Pōhāhā i Ka Lani, a Hawaiʻi Island nonprofit and OHA grantee has been working for 20 years to mālama Waipiʻo Valley and advance cultural knowledge and practices

“He au pōhāhā wale i ka mūka – the time when the dawning light spreads abroad.” – Kumulipo

For two decades Kūlia Kauhi Tolentino-Potter and her ʻohana have made caring for Waipiʻo Valley their priority.

Tolentino-Potter is the focused and fearless force behind Hawaiʻi Island nonprofit Pōhāhā i Ka Lani, an organization based in Waipiʻo Valley whose mission is to “revitalize and advance Indigenous Hawaiian culture.”

Raised in Honokaʻa, Tolentino-Potter has generational ties to Waipiʻo Valley, although her family has not resided in the valley for several generations. They nonetheless continued to farm kalo in the valley and growing up Tolentino-Potter spent much of her time there, learning farming, fishing, traditional cultural practices and the moʻolelo of Waipiʻo from her late father and grandfather, James Tolentino, Jr., and James Tolentino, Sr.

Her upbringing instilled her aloha for this special wahi pana and her desire to teach others the things she had learned growing up.

So after high school, Tolentino-Potter enrolled at UH Hilo with the goal of becoming a teacher. There she pursued Hawaiian studies, anthropology and teaching. As a condition of her college scholarship, she volunteered in communities like Keaukaha as an evening tutor and realized that some of the students she was working with needed help beyond the traditional western classroom setting.

“As a child, I learned from being involved and being outside – I hated being indoors and reading,” shared Tolentino-Potter.

Seeing herself in those students, she decided that when she became a teacher she would help her haumāna stay engaged at school by integrating Hawaiian culture into her lessons and offering hands-on, experiential learning opportunities. “Everyone has a talent, but it’s not always going to be reading and writing. You just need to find it and help them build it,” said Tolentino-Potter.

She wanted to help Hawaiian students learn in a way that was practical, meaningful, and allowed them to build on their own strengths. The best way to do that, she felt, was to take them “back home” with her to Waipiʻo Valley to experience some of the things she had known growing up. Tolentino-Potter reached out to her father and together they conceived of the idea to form a nonprofit to advance Hawaiian cultural knowledge, wisdom and practices.

Tolentino-Potter graduated in 2001 and that same year founded her organization, Pōhāhā i Ka Lani, developing programs to provide cultural education for Hawaiian youth and to help mālama her beloved Waipiʻo Valley.

The name Pōhāhā i Ka Lani was inspired by a reference in the Kumulipo. The meaning of the word “pōhāhā” is layered with kaona. “From a cultural standpoint, when lightning flashes in the sky that is ʻPōhāhā i ka Lani,’” Tolentino-Potter explained. “When the sun rises continuously, no matter the weather, that, too, is ʻPōhāhā i ka Lani.’ The protective relationship from sky to earth defines our purpose to nourish the land, care for our water resources, and in turn, increase productivity. This was the foundational energy for the organization and what drives our work.”

In 2002, Tolentino-Potter began teaching at Ke Ana Laʻahana Public Charter School in Keaukaha and started taking groups of her students to Waipiʻo Valley on the weekends to camp and work in the valley.

A priority for her nonprofit was, and continues to be, the revitalization of Nāpoʻopoʻo – an ancient village site – once the largest in the valley – along with restoration of acres of loʻi kalo there. “Mālama Nāpoʻopoʻo” was the group’s inaugural program. Their stewardship of the site includes maintaining 1,000-year-old rock wall terraces, clearing weeds and invasive species, replanting native food and medicinal plants like ulu and awa, planting maile under the canopy, and of course, cultivating kalo.

Pōhāhā i Ka Lani’s programs integrate volunteer labor with lessons about the cultural and natural resources of the area to encourage responsible mālama ʻāina and pono behaviors.

Other programs offered by Pōhāhā i Ka Lani include their Mālama Hiʻilawe Program which provides opportunities for active land stewardship and offers cultural education near the base of the famous waterfall and surrounding areas to deter inappropriate use of these sacred places. They also have a program called Hōʻola Iā Koaʻekea, the result of a 2016 stewardship grant from Hawaiʻi County for maintenance of Koaʻekea – the area where the Waipiʻo Lookout is located and the traditional “gateway” into the valley.

More recently, the group has received three grants from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to run additional programs. The first, “Liko no ka Lama,” is ʻohana-focused and designed to connect Native Hawaiian families with ʻāina stewardship combined with cultural education. The second, “Ka Lau o ke Kāhuli,” is intended to assist families in overcoming the negative impact of COVID-19 by providing them with food, food plants, and essential household items. The third grant supported a smaller project, “Kaʻelehua,” created to connect at least 150 community members, mostly Native Hawaiians, with multi-day public events in the valley this past summer.

When she started taking students to Waipiʻo in 2002, Tolentino-Potter was focused on integrating her own classroom lessons with hands-on experiences for her haumāna. But before long, she was getting requests from other Hawaiʻi Island schools to make the trip to Waipiʻo Valley, then college groups, and eventually groups from the continent and even from other countries. By then, she was teaching full-time, working side jobs to support her volunteer programs, raising keiki, and running her nonprofit the rest of the time.

