By Léo Azambuja
Wailua is well known as an area filled with a sheer number of sacred heiau and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But the banks of Wailua River also tell the story of a place where the ali‘i, or chiefs, would gather for recreation a long time ago.
“It was a village, it was a playground for the chief,” