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How to Visit Hawai’i the Native American Way

Travel story about how to visit Hawaii the Native American way.

Nestled in valleys drenched with history, built upon foundations of lava rock enclosing masterfully designed fish ponds along the shorelines of Native America’s most westerly tropical frontier and in the hearts of an open-hearted, deeply spiritual and sharing people, Hawai‘i has long attracted visitors from around the planet.

The 270,000-strong Native Hawaiian community has overcome more than two centuries of turmoil and is in the midst of a cultural renaissance like that of many other Native communities. In ancient times, the islands of Maui, Moloka‘i, L?na‘i and Kaho‘olawe were one. Over the millennia, rising water levels flooded the lower lands. Whales soon discovered that the shallow seas of Maui Nui provided the perfect cradle for their newborns. Today, Maui Nui is a prime whale-watching region.

Flying from Honolulu to Moloka‘i, our sturdy but noisy turboprop plane glides over emerald forests sustained by red volcanic soil, lush cattle-lands and neatly tended fields, coming to a graceful stop at Molokai Airport. The Hotel Molokai in nearby Kaunakakai bills itself as the “last authentic Hawaiian experience,” which meant that our room has no walls, only screens that allow the trade winds to breeze through while keeping out the iridescent beetles attracted to the patio light at night.

The next morning, we head into town, where we find Maka’s Korner, a tiny restaurant with outdoor tables. We select a local favorite, saimin, a noodle dish with dumplings, fish, and vegetables in a flavorful fish stock.

We then make a trip to Halawa Valley. Highway 450 tightly hugs the rising sea cliffs as we drive east. Along the way, we notice semicircular structures in the waters—the famed fishponds, one of Native America’s engineering marvels. Moloka‘i boasts the state’s longest barrier reef, and ancient Hawaiians took advantage of this fish-friendly feature. More than 60 fishponds, constructed with hand-carried lava rocks and ranging from half an acre to more than 50 acres, once provided succulent fish for the people of Moloka‘i.

After navigating the switchbacks, we run out of road, which tells us that we’ve arrived at H?lawa Beach Park, at the valley’s eastern end. We have to watch where we park so falling coconuts don’t dent the roof of our rental car.

A white-haired kumu (teacher) in traditional Hawaiian garb patiently waits for us. Pilipo Solatorio was born and raised in this lush valley; now, he labors to protect and preserve one of the oldest known settlements in the Hawaiian Islands for future generations. A handwritten sign next to Solatorio reads, "The Ahupua‘a of Halawa Valley Is a Very Sacred Place—Not Secret, But Sacred. Do It the Hawaiian Way."

We stroll under the cool green canopy of the rainforest that’s reclaiming this valley that was once filled with kalo fields, or lo‘i. Kalo (taro) is used to produce poi, the staple food of traditional Hawai‘i. Solatorio leads us to the entrance to his cozy home. We stop at a sign lined in orange, the color of royalty. Our guide raises his conch shell and blows it like a horn, announcing our imminent arrival. He then chants, telling the kumu, Solatorio, his ‘ohana, or family, his lineage and humbly requesting permission to visit. Solatorio chants his own lineage, welcoming us to his home.

Solatorio tells us that as a restless young man he left the little valley to join the Navy, only to return with a wife; he regales us with the tale of the great tsunami of 1946, where the waters surged to the tops of the trees. He and wife Dianna retired to his ancestral farm, where he runs a living school for future generations and presides over the restoration of the kalo ponds. “What people learn here can’t be learned in classrooms,” he says. “They have to be here, to work in the kalo fields, to weave, to learn the old ways.” He then leads us on a hike to Mo‘oula Falls. Along the way, we see the remains of ancient heiau (temples).

Saturday is time for another Moloka’i tradition—Moloka‘i Ka Hula Piko. Piko means “centered place,” and Moloka‘i is the birthplace of hula, the ancient dance. The three-day event, held in May, was initiated by the late Kumu Hula John Ka‘imikaua, the founder of H?lau Hula O Kukunaokal?, a cultural school. Ka‘imikaua learned Moloka’i cultural lore from a 92-year-old k?puna (elder) he encountered at age 14. Ka‘imikaua devoted his entire life to ensuring the continuation of Moloka‘i cultural traditions. Ka Hula Piko is an intimate, heartfelt, grassroots festival. It resembles a Native gathering on the mainland, and we feel right at home.

“If you know your culture, all Native American cultures have similar themes,” says Kaoi Ka‘imikaua, the kumu’s wife. “Some customs may be different, but the principles are still there, the values are still there.” One familiar aspect is the desire to keep Hawaiian culture alive in the face of enticements from outside developers. “Any time somebody comes with a proposal, we ask them who they are, where they come from, why they want to do this project,” says Ka‘imikaua. “But our economy is not what this is all about, it’s the people!”

The Hawaiian cultural renaissance that began in 1970 includes restoring ancestral names. “We take people where the stories are and we keep those names intact,” says Ka‘imikaua. “We want to go back to that.” Indeed, Native Hawaiians won the battle in 1978 to make Hawaiian an official state language, and the Hawaiian state school system includes Hawaiian-language immersion schools.

Visitors can also register for a weeklong cultural workshop hosted by the H?lau Hula O Kukunaokal? during the week before the festival. This provides participants an opportunity to delve deeply into the essence of Moloka‘i, including trips to significant sites and traditional cultural practices.

