The Wahi Pana of Molokini


In recent years, the islet of Molokini has become an internet sensation with its picturesque crescent shape surrounded by inviting cobalt blue waters. It is a world-famous site for snorkeling, scuba diving, and bird watching. But many Kānaka Maoli may not be familiar with Molokini as a wahi pana (storied place) and its connection to us today.

There are a few stories about the creation of Molokini that involve Pele. The most well-known involves a family of shapeshifting moʻo.

Two moʻo, Puʻuhele and Puʻuokali, dwelled at Māʻalaea, Maui. They had a beautiful daughter, Puʻuoinaina, who lived on the sacred island of Kohemālamalama (now Kahoʻolawe). She took as her kāne Kaʻakakai and Kaʻanahua, the sons of Hua, a poweful kahuna. But Puʻuoinaina grew bored and left Kohemālamalama to visit her parents on Maui where she met Lohiʻau and took him to be her kane.

When Pele heard about this she lashed out in a jealous rage, cutting Puʻuoinaina in half. According to Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-Lore by Abraham Fornander, her tail became the hill Puʻuōlaʻi at Makena, while her head became Molokini. Seeing the tragedy, Pele’s older brother, Kamohoaliʻi, rebuked her and issued the kānāwai inaina (a decree) encouraging kindness to all.

Another Pele moʻolelo tells of Puʻulaina, the son of ʻEʻeke and Līhau. When Puʻulaina had grown into a handsome young man, his mother, Līhau, gave him as a husband to Molokini, a younger sister of Pele and a great beauty. But Pele desired Puʻulaina for herself and when Molokini refused to give him up, Pele changed Molokini into an islet. Līhau begged Pele to restore her daughter-in-law and not to injure her son. In response, Pele transformed Līhau and Puʻulaina into the hills behind Lahainaluna.

There are also other lesser-known but deeply poetic moʻolelo about the creation of Molokini.

In the Kahakuokamoana version of the genealogy of the islands, also recorded by Fornander, Kahoʻolawe was born from the union of Keaukanai of Hawaiʻi and Walinuʻu of Hōlani. After the birth, Uluhina, who presided over the delivery, placed the ʻīewe (placenta) and piko (umbilical cord) into his malo. He then threw this into the ocean. This piko pointing to the far-off lands of Kahiki became the ridges of Molokini, and the ʻīewe became the crater. The poetic name for Kahoʻolawe, Kohemālamalama-a-Kanaloa, adds meaning in this context.

Another story relates to Kana, a shapeshifter. When his mother, Hina, was kidnapped by chief Kapepeʻekauila from Hāʻupu, Molokaʻi, Kana tried repeatedly to rescue her. But in those days, Hāʻupu was a huge hill that could be carried and lifted up to the clouds by two magical turtles. In another version of the moʻolelo, Hāʻupu could swim away if threatened.

In one version of the moʻolelo, Kana was eventually able to rescue his mother but tipped the mountain over as he did and pieces of Hāʻupu fell everywhere with a portion of the mountain becoming Molokini.

Molokini is also mentioned in other moʻolelo and mele. A slope on Molokini is called paheʻe-o-Lono and is said to be a slide used by the akua Lono. In Kaikilani’s welcoming chant to her kane, Lonoikamakahiki, she weaves in prominent place names from throughout Hawaiʻi, including Tahiti, as parts of a voyaging canoe. Molokini is mentioned as the thatching ropes holding the poles together. The chant is significant because it speaks to the larger vision of Kaikilani who was the first female ruler of Hawaiʻi Island. Her welcoming chant was not simply an act of love but a political statement reminding us to be united. That Molokini was mentioned reminds us of its significance.

There is no evidence Kānaka Maoli lived on Molokini permanently, but there are artifacts that show our kūpuna stopped over at Molokini for fishing and to gather plumage, bird eggs, limu, clams, mussels, and ʻēkaha kū moana (black coral). ʻĒkahu ku moana was traditionally used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Today it is our “official state gemstone.”

Because Molokini was an ʻīewe and piko in some moʻolelo, some Kānaka Maoli would place the piko of their children at Molokini in the hopes they might become skillful navigators and fishers.

During WWII, Molokini was used for target practice by the US Navy.

Due to the bombing and shelling of Molokini, military ordnance is still found there today. The bombing took a heavy toll on Molokini’s archaeological sites, wildlife, and coral reefs. In 1977, while protesting the navy’s bombing of Kahoʻolawe, beloved activists Kimo Mitchell and George Helm were lost at sea. They were last seen off of Molokini. Later that year, Molokini became a marine sanctuary.

While its ecosystem continues to be fragile due to the legacy of bombing, a lack of cultural awareness, and over-tourism, Molokini continues to be a piko of our ancestors.