By Nancy & Leonard Becker
One of the most exciting developments in sacred site preservation is unfolding on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Beneath the town of Lahaina’s baseball field and a neighboring parking lot lies one of Hawaii’s most significant archaeological discoveries. Moku`ula, a Native Hawaiian sacred site that has been buried for over a century, is in the process of being uncovered and eventually restored by The Friends of Moku`ula. In order to understand the importance of the site we must first learn about its history and sacred significance.
Moku`ula is a small sacred island that was the home to the High Chiefs of Maui from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and the Kings of the united Hawaiian islands in the nineteenth century when Lahaina was capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. The site was considered a piko, an axis mundi, or place of central cosmic power.
Key to understanding Moku`ula’s position as an axis mundi is Mokuhinia, a large fish pond surrounding the island. This pond was the home of a powerful lizard goddess, or mo`o, named Kihawahine. The spirit lived in rivers and ponds and mediated between earth and water, both fundamental elements in traditional Hawaiian religion. Kihawahine’s presence at Moku`ula made the island a central power point for Hawaiian royalty who through the goddess communed with both the socio-political world and the spiritual realms.
Moses Manu in The Story of Kihapiilani, wrote about Kihawahine, “This mo`o, Kihawahine, was a mo`o whom the parents of these chiefs relied and the place where Kihawahine lived was in a pond lying at Lahaina, Maui, by the name of Mokuhinia. The location of the tomb of the chiefess Nahi`ena`ena which stood in the pond on the east bank, was Moku`ula, a little rock island. Below this was the den of this mo`o. This hold was called, from ancient times until this day Kalua o Kiha [the den of Kiha].” She was the guardian spirit or `aumakua of the Pi`ilani royal family of Maui. Of all the mo`o gods, Kihawahine had the greatest number of worshipers and was revered by both royalty and commoners. Legends tell of Kihawahine traveling throughout the Hawaiian islands, the only lizard goddess to do so.
The association of the royal family with Kihawahine increased their mana or power; her presence also increased the mana of Moku`ula. It is believed that King Kamehameha the Great’s wife, Keopuolani, had Kihawahine as her `aumakua. When Keopuolani died she was buried on the sacred Moku`ula as were other members of the royal family.
A naturalist visiting the site recorded his impressions, “The royal residence was sheltered by beautiful spreading trees and coconut palms situated near some beautiful fish ponds with which it was more than half surrounded…”1 Of particular interest is the documented sighting of Kihawahine in the period after contact with Westerners, “at the close of the year 1838 she almost capsized Kekauluohi (the Premier), who was going by canoe across the pond of Mokuhinia from Moku`ula on her way to church at Waine`e”.2
Many members of the royal family had been converted to Christianity by the early 1800s; however, the near capsizing of Kekauluohi by Kihawahine, symbolizes the endurance of Native Hawaiian religion. Traditional Hawaiian life was rapidly changing despite the survival of Native Hawaiian spiritual beliefs and the royal family left in 1845. By the late 1800s sugar plantations and sugar mills run by foreigners began to encroach upon the natural landscape. The Pioneer Sugar Mill dominated Lahaina and as their agricultural lands grew, more water from the mountain streams and springs was diverted to irrigate their fields. Mokuhinia pond began to dry up, the mana of the site decreased. Around 1914, the pond was filled in and the area was converted to a park with the name of Malu-ulu-o-lele, after a grove of ulu trees, which has also since been destroyed.
The holistic restoration plan for Moku`ula and Mokuhinia developed by the Friends of Moku`ula, encompasses the cultural, sacred, archaeological, and environmental realms. Preliminary studies and organizational planning have been going on for nearly ten years with the guidance of the non-profit group, Friends of Moku`ula, established in 1990 by employees at the Ka`anapali Beach Hotel. The hotel is well-known for its Po`okela Process of instructing its employees about Hawaiian culture. Po`okela successfully lobbied Maui County’s Council for funding to underwrite an historical and archaeological study of Moku`ula.