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Next stop: Maui. The famed island may not seem likely to be the hotbed of Hawaiian culture its more rural sister is, but the aloha spirit also has a strong presence here. Our first stop: Ko‘ie‘ie Fishpond. Located next to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center in South Maui, the six-acre fishpond is being restored by ‘Ao‘ao O Na Loko I‘a O Maui, a nonprofit organization devoted to cultural preservation and restoring the fishponds.

“The ocean is the amniotic fluid of the Earth,” says Vene Chun, the fishpond’s restoration supervisor. Kneeling on the beach, he

draws a rough map of Maui with spokes radiating out from the peak of Pu‘u Kukui, the highest peak of Mauna Kahalawai (West Maui Mountains). Like the other islands, Maui was divided into several districts called ahupua‘a, slices of land radiating out from a mountaintop to the shore and stretching to the horizon, often following streams. The districts were governed by chiefs, and their land managers, the konohiki, were responsible for distributing fish from fishponds to the people. Ko‘ie‘ie is a royal fishpond and was reserved only for the chief.

Chun shows us the cleverly-devised features of the royal fishpond during a canoe ride around the pond. The kuapa, or rock wall, is built higher than the highest tide. The m?k?h?, or sluice gate, is worked to allow small fish to go in and out yet prevents larger fish from escaping. The ponds were also sited to allow some freshwater to enter, which creates different salinity levels. “This helps the fish,” says Chun. The sun stimulates the growth of plankton and phytoplankton to feed the fish. A curious sea turtle pokes its head above the water as we glide by.

The fishponds are said to have been constructed with rocks carried down from the mountains by the Menehune, or the “legendary people,” described in Hawaiian folklore as people with extraordinary powers.

Chun points at another island just off the coast. “That’s Kaho‘olawe,” he says. “It was once used as a bombing range until a suit was filed to stop it. We’re all excited about the restoration process,” which will restore the island, as much as possible, to its original state. Kaho‘olawe has been designated as a reserve by the state, and will be turned over to Native Hawaiian management when it is deemed safe—when all the unexploded ordnance has been removed.

The six-acre Maui Nui Botanical Gardens in the old Maui Zoo seek to preserve both native and Polynesian-introduced plant species, some endangered and others extremely rare. “We’re on a coastal sand dune and dry land area,” explains botanist Tamara Sherrill, the general manager of the gardens. “Wild areas are becoming increasingly rare.” Hawaiian plant species are so specialized that some are only found in one region of one island, which creates even more urgency to preserve these rich resources.

A nursery helps propagate species, some of which have less than a dozen plants in the world. The garden is also a Native Hawaiian resource; nearby, strings of hau dry on a shrub. The golden strips are made into rope while a nearby group of hala weavers intricately weave hala leaf into mats. We also see Hawai’i’s only indigenous palm tree, the loulu from Moloka‘i, which is endangered thanks to the voracious appetite of rats and pigs introduced from Polynesia and the mainland. And we see the incredibly large ipu nui, the largest gourds we’ve ever seen, which are used as drums, water carriers and for other purposes.

We later head up to Maui’s North Coast. The gorgeous Napili Kai Beach Resort is nestled in a small bay north of L?haina, the original Hawaiian capital. Napili Kai prides itself on being a place of healing and reflection; indeed, several organizations host retreats here. Diane Farnsworth, Napili Kai’s director of guest operations, notes that the resort started a foundation to share the rich Hawaiian culture. Trained by a kumu hula, local youngsters learn about their culture and about hula. “Every Tuesday, local kids ages 6 to 18 perform hula,” she says. That and other cultural activities “instill into children a hands-on experience. It’s not polished, but it’s real.”

Our last stop on our immersion into Hawaiian culture at first glance seems to be the most unlikely spot: The Westin Ka‘anapali Ocean Resort Villas. Just a short drive from the more intimate Napili Kai, this AAA-Four Diamond rated resort can easily host a national conference. It’s the only time we spot people wearing suits. And it’s where we encounter a remarkable Native Hawaiian lady who is breaking the cultural mold. Makalapua Kanuha is the Westin’s cultural concierge. She’s also a kumu who has served on the Maui County Cultural Resources Commission and is a noted cultural practitioner.

“I was recruited by the general manager to bring Hawaiian values to the Westin hotels,” says Kanuha. “I’m the first cultural person to be in this position.” She guides Westin employees and management in n? mea Hawai‘i, “things that are Hawaiian,” helping them understand Hawaiian culture, language and stories. “For example, I keep Hawaiian names in the forefront and create that sense of place,” she says.

However, she had to overcome objections from her elders. “They were asking me, ‘Why do you want to go to that place?’?” Kanuha says. “I replied that too many times, we just throw spears; there’s a difference between tourism and hospitality.” Kanuha also had to overcome internal issues: “I came here from K?‘anapali Beach Hotel, the most Hawaiian hotel on the island,” she says. “I left my comfort zone. But how do we educate the world if we stay in our comfort zone?”

Kanuha says her job is an opportunity to educate people. “I have a responsibility to my grandkids not even born yet,” she says. “It’s not just my presence; it’s the tens of thousands of generations who came before with me.” She stresses that if Hawaiians fail to tell their story, “others will come and tell our story, and they won’t get it right.”

Possibly the most important aspect of experiencing Native Hawai‘i is the lesson that ancestral ways may ultimately save our planet. “When the first European explorer, Captain Cook, found Hawai‘i in 1778, about 1 million people lived here in self-sufficiency,” says Chun. “Today, about 1.36 million people live here, and we import 90 percent of our food. By looking in the eyes of the past, we can become self-sufficient again.”