By Léo Azambuja
For more than 15 years, a group of about 35 people has been working diligently to bring back a massive socio-cultural and historical site on Kaua‘i’s South Shore that was once one of the most important gathering places on the island.
“I had a mission and a vision of what lies here. And to make it work, you have to be humble, you have to be patient and you have to have compassion. It took us that time to create what you see today,” said Rupert Rowe, who has been carefully restoring Ke Kahua O Kaneiolouma in Po‘ipu since 1998.
Ke Kahua O Kaneiolouma, or Kaneiolouma Complex, dates back to at least 1400 A.D. The 13-acre site is wahi pana, a storied place. It contains intricate walls and terraces; all remnants of an ancient Hawaiian village with various houses, irrigation channels, taro fields, a sacred spring, fish ponds, several heiau, shrines and altars. In the center of the complex lies what is likely the only intact makahiki arena in Hawai‘i.
The Kaneiolouma Complex had been mentioned in quite a few historical, cultural and archaeological pieces of literature for at least 130 years. Although it is only 100 yards from world-famous Po‘ipu Beach, the site sat for many years hidden from plain view, completely covered by many kinds of invasive plants and trees.
Today, most of the invasive vegetation has been killed and removed by Rowe and his crew, revealing an elaborate set of ancient stone structures. Several native trees were planted, and an $800,000 stonewall was erected around the site’s perimeter to protect it. Four giant tiki face the road, and it’s virtually impossible for anyone passing by to miss the site.
“When we first started off this, nobody really had a clue, but culturally it only works if you know how to malama the ‘aina,” Rowe said. “If you give love to the land, the land will give you back something.”
In 1998, Billy Kaohelauli‘i was cleaning the site, and got into trouble with the State Historical Preservation Division. He then called his friend, Rowe, who told him they needed to do a pule, or prayer, to get the OK before cleaning the site.
“You have to ask for entry, and by asking they’ll let you know,” Rowe said. “After they accepted what we were going to do, malama the land, we never had a problem; we had obstacles, but an obstacle is really not a problem, it’s just how you get from one spot to another.”
It would take another 12 years for the County of Kaua‘i to enter into an official stewardship agreement with Hui Malama O Kaneiolouma, a group led by Rowe. Under a 10-year, renewable agreement signed by Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. July 23, 2010, the county keeps jurisdiction over the site, but Hui Malama O Kaneiolouma provides custodianship, including labor, without pay.
Still under the agreement, the county agrees to provide archaeological information, structural surveys, environmental impact statements and other help associate with plans for future use. The stewards may also request the county grant-writing support and help with large clearing and hauling projects.
In 2011, the county added a two-acre state parcel to the complex, containing a couple house sites, fireplaces and a sharpening stone.
There is still a small open-zoned parcel where the Nukumoi Surf Shop sits, that the Hui Malama o Kaneiolouma hopes to acquire and utilize it as a visitor center and a gateway to the complex.
The group’s goal is to perpetuate the culture by restoring the complex, and to honor the sacred sites while enhancing recreation and education opportunities. They also want to provide a living link to Hawaiian traditions and heritage.
The outline for the site’s complete restoration will follow the mapping done in 1959 by Native Hawaiian archaeological expert Henry Kekahuna.
“No such a thing as a real, truly authentic Hawaiian village of ancient type exists anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands today,” Kekahuna wrote in a 1959 report about the complex.
Rowe said a man called Dave Wellman mapped Peru’s sacred Machu Picchu in three dimensions, and did the same thing at Kaneiolouma by utilizing multiple cameras and feeding the information into a computer program. This technology helps to rebuild the stone structures similar to what they looked like.
Once finished, the complex will have access paths, guided tours, interpretive signs, a visitor center (depending on funding), restored houses, fishponds and other structures, and will also have a flood control plan in place with mitigation measures.
When Rowe first came to Kaneiolouma, he told Kaohelauli‘i to just sit down and take the energy. Back then, he said, no one thought it was possible to rebuild the place.
“When I left there, I knew what I had to do,” Rowe said.
Most of the original crew from those early days is still with the project. They meet monthly from 5:30 or 6 a.m. until 8 or 9 a.m. to clean the site, just like in the early days, when no one was paying much attention to their work.
“If we work as ‘we,’ everybody is on the same page, everybody will give from the heart,” Rowe said of his crew.
There may be a lot more to do, but what the small group of volunteers has already accomplished is quite monumental. They became a lifeline between past and future for a place that holds many clues to how Hawaiians once thrived on this island.
“There is a past, and the past will always have a future. But in the present is how you prepare yourself to make two become one,” said Rowe, explaining we in the present are the “balance between past and future.”