The Bishop Museum of Honolulu began their study in 1993 under the guidance of ethnohistorian, Dr. P. Christiaan Klieger, who said, “Perhaps more than any other site in Hawai`i, Moku`ula represents the symbolic point of change between the traditional culture of an isolated, indigenous people and the agents of change imposed from the outside world…” Dr. Klieger’s report was completed in 1995. He has expanded his research into a book, Moku`ula, published in January 1999, by the Bishop Museum Press. Dr. Klieger’s initial research confirmed the location of the sacred royal island. Several well preserved architectural features were also discovered on the island, including a wooden dock facing towards Waiola Church that may have been used by royalty to travel to church by canoe. Through Dr. Klieger’s efforts, Moku`ula was listed on the state and national registers of historic places.
The Friends of Moku`ula have received a number of grants to assist with their goal of restoring Moku`ula and Mokuhinia. In November of 1998 they were awarded a $131,000 federal grant to develop their plan for acquiring the land that now covers Moku`ula, currently Malu-ulu-o-lele Park. Akoni Akana, Executive Director of the Friends of Moku`ula said the grant will also be used for educational programs for Native Hawaiians and the community at large. Akana envisions the site restoration taking at least ten years.
The process of acquiring the land involves relocating the recreational facilities that currently comprise Malu-ulu-o-lele Park: two baseball fields (one of which has not been used for some time after human burials were discovered beneath it), restroom facilities, and four tennis courts. The county of Maui is working on a plan to relocate these facilities across the main highway adjacent to Lahaina’s new Aquatic Center.
The Friends of Moku`ula have commissioned Ed Kayton to paint a picture of their vision for the restoration of Moku`ula and the surrounding fish ponds (see cover picture). They plan to eventually recreate grass houses in the style dating to the period of King Kamehameha III. A pohaku monument is also planned for the islet. The island area will be strictly for sacred and secular ceremonial use by Native Hawaiians, however, it may be open once a year to invited outsiders.
A Pohaku Kane , or stone of Kane, is planned at the ahupua`a boundary. Samuel Kamakau wrote about the stone in Ka Po`e Kahiko, “The Stone of Kane was called a pu`uhonua, ‘a gate to heaven’…. It was the kuahu altar where men talked to the [family] gods; where men were freed from defilement and wrong doing; a place at which to ask the gods for blessings…. The Stone of Kane was a stone pointed out by the god, not one just set up by men. The god indicated the stone, perhaps in a dream, or in a vision, or by leading someone to the spot.”
A major part of the restoration plan involves environmental restoration of the wetlands that originally existed at the site. The underground springs that fed Mokuhinia, according to preliminary archaeology reports, still exist. These springs will be uncovered and allowed to fill the pond. Even though currently covered up, the underground water still flows and runs out to the sea.
Historical research indicates that Mokuhinia was originally about 17 acres. The water nourished taro and other plants while providing fresh water for fish such as mullet. Fish will be reintroduced as part of the restoration.
How can You Become Involved?
I Ka Wa Mamua, Ka Wa Mahope, “The future is in the past”, the motto of The Friends of Moku`ula can become a reality with your help. Become a supporter of The Friends of Moku`ula with a tax-deductible donation that will help bring back Hawaiian culture to Lahaina. The town of Lahaina is on the National Register of Historic Places, but until Moku`ula was listed, only included post-contact sites. The restoration of Moku`ula will restore the honor of Lahaina to its place when it was the capital of the Hawaiian Nation.
Donations may be sent to:
505 Front Street #234
Lahaina, HI 96761
Also, visit their web site at: www.mokuula.com.
Learn more about this Native Hawaiian Sacred Site by reading Moku`ula, Maui’s Sacred Island, by P. Christiaan Klieger. See also SSIF’s book review of Moku`ula, Maui’s Sacred Island.
© 1999 Nancy & Leonard Becker. All rights reserved.
Nancy & Leonard Becker are co-founders of Sacred Sites International. They would like to thank Akoni Akana and Dr. P. Christiaan Kliger for reviewing this article.