Kohala Coast - 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. photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

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 North Kohala.

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 Islands. photo credit: Kirk Aeder

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 and wildlife.

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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