And it wasn’t just weekend work/study huakaʻi to Waipiʻo Valley. Tolentino-Potter was also hosting people from around the pae ʻāina and the world at her home in Puna. “It just kept expanding – our house was always filled with people,” said Tolentino-Potter. “We would teach Hawaiian language, rock wall building, how to make an imu – whatever people were asking we would try our best to accommodate them.”

Over the past 20 years, Pōhāhā i Ka Lani has hosted thousands of volunteers in the valley through their mālama ʻāina and cultural education programs. And for 20 years, Tolentino-Potter and her ʻohana have continued to make the three-hour round trip drive to Waipiʻo from their home in Puna multiple times a week to care for the valley.

For the first 10 years, they funded the organization out-of-pocket. “My dad didn’t want me to apply for grants. He wanted me to know how to be resilient – how to work hard and how to cover expenses without relying on external resources.”

Tolentino-Potter did eventually incorporate as a 501(c)(3) in 2009 and began applying for grants, receiving her first grant of less than $1,000 in 2011. From that point forward, the nonprofit grew in kuleana and impact. She stopped teaching at Ke Ana Laʻahana in 2015, and in 2018, her husband, Jesse Potter, a teacher at Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi in Keaʻau, resigned from his job to work full-time for Pōhāhā i Ka Lani.

Teaching ʻike Hawaiʻi, clearing overgrowth, replanting native species and growing food is only part of Pōhāhā i Ka Lani’s stewardship of the land. Waipiʻo Valley has suffered for its beauty and Pōhāhā i Ka Lani is trying to help the land to heal.

For decades, visitors have ventured down the steep, mostly single-lane Waipiʻo Valley Road into the remote valley eager to catch a glimpse of breathtaking Hiʻilawe Waterfall plunging 1,450 feet into Lālākea Stream, or to experience the valley’s virtually empty, mile-long, black sand beach. A busy day in the valley might see 150 vehicles and hundreds of hikers descending into Waipio and those day-trips, and the businesses that profit from them, have been largely unregulated – something that is never good for the ʻāina.

Sometimes referred to as the “Valley of Kings,” in ancient times Waipiʻo was an extremely significant royal and religious center. According to tradition, the gods Kāne and Kanaloa lived in Waipiʻo. Wākea, the ancestor of the Hawaiian people, retired to the valley. Waipiʻo Valley was also the home to a succession of nine rulers from the prominent Pili line, most notably Līloa and his son, ʻUmi-a-Līloa who was born in the 15th century and is remembered as a kind and benevolent ruler who united Hawaiʻi Island under a single chiefdom. Waipiʻo is also known as the boyhood home of Kamehameha I, and it is said that Kamehameha would take his warriors to the healing waters below Hiʻilawe to recover after battle.

Despite her generational ties to Waipiʻo, Tolentino-Potter’s ʻohana does not own land in the valley. Most of the land is owned by Bishop Museum. After the 1848 Māhele, Charles Kanaʻina received approximately 5,800 acres in Waipiʻo Valley. After his death, the land was purchased by Col. Sam Parker at an 1881 auction and he eventually sold it to Charles Reed Bishop, the husband of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Bishop conveyed the land to the Bishop Museum in 1896.

The next largest landowner in the valley is Kamehameha Schools. The remaining 5-10% of the land in the valley is carved into smaller, privately owned parcels.

Over the years, Tolentino-Potter has worked with landowners to obtain formal leases in the valley she grew up working in and is now trying to protect. Pōhāhā i Ka Lani’s first lease of 6.2 acres in the Nāpoʻopoʻo area was obtained from Bishop Museum in 2007. They currently lease almost 23 acres from the museum.

Altogether, the group is stewarding approximately 2,200 acres of land, both on the valley floor and above the valley (the rim lands), although fewer than 22 acres of that is suitable for farming.

On a 40-acre parcel at Lālākea, leased from a private landowner, they are removing invasives and encouraging the growth of ʻiliahi trees that are already established in the area, and collecting the seeds to germinate additional ʻiliahi seedlings to plant in the valley and distribute to nurseries elsewhere on the island.

Pōhāhā i Ka Lani has also obtained a license to operate its educational programs on 2,128 acres of rimland parcels owned by Kamehameha Schools. With the help of volunteers, they have already planted 7 acres of the land with food crops, including several varieties of banana and sugar cane, and lots of citrus fruit trees. They are also growing medicinal plants like ʻuhaloa, ʻōlena, koʻokoʻolau and mamaki, lei plants, and they have planted milo trees along the perimeter of the parcel that can someday be used for shade or harvested for their wood.

At the 1.8-acre Koaʻekea lookout site, major clean-up and restoration work was required. “We found 13 abandoned vehicles and hauled out over 50 trailer loads of trash, including old refrigerators, that had been buried by the previous tenant who ran a business selling snacks to tourists,” said Tolentino-Potter. They also had to uproot a banyan tree that had grown over the decades-old trash pile and remove Norfolk pine trees on the border that were threatening a neighboring landowner’s property.

Ironically, despite the sweat-equity that Tolentino-Potter and her ʻohana have invested into Waipiʻo Valley for the past two decades, Pōhāhā i Ka Lani pays for the privilege to mālama the ʻāina there. “Right now we are paying about $17,000 a year to rent all the sites that we are managing,” said Tolentino-Potter, noting that their continued access to the lands they are stewarding is not guaranteed.

Regardless of what the future holds, Tolentino-Potter’s passion to mālama Waipiʻo and educate people in the process continues unabated, driven by her ancestral and spiritual connections to the land where her kūpuna lived and died.