Imagining a future for Kaho'olawe by reclaiming its past: 'Feel the mana'

'You can feel the mana': Reclaiming Kaho'olawe's past to set a course for its future
Updated: Feb. 26, 2018 at 11:39 AM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

When Hawaiians first arrived on Kaho'olawe around 400 A.D, they dedicated the island to one of their major gods: Kanaloa, the deity of the ocean.

Over hundreds of years, the smallest of Hawaii's eight main islands would grow into a place where navigators for voyaging expeditions were trained and where priests carried out cultural and religious rites.

The artifacts of that rich history are still visible today, despite the destruction wrought on Kaho'olawe by the modern age, first as a penal colony, then for cattle ranching and finally as a military bombing range.

In fact, the entire island (all 45 square miles) is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. It's home to some 544 archaeological and historical sites, which include some of the state's oldest and largest heiau.

Sasha Giron, an intern with the Hui Kapehe program, which offers students an opportunity to work with the Kahoolawe Reserve Commission on sustainability and Hawaiian culture, said when you step foot on Kaho'olawe "you can feel the mana of all those before us."

Giron is brought to tears when she thinks about it.

"I just feel like my kupuna came here before me," she said.

Twenty-five years after Congress voted to end all military use of Kaho'olawe, following years of protests, the island is in a period of flux. The most intense clean-up efforts that followed the island's transfer back to the state have ebbed — and funding for more work is short.

But there is still much work to do — generations worth of work.

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About 25 percent of the island remains too dangerous to step foot on without an escort for fear of setting off unexploded ordnance.

And Kaho'olawe remains fragile in other ways, too.

New, ambitious projects under consideration seek to continue the island's restoration — establishing a seabird colony, eradicating rats and feral cats on the island, planting a dryland forest, creating a sustainable base camp and learning center.

All of those plans are being developed with an appreciation of Kaho'olawe as a wahi pana, a sacred place. As a place, too, of great wounds. And of healing.To understand Kaho'olawe is, in some ways, to understand the tribulations and triumphs of the Hawaiian people. And the trajectory of the island's rebirth, experts say, is intimately connected to the modern renaissance of Hawaiian voyaging, the Hawaiian language and cultural practices.


"The challenge is if we can heal Kaho'olawe we can heal anywhere else in Hawaii," said Mike Nahoopii, executive director of the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission, which manages the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve.

He said understanding the island's ancient past is critically important — not least of which because it helps its caretakers map out its future.

And, even today, old, tucked away secrets of the island are still being uncovered.

Hundreds of years ago, Kaho'olawe was the "country home," Nahoopii said.

"They would come here, they would get the resources from the island and then take it back to Maui," he said. "And then, eventually, over the years they started spending more time on Kaho'olawe so they started growing agriculture. We see the shells that they ate for food and the remnants of food."

Archaeologists believe there was a sizable population in Hakioawa, on the northern coast facing Maui. Remnants of that village are still there today.

"One of the neat things about Kaho'olawe is we didn't have large-scale agriculture like the other islands," Nahoopii said. "So a lot of the cultural artifacts are still sitting in the same place where people live, walked up walked away maybe 300 or 400 years ago."

At the end of the 1700s, though, Kaho'olawe entered a harsh evolution. Goats were introduced, a penal colony was established, and sheep and cattle ranching took over. That led to uncontrolled grazing that caused devastating erosion.

But what was coming next would forever change the island; and it all started with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of martial law in Hawaii.

In the next installment of this special series: The devastating history of bombing on Kaho'olawe — and how the wounds of that past linger through today.

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