Tied to the Past
by Betty Fullard-Leo
Nani Yap and Lorna Lim,
descendants of Alapa'inui, stand aside the King
Kamehameha statue in Kapa'au town.
More than any other coastline in Hawai'i, the northern
Kohala Coast, stretching from Kawaihae around the northernmost
tip of the Big Island to beyond the end of the paved
road at Pololu, holds secrets from the past in its ebony
lava flows and sandy shores. The history of Kohala and
all Hawai'i has been, for the most part, a verbal history,
passed from generation to generation in chants and dance,
sometimes coming to us in parables and metaphors as
shrouded in uncertainty as the misty cliffs that border
Modern books generally agree, King Kamehameha I was
born along this coast at a place called Kokoiki near
Mo'okini Heiau, and historian Samuel M. Kamakau relays
a widely accepted version of the birth in his book,
"Ruling Chiefs of Hawai'i," but the ancient
chants are not always so clear-cut.
Nani Lim and her sister Lorna, themselves descendants
of Alapa'inui, once the ruling chief of the island of
Hawai'i, researched the old chants for their Hula Halau
Na Lei O Kaholoku, "Chants validate two versions
of King Kamehameha's birth," Nani explains, softly,
gazing across the black rocks that mark the outlines
of Mo'okini Heiau to the sea beyond. "Some say
his mother, Keku'iapoiwa, gave birth on a canoe crossing
the 'Alenuihaha Channel from Maui; others say the King
was born on land because the name Kokoiki tanslates
to 'a little bit of blood,' representing the after-birth."
In any case, Kamehameha's mother was "with child"
during a visit to Maui, giving rise to speculation that
Maui's king, Kahekili, was the father, though a Kohala
chief, Keoua Kupuapaikalaninui claimed him as his son.
Priests had foretold the birth of this royal child,
called Pai'ea, and said that he was destined to challenge
the rule of Alapa'inui. From the moment the royal baby
uttered his first cries, his life was in danger. His
mother wrapped the newborn in fine, soft kapa, and placed
him in the arms of Nae'ole, who ran with him, concealed
in lava tubes or sometimes visible along the trail to
the valley called 'Awini, which lies one ridge past
Pololu, northwest of Waipi'o Valley. Chants say it was
the time of 'Ikua, the month of roaring seas, thunderous
storms and flashing lightning, and they also relate
that a brilliant star with a long tail appeared during
the birth, leading historians to surmise the historic
event occurred in November 1758, when Halley's comet
streaked across the night sky.
Mo'okini Heiau can be visited today by turning off
Hwy. 270 toward 'Upolu Airport near the town of Hawi.
A rough lane, which during rainy weather is impassable
except by four-wheel-drive vehicles, leads to the luakini,
or sacrificial heiau, built about 480 AD.
Until he was five years old, Pai'ea lived at 'Awini.
In the beginning, says Nani Lim, "Chants say that
he was raised by his mother's cousin, Kaha'opulani.
Once she even had to hide him by feeding him while holding
her own child over him protected by kapa as the two
babies fed from the same breast."
When Pai'ea was five, Alapa'inui seems to have softened
his heart toward the boy, for he was returned to his
mother to grow up in the royal court in Kailua-Kona.
Here he was called Kamehameha, the Lonely One, and trained
for leadership. When his father died he went to live
with an uncle in Ka'u who trained him as a warrior during
his teenage years.
By 1775, Alapa'inui had died, Kalaniopu'u became the
new chief, and Kamehameha fought in his first battle
on Maui against Chief Kahekili. That same year, he is
said to have overturned the Naha Stone, a massive boulder
weighing nearly 5,000 pounds, which is still displayed
near the public library in Hilo. It was prophesied that
the man who overturned the Naha Stone would conquer
all the islands.
