi Kapu O Maui, photographer Kapulani Landgraf depicts Maui as a rugged, harsh world of imposing mountains and indifferent seas, a place that yields its bounty sparingly and only in return for hard work—both physical and spiritual. Landgraf’s black-and-white images illustrate how her Hawaiian ancestors lived in harmony with the terrain: here are close-ups of ingeniously constructed aquaculture ponds known as loko i‘a; there, of sprawling fields where Hawaiians tended ‘ulu, banana and sweet potato. Landgraf offers images of heiau, manmade shrines, where the remains of meticulously built ramparts bespeak intense effort. And she turns her lens on Maui’s land itself, capturing the foreboding majesty and mana of the island’s untouched sites.

Landgraf, who is also an archeologist, says that the urge to document Maui’s sacred sites seized her back in 1987, while she was exploring the remote district of Kahakuloa and happened on a pristine stream. She knew most other streams on Maui were being put to commercial use, but here was an ancient resource in essentially the same condition it had been in when it had inspired and benefited her ancestors. "It made me think we have to be more vigilant in our efforts to protect sacred lands," says Landgraf of the epiphanous moment that launched her book project. She spent years going out onto the land, looking for sites, some long forgotten. She would set out through unmapped lava fields, and the more challenging her treks became, the more she understood and appreciated her ancestors’ resourcefulness.

(a fishing shrine in kipahulu)
Landgraf has captioned her photos with her own poetry, which she wrote in Hawaiian. The work, translated into English by poet Richard Hamasaki, underlines the deep relationship to land that is central to Landgraf’s sensibility. "All land is sacred," she says. "It is our link to the past."