By Kai Markell

Around 70 years ago, on the south shore of Kauaʻi, in Poʻipū, a kind and gentle Hawaiian man, with only one leg, carefully navigated rocky, uneven terrain, step-by-step, with his sketchpad and pencil. He observed, contemplated, and then sketched each observable feature – at times even individual rocks – in a massive ancient cultural site of his ancestors. His name was Henry Kekahuna.

And the wahi pana that he endeavored to document was the site of an ancient village and the historic, sacred heiau, Kāneiʻolouma.

According to renowned Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui, Kāneiʻolouma translates as, the akua “Kāne who drove and pushed.”

Kekahuna was a surveyor who worked for the Bishop Museum. He dedicated a good portion of his life to trying to document and preserve the last vestiges of our ancient culture for future generations.

Born in 1881, little did he know that, when he was just 5-years-old, students from Lahainaluna School on Maui were also trying to preserve Hawaiian culture and history. The students had visited Kōloa on Kauaʻi and documented the remains of houses and villages, fishing grounds, altars, ʻauwai (irrigation ditches), and at least seven heiau, almost all of which are, sadly, now gone.

Kāneiʻolouma was one of the heiau they documented.

Later in life, Kekahuna (when he was in his 60s), would continue the legacy and work of the students of Lahainaluna by continuing to document the cultural sites that remained and interviewing knowledgeable people still alive who could speak to the cultural purposes and practices of the ancients.

He documented over 60 heiau across the islands, and of those still standing, his detailed maps and notes have served as a blueprint for restoration projects to bring the integrity of these sites back to fruition.

Kekahuna gave presentations and wrote papers for historical preservation societies, pleading with anyone who would listen that the quickly disappearing treasures of the Hawaiian people need to be documented, preserved, and restored – for they are unlike any other ancient sites in the entire world.

He could foresee the importance of understanding one’s history, foundation, culture, and identity for future generations of Hawaiians, and for all who love Hawaiʻi. He also knew that restoring an authentic ancient working Hawaiian village in Kōloa would draw people from around the world to learn about our people, history, and culture and help pave a way forward into the future for us all.

About 20 years ago, three Kānaka ʻŌiwi in Kōloa – Rupert Rowe, Billy Kaʻohelauliʻi, and the late James Kimokeo – picked up the proverbial baton from the Lahainaluna students and Kekahuna, and set out to help document, protect and restore Heiau Kāneiʻolouma.

At the time, there were half a dozen ongoing developments planned for the Poʻipū and Kōloa area that many believed threatened to destroy the last vestiges of a once thriving and vibrant Hawaiian agrarian community and the Kōloa Field System.

The Kōloa Field System is one of the most productive agricultural systems in Ko Hawaiʻi Pae ʻĀina (the Hawaiian archipelago) with abundant flowing water through a unique ʻauwai system that includes above ground, below ground and aqueducts that spread over 100 miles across the ahupuaʻa of Kukuiʻula (referred to in ancient times as ʻAipō), Kōloa and Weliweli.

An archaeologist even found an ʻauwai running under a chief’s house, whereby you could lift a stone in the floor to reveal clean fresh running water under the kauhale – like indoor plumbing.

Kaneiolouma Map

Kaneiolouma Map – PDF Format

Ke Kahua o Kāneiʻolouma

Ke Kahua o Kāneiʻolouma (Kāneiʻolouma Complex) is a 13-acre cultural site at Poʻipū, Kōloa, Kauaʻi. Dating back to the mid-1400s, parts of the complex are heiau, sacred gathering sites for religious worship, while other parts provide infrastructure for habitation.

The complex includes remnants of dwelling sites, fishponds, taro patches, above-ground aqueducts, irrigation ditches, as well as shrines, altars and platforms for idols. The largest section of the complex features an arena situated in a natural amphitheater where makahiki events were held.

Hui Mālama o Kāneiʻolouma was officially designated steward of the complex in August 2010 when the County of Kauaʻi granted the group formal custodianship. Hui Mālama o Kāneiʻolouma, led by founding directors Rupert Rowe (executive director) and Billy Kaohelauliʻi (ʻāina momona director), has an enduring vision and mission to “protect, restore, interpret and share Kāneiʻolouma as a cultural preserve and resource.”

After two decades of dedicated restoration work at this wahi pana, Kauaʻi County is allowing runoff from ma uka developments to route through Kāneʻiolouma.

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Over 200 years ago, impressive descriptions of the Kōloa Field System were offered by the first seafaring Europeans to Kauaʻi. In January 1778, British explorer Capt. James Cook wrote, “what we saw of their agriculture, furnished sufficient proofs that they are not novices in that art. The vale ground has already been mentioned as one continuous plantation of kalo and a few other things, which all have the appearance of being well attended to.”

Fourteen years later, in 1792, British Naval Capt. George Vancouver observed that, “The low country which stretches from the foot of the mountains towards the sea, [is] occupied principally with the kalo plant… interspersed with some sugar canes of luxuriant growth and some sweet potatoes.”

Cook and Vancouver both bore witness to an intensely developed and highly productive agricultural system from the shoreline all the way up to the foothills, as the genius of the ancestors utilized that actual environment to maximize crop yields in a limited space with limited water.

Much like the formerly verdant Lahaina on Maui, Kōloa today appears arid, dry, and devoid of ka wai ola a Kāne (the life-giving waters of Kāne).

Given food insecurity and shortages in the islands and impending water scarcity around the world, what do we, as a people, value in this life for our future, our children? More luxury developments and swimming pools and water fountains? Or that which sustains the life, the mauli ola, of us all?

Since the 1970s, nearly 1,000 historic and cultural sites in the Kōloa area have reportedly been destroyed to make way for development. As in many other places around our islands, heiau, burial sites, house sites, agricultural sites and other evidence of ancient Hawaiian habitation and existence have been categorically bulldozed.

