Hālau Keʻalaokamaile and Kumu Kealiʻi Reichel have been formidable exponents of hula and cultural education for decades, but the lack of permanent access to ʻāina has kept the hālau from realizing the fullness of its educational programs.

For poʻe hula, connection to land is not only important for practical purposes, but also integral to the cultural practice itself. But many kumu hula today “have to find, beg or borrow a space for us to practice our traditions and lineages,” Reichel comments. To change that, his hālau has embarked on a six-acre native habitat reforestation project that blends the line between culture, environment, and practices.

This ʻāina, nestled below Piʻiholo and adjacent to the Kalena ponds, was given to Hālau Keʻalaokamaile by land management group Hōkū Nui Maui.

After pushback from the community against the previous developer, Hōkū Nui Maui purchased 258-acres with the intention of revitalizing the land and creating a regenerative farming community. Agriculturally, Hōkū Nui has been practicing non-selective rotational grazing with cattle, sheep and chicken to restore fertility where there were once pineapple fields.

While many developers often find themselves at odds with the community, Hōkū Nui Maui takes a unique approach, intending to build homes in order to fund agriculture and to create a cultural centerpiece within the development. Integrating cultural stewards and practitioners positions this community development in uncharted territory.

The management of this ʻāina is a natural progression for this hālau and its partners. “Hula integrates just about every aspect of cultural practices,” Reichel notes. This project will nurture “practitioner crops” that can be processed within the hālau facility, such as wauke for kapa practitioners, ipu for hoʻopaʻa, and lāʻau for dying practices.

The hālau will also train researchers to uncover moʻolelo, mele and oli that reveal what once grew at this particular elevation – ʻōhiʻa, ʻiliahi, ʻaʻaliʻi and kukui, among others. These not only include practitioner crops, but also canoe plants – kalo, maiʻa – alongside forestry.

ʻOhana Hewahewa, Hōkū Nui’s forester managers, have also served an essential role in executing the project’s goals. To date, they have hosted numerous workdays, partnering with Pūnana Leo, fellow Maui hālau, kūpuna groups and private and public schools. Alongside his brother, Kepa, and father, Kaʻawa, Koa Hewahewa sees himself as a servant of the ʻāina, aiming to restore connections within the community and ʻāina. Their curriculum focuses on teaching hydrolic cycles, kaulana mahina and watershed restoration. In Koa’s view, their work aims to make native plant, forest and watershed restoration relevant and appealing again. Through engagement with the larger community, they are slowly learning how to help the community overcome the challenges they encounter. Koa hopes that their success can create more jobs and illustrate the economic viability of this kind of work.

This ʻohana mindset not only informs their work ethic, but also the ʻohana-centered approach to ʻāina restoration. The Hōkū Nui plant nursery, named Kapūʻao, or the womb, will give life to 30 different native and canoe plant species. Koa teaches volunteers: If a single tree is planted alone on a hill, then it is left to battle the elements alone. If a tree is planted alongside other forestry, those surroundings will protect it; allowing all to flourish. Such is the life of our native forests. The same is true of keiki. A child surrounded and protected by mākua, kūpuna and ʻohana is healthier.

“It’s one thing to read about it, chant about it, dance about it, but when you’re actually in it, and you’re able to connect with kinolau – planted in close proximity – then it really solidifies the practice and the individual.”

—Kealiʻi Reichel, Kumu of Hālau Keʻalaokamaile

Bringing multi-generational ʻohana to the site not only imbues mana into the ʻāina, but compounds that mana for the ʻohana and individual. This approach not only “feeds the community, but also the community of plants and animals, feeding all the elements that contribute to us and who we are. We are all connected…this is aloha ʻāina,” says Koa.

As poʻe hula, the practice, in many ways, is inherently interwined with the environment and its resources. As Koa emphasizes, “there is no separation between agriculture and culture.” This cultural ʻike is already interwoven into environmental kinship.

Through physical connection to ʻāina, this kinship is “rekindled and re-established,” says Reichel. He continues, “it’s one thing to read about it, chant about it, dance about it, but when you’re actually in it, and you’re able to connect with kinolau – planted in close proximity – then it really solidifies the practice and the individual.” This, in turn, makes an impact on the group and then the larger community itself, adds Punahele Krauss, executive director of Hālau Keʻalaokamaile.

This spiritual benefit does not stop at kānaka. Initimate knowledge of ʻāina also informs the way we care for it. Koa hopes to normalize protocol for these kinds of hana: “The work doesn’t end at planting a tree. What you do before and after the planting is just as important.” Koa also points out that this ʻāina and its resources have not heard oli and the voices call out to them for a long period of time.

To Reichel, “integrating hālau practices with agricultural practices makes perfect sense for us.” The challenge, however, was that county laws and regulations did not reflect a hālau facility as an allowable use on Agricultural Land. Currently, zipline tours and paintball courses are allowable uses. Although the project received immediate support from all levels of government, “hālau” facilities could not be fit in. OHA’s grant allowed the project to receive an exemption from the county as an “accessory to agriculture.”

Going forward, instead of trying to classify hālau as one of the current categories, the county council hopes to introduce an amendment to explicitly include hālau facilities as an allowable use within agricultral zones.

For Hālau Keʻalaokamaile, OHA’s grant not only provided a funding mechanism to implement the project, but also vouched for and leveraged the success of the project on a county and state level.

Throughout Hawaiʻi, poʻe hula are innovating to carve out necessary spaces for old practices. Think PAʻI Foundation’s Art Center in Kakaʻako, or Hālau Mōhala ʻIlima and Hikaʻalani’s work at Ulupō heiau. Re-establishing and re-invigorating these pilina ʻāina not only reassert our knowledge as kānaka, but also allows our long-standing practices to emerge. “How amazing would it be if every moku had a central and established place for hālau?” Reichel imagines. This kīpuka at Hōkū Nui Maui, and its skilled limahana, are uniquely positioned to illustrate that intersecting culture, agriculture, development, education and economic gain is all possible.

In discussing the project, Reichel was reminded of a chant that talks about the role of the ʻōhiʻa as its roots break through to restore the natural aquifers. “It is a reminder of how important that tap root is so that we can refill our cultural aquifers.” Together, Hālau Keʻalaokamaile hopes to produce a template for sustainable restoration that is accessible and transferrable to other hālau, the Maui community and Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina at large.