Sacred Grounds

Preserving the Historic Keakealaniwahine Complex in Kona

by Lance Tominag

Left to right: Judy Grayham, Nancy Pisicchio and Joe Castelli stand on the platform of the Queen’s hale aina (eating house) of Keakealaniwahine complex.

Fifteen years ago, in 1985, Kona resident and Hawaiian history lover Joseph Castelli traveled to Honolulu for a leisurely research session at the Bishop Museum. Although he didn’t know it at the time, that visit led him to one of the greatest challenges—and victories—of his life.

“I was doing research on the Lonoikamakahiki residence (a private home on the Big Island),” recalls Castelli, 73. “Then I found a detailed map by Henry Kekahuna of the Keakealaniwahine Complex. That’s how it all started. I just happened to come across the map, and I said, ‘Wow, where is this?”

The Keakealaniwahine Complex, a 16.4-acre parcel located about 2.75 miles south of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, is considered one of Hawai‘i’s most significant ancient sites. It was built in 1650 by Chiefess Keakealaniwahine, the great-great-grandmother of Kamehameha I and the highest ranking ali‘i of her time. She and her mother, Keakamahana, are thought to be the only two women to rule the Big Island.

Roughly the size of a football field, the complex contains a series of heiau, stone walls, platforms and archaeological deposits. Included is a walled enclosure which is believed to have been the residence of

The fight to save the Keakealaniwahine Complex began in earnest in 1994,
when Castelli discovered that the route for Hawai‘i County’s proposed Ali‘i Highway would run straight through the parcel. “It was nobody’s fault, because (the route) was the shortest distance between two points,” he says. “But it would be our fault if we allowed that to happen.”

Castelli, a Boston native whose first exposure to the Islands came during World War II as a 17-year-old sailor, became a fixture in West Hawai‘i Today’s “Letters to the Editor” section, pleading for the preservation of the complex and arguing for a re-routing of the highway. He visited the complex, noted its features (“They were all exactly as shown on the map,” he marvels) and took more than a hundred photos of them. Through Pulama Ia Kona, an organization dedicated to the preservation of archaeological and historic sites in Kona, Castelli led a series of slide show presentations in the community, and urged residents to take up the cause and write to their representatives.

Castelli’s efforts paid off handsomely last year. In May, First Hawaiian Creditcorp, which had acquired the land parcel containing the complex through foreclosure in late 1997, donated the land to the state of Hawai‘i. Then, in the summer, the county of Hawai‘i announced a new routing plan for the Ali‘i Highway, moving the route 500 feet eastward, completely circumventing the Keakealaniwahine Complex.

Corbett Kalama, Senior Vice President of First Hawaiian Bank (and manager of the bank’s Branch Banking, O‘ahu Region), is a direct descendant of Keakealaniwahine. “I think First Hawaiian has always been committed to supporting the Hawaiian culture,” he says, “and this was an excellent opportunity for us to do what was right with respect to the land and the significance it has to the Hawaiian community. It was simply the right thing to do.

“And personally, I’m glad to see that recognition has been given to our predecessors. There is a lot of significance with respect to that area.”

At present, the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources is hoping to develop the site and the adjacent Keolohahihi State Historical Park into a larger cultural center. Castelli himself envisions a restored complex with restabilized heiau, hale, pu‘uhonua, drum houses, guard houses and eating houses. A medical school that the complex once contained, he says, can come alive once again with “a medical doctor, dressed in the ancient way, describing to visitors the Hawaiian trees and plants and how they were used.” (The school was used to train kumu la‘au lapa‘au, priests who cured medical problems through the use of trees and herbs.)

Adds Castelli, “This place would be of tremendous interest for both residents and visitors. It will enhance our knowledge of and respect for the ancient Hawaiian people and the Hawaiian culture.”

Before that can happen, however, the complex needs a thorough clean-up. “The first step is to have people go in there to clear the underbrush and overgrowth while being sensitive enough to ensure that they preserve the historic sites,” says Kalama. “There are various stages that will have to take place, and it will involve not only the state but other parts of the community, with the Hawaiian community probably at the forefront and some private entities providing some assistance as well.”

Kalama credits Castelli for all his efforts. “The community really appreciates what Mr. Castelli has done,” he says. “He’s put in a lot of time, energy and effort. We need to see more of that from all members of the community.”

Castelli, no doubt, appreciates such kudos, but his greatest satisfaction comes from a mission accomplished. “We may never see it as a functional historic park in our lifetime,” he concedes, “but the complex is now preserved in its entirety for future generations.”

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