The pōhaku which were carefully chosen and placed to build these important aspects of Hawaiian society, were scattered, broken up, and taken or sold to build new walls for new development projects of residential, resort, industrial and commercial ventures.

Kāneiʻolouma Heiau was covered in thick brush and reportedly used by the County of Kauaʻi as a place to divert water run-off since the natural flow of water, via streams, ʻauwai, or ground absorption, had been disrupted by an increasingly concretized and asphalted ʻāina resulting from wanton development.

In response, Rowe and his kiaʻi (guardians), formed Hui Mālama i Kāneiʻolouma with Rowe as the poʻo, or leading kahu of the site.

Photo: Four kiʻi gifted to Hui Mālama o Kāneiʻolouma
Four kiʻi gifted to Hui Mālama o Kāneiʻolouma from Moku o Keawe watch over the heiau and surrounding complex. The kiʻi were carved by Kanani Kaulukukui, Jr., and were erected with elaborate ceremony. – Photo: Kai Markell

Efforts to clear out the overgrown brush, negotiate agreements with government landowners, and begin restoration efforts commenced through back-breaking hard work and a growing body of hui members and volunteers. A stewardship agreement was executed. The heiau was coming alive.

In addition to the chiefly residences in and around the heiau complex, loʻi kalo, ahu (altars), loko iʻa (fishponds) and other significant features of the site, the center of the heiau is an arena for the practice and exhibition of makahiki skills and warrior finesse – the only one of its kind currently known to exist in such a temple.

Even Kamehameha Schools would bring its high school football team to visit the site, imbued as it is with the mana of the ancients. For it was Kekahuna’s maps which were utilized to restore the Keʻekū and Hāpaialiʻi heiaus on Princess Pauahi’s lands in Keauhou on Moku o Keawe.

Kumu John Keola Lake and other cultural practitioners visited Kāneiʻolouma and guidance was offered to Rowe, as well as prayers, chants, blessings and protocol. Rowe also received direct guidance from the ancestors – and continues to do so.

Kekahuna’s detailed maps were instrumental in guiding the restoration project, and the workers chosen to restore the walls and the enclosures, especially the young kānaka, were rediscovering their own identity and ancestral roots.

The pueo (native owl) which flew and landed on the wall construction posts surrounding the heiau rock work, hopping from perch to perch to stare into the eyes of each worker one-by-one, was a powerful hōʻailona (divine sign) from the ancestors.

So, too, was the large niuhi (tiger shark) which entered the shoreline area and swam up and onto the reef papa (shelf) to thrash around outside of the water, while peering into the eyes of the young kānaka standing on the shoreline. So many hōʻailona.

In 2010, on the 200th anniversary of the unification of the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha Paiʻea at the annual Hoʻokuʻikahi Cultural Festival at Heiau Puʻukoholā in Kawaihae, representatives of Hui Mālama o Kāneiʻolouma attended the celebration bearing an ʻālana (free-will offering) from Heiau Kāneiʻolouma consisting of an akua pōhaku (god stone) that they gifted to Heiau Puʻukoholā where it was placed upon the temple platform itself.

This signified a spiritual unification between Hawaiʻi Island and Kauaʻi, traditionally at odds in ancient times.

To effectuate the powerful symbolism, aloha aku, aloha mai (aloha given, aloha received) several years later, the first temple figures carved from ʻōhiʻa wood originating from Hawaiʻi Island and fashioned by kālai lāʻau (wood carver) Kanani Kaulukukui, Jr., were erected upon Kāneiʻolouma in an elaborate ceremony steeped in Kauaʻi tradition and protocol.

The upkeep, maintenance, and restoration project at Kāneiʻolouma made tremendous progress until the world shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As time went on, agreements and understandings with Kauaʻi County leaders changed when administrations changed.

Back in 2007, the Kauaʻi Historic Preservation Review Commission unanimously voted to recognize the historic, cultural, spiritual, and archaeological significance of the Poʻipū area by opposing the “Villages of Poʻipū” development while the Kauaʻi County Council voted unanimously to support a resolution recognizing the historic, cultural, spiritual, and archaeological significance of the Kōloa area.

How political times have changed as the county now seemingly collects more and more property taxes from these large-scale development projects at the expense of Hawaiian culture and history.

In 1984, OHA cultural specialist, the Rev. Malcolm Nāea Chun, and OHA archaeologist Earl “Buddy” Neller traveled to Kōloa to try and save Heiau Kiahuna which was another site documented by the students of Lahainaluna and one of only a few remaining in the area.

In 2024, Kauaʻi County appears to take no responsibility for drainage impacts to the heiau and is apparently “okay” with increasing prolonged drainage flows to the heiau.

Developments have continued to be approved and constructed over the past 15 years while the kiaʻi of Kāneiʻolouma were trying to bring Hawaiian life back to the area to honor the hard work and vision of the Lahainaluna students, of Henry Kekahuna, and of all those who value the importance and significance of pōhaku over sums of money no nā mamo (for the descendants).

And in the words of Kaula Kapihe, the prophet and oracle, “e hui ana nā moku, a kū ana ka paia; the islands shall be united, the walls shall stand upright.”

Ua kapu ke ola na Kāne.
Life is Sacred to Kāne.

OHA Compliance Enforcement Manager Kai Markell has worked for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for more than 20 years with kuleana for ensuring that other government agencies comply with their constitutional, statutory, and judicial mandates to assist Native Hawaiians, specifically regarding land use, protection of endangered species, and handling of iwi kūpuna. He is a graduate of Kamehameha Schools Kapālama and UH Mānoa’s Richardson School of Law.