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Lahaina: Resurrecting Moku‘ula

Story by Jill Engledow

One of the most significant archaeological sites in Hawai‘i, Moku‘ula was for years the kingdom’s capital, where historic documents like the Mahele (the great land division of the 1840s) and Hawai‘i’s constitution were drafted. University of Hawai‘i–Maui College Professor Janet Six compares it to world-heritage sites like Machu Picchu, and tells her students, “In the future, you’ll be telling your grandkids you worked at Moku‘ula.”

Moku‘ula was the focal point of a royal neighborhood in the area that now includes 505 Front Street, Kamehameha Iki Park, and the parking lot, tennis courts and abandoned softball field of Malu Ulu o Lele Park. Before nineteenth-century sugar planters diverted mountain waters to irrigate cane fields, many streams and freshwater springs kept the area cool and green.

Those springs created a large loko, or freshwater fishpond, called Loko o Mokuhinia. It was named for a daughter of one of Hawai‘i‘s greatest rulers, the fifteenth-century unifier of Maui, King Pi‘ilani, who lived near the pond’s edge. Kihawahine Mokuhinia was transformed upon her death into a mo‘o, or sacred lizard, a powerful guardian spirit who made the pond her primary home.

The worship of Kihawahine and the power she represented descended through the Pi‘ilani royal line to the divine chiefess Keopuolani. When conqueror Kamehameha I claimed this sacred princess as his wife in the 1790s, he also acquired Kihawahine. The area around Mokuhinia remained a headquarters for the royal family for decades. It was particularly important from 1837 to1845, when Lahaina served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i during the reign of Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), son of Kamehameha I and Keopuolani. With his sister Nahi‘ena‘ena, Kauikeaouli struggled to navigate the turbulent transition between ancient Hawaiian ways and those of newcomers who brought Western culture and religion.

In Hawaiian culture, the royal brother and sister were perfect mates, destined to produce children whose mana, or divine power, would be magnified by their parents’ merging. Missionaries who arrived in 1820 were horrified by this ancient custom and fought to keep them apart. But when Nahi‘ena‘ena died after bearing a short-lived child (possibly her brother’s), Kauikeaouli went into mourning. He turned the house his sister had been building on Moku‘ula into a shrine and sought refuge there from the change that surrounded him. In what visitors described as “a large chamber elegantly furnished,” he placed three coffins draped with scarlet velvet, containing the bodies of his mother, his sister and her child.

But Honolulu’s great harbor was becoming a center of commerce, and in 1845 the capital moved to that growing town. By the late 1800s, Mokuhinia was essentially abandoned. With stream water diverted for sugarcane, the lake became a stagnant, mosquito-breeding swamp.

In 1914, Lahaina businessmen filled the swamp with harbor dredgings and dirt. Before the Friends of Moku‘ula began campaigning to restore the lost island and the pond that once surrounded it, almost no one remembered it existed.

The Friends grew out of Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel’s Project Po‘okela, a pioneer program begun in 1986 and taught by Hawaiian scholar Dr. George Kanahele. Po‘okela’s purpose was to teach the hotel’s employees about Hawaiian culture and history. Their studies led them to rediscover the sacred area that had been home to Maui chiefs for centuries, and to work toward its restoration.

The Friends envisioned a heritage/education center: the pond restored and the island uncovered, accessible only for ceremonial use but visible to everyone, a living reminder of the royal history of Lahaina. Led by founding Executive Director Akoni Akana, the Friends lobbied for funding of a 1993 archaeological excavation that unearthed, among other things, a wooden pier where it’s believed chiefs boarded canoes to cross the pond. A second archaeological study in 1999 recommended careful excavation to find the boundaries of the island, thought to encompass part of the ball field and an adjacent parking lot.

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