By Jan TenBruggencate
The stone remnants of early Hawaiian structures are just the bones of what they actually represent.
A house foundation today may only be a rectangle of stones, with an opening in one wall for entry and perhaps a central hearth of stones in a square.
There is often little indication of how the structure functioned. The framework of lashed posts and purlins. The carefully bundled and aligned pili thatch. The bundles hanging from the rafters. The layered mats forming the sleeping places.
Heiau may be walled structures with open interiors or massive terraced platforms or a range of other forms. Often one was constructed atop an older structure.
You can hardly avoid the sense of awe at viewing Maui’s Pi‘ilanihale, Molokai’s ‘Ili‘ili‘opae or Hawai‘i island’s Pu’ukohola.
But as impressive as those structures are, they are just foundations.
Early drawings suggest heiau were densely populated with shelters, towers, carved images, waving sheets of kapa, sacrificial structures.
Agricultural fields had irrigation systems that pulled water from streams or springs. And crops waving in the wind. Planted windbreaks lined the sides of some fields.
The Kiki a Ola or Pe‘e Kaua‘i is now commonly known as Menehune Ditch — an offensive name. It is far more than a ditch. It forms the remains of a unique aqueduct with shaped stones, which carried irrigation water from a dam in the Waimea River to the Waimea Valley taro fields.
It also served as a highway. Pedestrians traveling up the valley trod the paved top of the high aqueduct wall to find their way around a sheer cliff that plunged to the river’s edge.
The remarkable dual-purpose structure — for carrying both water and human traffic — applied venerable Hawaiian stone working skills in a new application to meet a particular need. Today, viewers see a few of the original cut stones and a little of the original aqueduct. Much of the structure has been buried and many of the stones from the original have been taken away and repurposed elsewhere in Waimea.
However impressive an old stone structure, and however impressive the view from it, it is useful to think about its actual uses.
At Kaua‘i’s Kaneiolouma, which is covered elsewhere in this issue, cultural adherents are putting flesh on the old bones. The carved ‘ohi‘a images that have been erected at the perimeter are just a part of it.
There are now numerous places in the Islands where Hawaiian-design thatched structures have been built or rebuilt. More flesh on bones.
But to restore spirit to flesh and bones, the places must be used.
I recall a predawn hula at a storied hula platform, hearing the rustle of the dancers in the whisper of the wind. I remember seeing the shadowy forms of the dancers, blackness in motion against the starry sky. And as the sun approached the dawn horizon, their forms took on texture, and then color.
For just a moment, that particular stone structure, normally mute, had flesh and spirit grafted to its ancient bones.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.