The Storied Places of Lānaʻi

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When most people think about Lānaʻi, they think of pineapples – and more recently – luxury resorts.

But Lānaʻi is so much more than that. It is an island deeply rooted within Hawaiian spiritual spaces and history. It is a land full of storied places where the gods Kāne, Kanaloa and Kāneʻāpua dwelt and where Lono gifted our people the Makahiki ceremonies. It was visited by the Pele clan where they enjoyed themselves on the beach. Kings would travel to the island as it was a place to retreat and to worship.

Lānaʻi was settled by our ancestors around 1200 AD – relatively late compared to settlement of the other islands. An early king of both Maui and Lānaʻi was Kaulahea. His family originated from Molokaʻi but he was born at Kūkaniloko on Oʻahu. During his peaceful reign, the island was known as Nānaʻi, Nānaʻi-a-Kaulahea, or Kaulahea.

Some moʻolelo of our kūpuna speak of humans having a hard time living on Lānaʻi because of the ancient spirits that dwelled there.

According to these accounts, Lānaʻi was ruled at one time by a spirit goddess named Pahulu and her 40-member family. Pahulu established Ke-ala-i-Kahiki that ran from Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe to Tahiti.

Lanikaula, a kahuna from Molokaʻi battled Pahulu and won. The remnants of Pahulu’s family fled to Molokaʻi and Oʻahu. In honor of its spiritual prowess, Lānaʻi would sometimes be referred to as Lānaʻikaula (Lānaʻi the prophet).

Lanikaula would later battle another kahuna and chief of Lānaʻi named Kawelo. Lanikaula grew angry at the people of Lānaʻi and decided to curse them. In response, Kawelo lit a fire to shake off the incantations of Lanikaula to save his people, and this resulted in the red landscape of Ke-ahi-a-Kawelo known as the “Garden of the Gods.” Using all of his magic, Kawelo saved Lānaʻi from the curse of Lanikaula. The wind blowing from the smoke of Kawelo’s fire turned the nearby ʻōhiʻa lehua blossoms purple. The purple lehua blossoms, unique to Lānaʻi, would become a symbol of the island for centuries until they became extinct in the 1800s.

Spirits remained on the island until Kaululāʻau, a Maui chief and grandson of Kaulahea, battled the last of the spirits using a supernatural ivory-tipped spear. After his victory, he and 800 of his people from Maui moved to Lānaʻi. This event inspired two names for the island: Lānaʻi (the day of victory) and Lānaʻi-a-Kaululaʻau.

As time went on, Lānaʻi grew into a hub of interisland trade and pilgrimage. Lānaʻi became ruled by the Mōʻī of Maui who assigned 11 high-ranking Maui chiefs to steward the island’s 13 ahupuaʻa. Keāliaaupuni was the ceremonial seat of government and the place where the two highest points on the island, Puʻu Aliʻi and Lānaʻi Hale, converge. Keāliakapu was the ceremonial seat of the kahuna and a place of refuge.

After the 1500s, Kaunolū would become the actual center of both politics and religion on Lānaʻi, and was famous for the spring, Puʻu o Miki. Maunalei Valley became a major agricultural site around that time and supported over 1,000 people, 71 loʻi kalo, and several heiau. There were also other major settlements on the island including at Mānele, Kaʻā, Pālāwai, and Kamoku. The fishing grounds and fauna of Lānaʻi were highly regarded and prized.

When Kamehameha I prevailed over Maui, Lānaʻi became incorporated into the new Hawaiian Kingdom. Kaunolū became a favorite retreat of Kamehameha I due to its ancient spiritual connections and its nearby deep-sea fishing grounds. Kaunolū was said to have been where Kāne, Kanaloa, and Kāneʻāpua once resided and was, therefore, a sacred place. Kaunolū had several heiau, a puʻuhonua, and a beautiful petroglyph site.

King Kahekili frequented Kaunolū and had a lua (martial arts) training area nearby for his elite warriors called Kihamāniania. To test his warriors, Kahekili would have them cliff jump at a place now commonly called “Kahekili’s Leap.” Kamehameha I would continue to train his warriors at Kohamāniania and is said to have enjoyed jumping from that 63-foot drop. When circumstances allowed, Kamehameha was also said to have personally presided over the opening of the Makahiki at Lānaʻi.

One of the most important heiau on the island was Halulu Heiau at Kaunolū. Halulu is named after the supernatural bird, Halulu. According to historian Samuel Kamakau, Halulu and Kīwaʻa were mythical birds made of water from the orb of the sun that acted as omen bringers to priests.

In physical form, Halulu and Kīwaʻa appear as giant ʻiwa birds. Halulu is mentioned in the Kumulipo, the legends of ʻAukele, and in the Pele moʻolelo as a sibling of Pele. In some stories, Halulu is a protector and guardian while in others, Halulu is a destroyer of men and a messenger from the deepest realms of Pō.

Halulu Heiau was dedicated to this bird akua and served as an ʻaumakua of Lānaʻi. It’s unclear when the original heiau was built, but Kamehameha I repaired and enlarged it during his time to include a luakini and a puʻuhonua. Halulu was the last heiau that Kamehameha I commissioned and it functioned until 1819.

Although the last 200 years have been witness to drastic changes to the island, Lānaʻi remains the storied land where gods, prophets and kings dwelt.