Part of Kaho'olawe's healing: Re-establishing it as a center for wayfinding

In ancient times, Kaho'olawe was a training center for Pacific voyagers. And that's exactly what it is today, too, thanks for years of restoration work and activism. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
In ancient times, Kaho'olawe was a training center for Pacific voyagers. And that's exactly what it is today, too, thanks for years of restoration work and activism. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Kaho'olawe provides views that wayfinders can use for studying the stars and sea. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Kaho'olawe provides views that wayfinders can use for studying the stars and sea. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
The navigator's chair on Kaho'olawe demonstrates the strong link the island has to Hawaiian voyaging. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
The navigator's chair on Kaho'olawe demonstrates the strong link the island has to Hawaiian voyaging. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

In 1976, activists began a series of occupations of Kaho'olawe to protest decades of military bombing.

That same year, Hokulea sailed for the first time to Tahiti — in a voyage that would help solidify the resurgence of Polynesian voyaging in the islands.

"Both of those extraordinary movements opened up the door for revitalization and re-discovery," said Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

And in the coming years, Kaho'olawe would prove central to the resurgence of Hawaiian voyaging.

In ancient Hawaii, Kaho'olawe was a place where navigators for voyaging expeditions were trained.

In fact, on the island's second-highest summit — Pu'u 'O Moa'ula Iki — there's something called the "navigator's seat."

"It's is kind of a seat. It's built into the ground. It could be natural, who knows, it could be man-made," said Mike Nahoopii, executive director of the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission. "But it just happens to be, if you just sit down in this stone seat, you're facing north and you're leaning back right about 20 to 22 degrees which is where the North Star would be."

When master navigator Mau Piailug visited Kaho'olawe, he recognized the island's importance for opening the door to the revitalization for wayfinding.

"I remember coming back that night from Kaho'olawe and his English language is pretty limited so it wasn't like what he said, it was what you felt from what he was feeling," Thompson said. "And he always said that Kaho'olawe is a special place, that Kaho'olawe you need to stay connected, because he knew."

What he knew is that island provides views that wayfinders can use for studying the stars and sea.

From Kaho'olawe, you can see Lanai, Oahu, Molokai, Maui and the Big Island.

More from our series: Reclaiming Kaho'olawe

"You can see all these channels. You can see how the wind flows around the islands," Nahopii said. "You can see how the ripples on the island, are where the pockets, are where the calm areas are. You can see all of that from the top of Moaula Iki."

Above that, Pu'u 'O Moa'ula Nui is the highest point of the island.

"When I step on top that summit, you're in the cloud shadow of Haleakala ... so the stars are really, really brilliant and you're near the center of the Hawaiian Islands," Thompson said. "It's like a planetarium because it's in the cloud shadow at night so it's really, really clear.

But it's a spot on the western point of the island — Kealaikahiki — that would prove essential to wayfinding.

And it's at Kealaikahiki where the navigational platform "Kahua Kuhike'e" was built to serve as the centerpiece for educating future voyagers.

The channel between Kaho'olawe and Lanai is also called Kealaikahiki, which means pathway to Tahiti, and it is what helped the very first crew of Hokulea to navigate to Tahiti and back.

Kealaikahiki, the point and the channel, were the missing puzzle pieces.

"So one is to get away from the Hawaiian islands, the other is actually to me way more significant. You can't go and study anywhere else besides Kealaikahiki for the trip home," Thompson said.

Kaho'olawe was so significant to voyaging that the Hokulea crew stopped at the island on the way home from their three-year, worldwide voyage.

"One of the permissions was that we come back and pay respect to this very, very sacred site before we actually come back and engage in Honolulu," Thompson said. "Kaho'olawe was the quiet sacred moment. Hokulea carried a lot. We pushed her hard, we had to ... and so it was time where we could just calm her down and relax."

The message of Hokulea's round-the-world voyage was "Malama Honua," taking care of the land. And that's a message that resonated with those who seek to heal Kaho'olawe, too.

"What we do on Kaho'olawe, we do the physical work of malama honua or taking care of the land. And the two of us together, Polynesian Voyaging Society and Kaho'olawe, they work hand in hand," Thompson said. "So Kaho'olawe is the physical manifestation of that message, that Hokulea was promoting."

In the next installment of this special series: The restoration of Kaho'olawe has been ongoing for decades and, experts say, it will likely take generations more to clear the island of unexploded ordnance, rid it of invasive species, and re-plant native flora key to battling erosion. 

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