In 1780, before the Big Island's Chief Kalani'opu'u
died, he decreed that his oldest son would be the new
king, his youngest son was to be given land, and his
nephew Kamehameha would be in charge of the war heiau
Pu'ukohola, near Kawaihae, and would also keep Kuka'ilimoku,
a feathered wooden idol of the family's war god. But
in 1782, Kamehameha was the victor in the Battle of
Moku'ohai, which gave him jurisdiction over Kona, Kohala
and northern Hamakua. For the next nine years he tried
to conquer the rest of the Big Island, but failed, though
he was able to conquer Maui in 1790 at a bloody battle
in 'Iao Valley.
Pu'ukohola Heiau near
Kawaihae on the Kohala coast was built and dedicated
to the war god Kuka'ilimoku so that Kamehameha would
be granted the power to conquer and unite the Hawaiian
A kahuna told him that in order to conquer all the
islands, he must build a new heaiu for his war god at
Pu'ukohola near Kawaihae on the Big Island. Today, Pu'ukohola
is a National Historic Site where rangers welcome the
public and give free talks about the history of three
heiau: Pu'ukohola, Mailekini, and Hale o Ka Puni, thought
to be submerged offshore. Just north of Mailekini on
the shore, is Pelekane, site of the king's residence
and royal courtyard when he stayed at Kawaihae.
In 1791, Kamehameha's men completed the rebuilding
of Pu'ukohola on the site of the original structure,
which was erected about 1550. He dedicated the 224-foot
by 100-foot structure to the war god Kuka'ilimoku by
sacrificing his principal Big Island rival, Keoua Ku'ahu'ula
on the temple when he came for the dedication. In 1794,
Kamehameha conquered Maui, Lana'I and Moloka'i. Twice
Kamehameha's armies set out to conquer Kaua'i, but once
they were turned back by a fierce storm; another invasion
failed because of a deadly plague. Finally, in 1810,
Kaua'i's king traveled to O'ahu and offered control
of his island to Kamehameha, who declined, though in
all but title, the "Separate Island" responded
to Kamehameha's wishes.
Most of the Kona-Kohala Coast's historic sites are
connected by "a shoreline trail, parts of which
have been dubbed "The King's Trail" in recent
years, which circled much of the island. The path was
traversed not only by commoners who came under the King's
protection through his decree called the "Law of
the Splintered Paddle," but by royal runners, who
might be sent to fetch fresh fish from ponds at Mauna
Lani, Waikoloa or Hualalai. These ponds have been restored
by the resorts that grew up around them and are open
to the public with signs that describe the natural habitat
The shoreline trail passes another interesting site,
Lapakahi State Historical Park, on the Kohala Coast,
that is open to visitors. Lapakahi was a fishing village
established by voyagers who landed their canoes more
than 600 years ago on the glistening coral beach at
the base of the hill. Here farmers and fishermen settled
and the Big Island's natural healers came to learn and
be initiated into the ranks of kahuna (teacher, priest).
Visitors are welcome to stop to enjoy a self-guided
walk along the trails that wind past ancient artifacts,
historic sites and a variety of plant life, and to talk
with local caretakers about Hawaiian culture.
A numbered map explains the bare outlines that remain
of ancient sites: a burial platform, a fish shrine,
a family heiau, hollowed stones where salt was evaporated
from sea water, and more. A four-mile, stone-lined trail
leads eastward into the windswept uplands of what was
once an ahupua'a (wedge of land extending from the mountains
to the sea) that furnished all the necessities of life-wood
for canoes from the higher slopes; taro, sugar cane,
sweet potatoes and bananas from the middle terraces;
housing by the sea; and fish and salt from the shore-line
waters. Game sites are set in one area where visitors
can test their skill at a konane board, or throw smooth,
round bowling stones between pegs set for a game of
'ulu maika. The keepers of Lapakahi encourage guests
to spend a day snorkeling at the beach, exploring the
pathways that lead to the past, playing the old games
and relaxing over a picnic lunch. Soon the lapping of
the surf, the wind rustling through the golden grasses
and sweeping across the lava, and the hot sun will lull
you into another world-a time when kings walked this
coast and commoners lived a peaceful, productive life
hand-in-hand with nature.
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