Molokaʻi has three well-known epithets: Molokaʻi-nui-a-Hina; Molokaʻi ʻāina momona; and Molokaʻi i ka pule oʻo.
The first, Molokaʻi-nui-a-Hina, translates as “Great Molokaʻi child of Hina” and reminds us not only of Molokaʻi’s connection to the akua of the moon and motherhood but of the mana of women. Indeed, Molokaʻi has had more female rulers than any other Hawaiian island and they fiercely guarded the island’s autonomy. This protective love of the island can still be seen today in its people.
Molokaʻi ʻāina momona, meaning “Fertile land of Molokaʻi,” reminds us that Molokaʻi was a pioneer in sustainable agriculture for centuries. Its famed fishponds and kalo supplied the armies of neighboring islands. But that abundance is not just measured by its material wealth, but the richness of its culture. Molokaʻi is the birthplace and piko of hula.
Molokaʻi i ka pule oʻo, or “Molokaʻi of the strong prayer,” refers to the spiritual strength of Molokaʻi, a strength that could repel armies. That strength is still felt among its ancient kukui groves and its extensive religious complexes.
Among the most important is the Hōkūkano-ʻUalapuʻe complex.
The Hōkūkano-ʻUalapuʻe complex is located on the southeast side of Molokaʻi in the district of Kona. In fact, the district of Kona contains more heiau and more fishponds than any other comparable area in the entire archipelago. The Hōkūkano religious complex itself consists of seven major heiau – Kukui, Puʻu ʻŌlelo, Kaluakapiʻioho, Hōkūkano (aka Kahōkūkano), Pākuʻi, Kalauonakukui, and ʻIliʻiliōpae. Adjacent to the temple complex are two fishponds; Keawanui and ʻUalapuʻe.
There are several moʻolelo surrounding the different heiau and fishponds; it is believed that the temples and fishponds date back more than 300 years. Hōkūkano is believed to have been dedicated to a fishing god and may have also been used for star observations. The complex of seven heiau was so massive that they could be seen by canoe from a distance. Three of the better-documented heiau are: Kahōkūkano; ʻIliʻiliōpae; and Pākuʻi.
Like the other surrounding heiau, Kahōkūkano is credited to have been built by Menehune. The heiau also served as a residence for several Molokaʻi chiefs. One of the moʻolelo of Kahōkūkano tells of the Molokaʻi runner, Kaohele, who was considered the best athlete of his time. Kaohele would be killed in the prime of his life at Hōkūkano by a slingshot while protecting a group of Molokaʻi chiefs fighting to maintain their island’s independence during an invasion.
The martyrdom of Kaohele at Hōkūkano served to inspire continued resistance. Indeed, resistance and the love for the ways of the ancestors would be common themes throughout Molokaʻi’s history even until now.
ʻIliʻiliōpae may be the oldest religious structure on Molokaʻi. It was likely constructed in the 1300s and is the second-largest heiau in Hawaiʻi after Piʻilanihale on Maui. Its believed that ʻIliʻiliōpae would transition between Kū and Lono as part of the Makahiki. This meant that it served both as a luakini and a puʻuhonua.
It also housed one of the most renowned schools for kāhuna and other professionals making it, in many ways, the first university in Hawaiʻi. It was said that there you could learn anything – from the rituals of most of the major gods to the arts of healing to hula to construction. The heiau hosted kāhuna and trainees from throughout the archipelago, an example of the high level of intellect and scholarship that existed there.
Like ʻIliʻiliōpae, Pākuʻi heiau served as both a luakini to Kū and a puʻuhonua dedicated to Hina. According to the late Kumu Hula John Kaʻimikaua, Pākuʻi was the site where people resisted giving up their ancestral religion.
In 1819, Kuhina Nui Kaʻahumanu ordered the destruction of the temples and temple images. Rather than obey the edict, the kāhuna who cared for Pākuʻi hid all the sacred objects and temple images in a cave. When Kaʻahumanu’s soldiers arrived to burn down the temple, the priests prophesied that the destruction of the temples would lead to losing our sense of ourselves and to the “hāʻule ka lani” or the fall of the aliʻi. Without the ways of the kūpuna, the people will be lost. The Hawaiian people would then suffer for many years.
But the kāhuna also predicted “hōʻala ka lepo pōpolo” or the rise of people. Ka lepo pōpolo refers to darkened feet. This reference alludes to the common people who toil in the mud of the kalo fields. Lepo (dirt) also alludes to the source of life in cosmic genealogical chants such as the Kumulipo. In other words, when Kānaka Maoli are more connected to the land and our traditions, we will rise.
The Hōkūkano-Ualapuʻe complex is an affirmation that Molokaʻi is the great child of Hina, a land of abundance, and a place of deep spirituality. While the ancient complex is no longer filled with the voices of kāhuna and scholars, the call for the lāhui to darken our feet so we may renew our connection to the land and our ancestors continue to be heard.