Hika‘alani spreads the message of stewardship at Ulupō Nui

Nestled behind the Windward YWCA sits a carefully stacked mound of smooth round stones. Several signs speak to the gravity of the structure, actually the remains of an ancient heiau with vast cultural significance.

From the front, it appears to be an unassuming 6 feet or so high, but turn the corner and it morphs into a majestic, sweeping design that seems to reach toward the heavens. Shift your gaze from the stones to the land behind and an expansive paradise materializes – 27 acres of lush growth, with thriving loʻi patches interspersed throughout an upper level and lower level of green ground peppered with avocado, noni, kukui, sweet potato, mango, breadfruit, banana, coconut and sugarcane. This reincarnation of what Hawaiʻi used to embody before development took hold is no happy accident, but a product of the intense efforts of one nonprofit determined to spur are turn to roots on once-sacred ground.

Guided by a collective of kumu hula, scholars, educators and artisans with a long history of raising community awareness, Hika‘alani is tasked with guarding the 180- feet-long, 30-feet-high state historic site known as Ulupō Heiau, which includes the remains of a sacred temple said to have been built by menehune to honor Hawaiian gods. The spot was a cardinal hub where aliʻi kept watch over their lands from ocean to sea, and a touchstone of religion, politics and culture for the Kailua ahupuaʻa. The organization facilitates physical restoration and place-based education in the parcel they call Ulupō Nui, considered the piko of Native Hawaiian culture in Kailua, which includes Kawainui Marsh, a former 400-acre fishpond once ripe with fat mullet and ʻoʻopu.

Hikaʻalani was born out of the hula school Hālau Mōhala ʻIlima after cultural practitioners saw the need to create a home base for arts, food and culture that would revive the legacy of their Hawaiian ancestors. Today their primary aim is to establish Ulupō Nui and the equally significant tract of land called Wai‘auia (behind the “Welcome to Kailua” sign) as centers of stewardship and learning where Hawaiian culture can again thrive as it did in centuries past.

Photo: Lo'i Patch in Kawainui Marsh
Loʻi patches are thriving in Kawainui Marsh near Ulupō Nui. – Photo: Courtesy of Hikaʻalani

Hikaʻalani’s big dream is to restore Kawainui Marsh to its former glory as a thriving loko iʻa – a task that will take extensive planning, many hands and careful administrative navigation. Engaging families along the perimeter, visitors from the mainland and around the globe, community partners and especially schools is just as integral as their physical revitalization efforts.

“In our records, we have stories of people from all sides of the island coming together to keep cultural traditions alive,” says Kīhei deSilva, the organization’s cultural advisor and an expert in the moʻolelo of the area. “Some residents think that the best way to preserve this land is by keeping people out of it, but that comes from a lack of understanding of Hawaiian history. Part of what we’re trying to do is retell those stories, revive the chants and dances, and give a comprehensive view of what took place here. Our ancestors cared for Ulupō and Waiʻauia through agriculture, and we’re advocating for a return to that kind of stewardship.”

In 2015, a grant from the Castle Foundation allowed Hikaʻalani to hire Kaleo Wong as Project Lead for the Ulupō Nui restoration and education program. As the full-time site guardian, he leads ongoing clearing efforts that spawn both healthy symbiosis and create more space for knowledge sharing and exploration. Wong organizes all of the school visits and volunteer days, talks story with microbiologists, cultural advisors and farmers about growing strategies, and works the land with his hands daily.

Maintaining a physical presence not only lets him continuously pull invasives and foster healthy regeneration, but also deters pig foraging and houseless encampments. To date, they’ve cleared nearly seven acres of land, removed over 100 invasive trees and harvested over 500 pounds of kalo, among other foods – all shared with the community, not sold. In 2017, Hikaʻalani received a grant from Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority that is now facilitating many improvements to enhance the learning experience at Ulupō Nui.

“Names have power,” says Wong. “When we ask kids what they think of when they hear ‘Kawainui Marsh’ or ‘Kawainui Swamp,’ negative images come to mind. But when we ask them to think of it as fishpond, it totally changes their view. If we can call out the relationship between people and place now, we realize the water is not supposed to be looking like that. We need to restore the fishpond for our community now more than ever.” Wong and volunteers have already started on the fishpond transformation by slowly removing invasive growth from the water’s surface by hand, which has already begun to attract endangered native birds.

School visits at Ulupō Nui three times a week over the past two years have yielded hundreds of pictures of kids soaked in mud, not just playing but working the land. “It’s amazing how quick a paradigm shift can happen with the keiki regarding what is good and bad,” says de Silva. “They show up thinking the dirt and bugs are gross, and before long they’re covered in earth from head to toe, almost unrecognizable, carrying marsh grass, pulling weeds and having the time of their lives.”

Volunteer with Hikaʻalani and lend your kōkua at Ulupō Nui on the 2nd Saturday of each month: Visit hikaalani.website or email halauhikaalani@gmail.com.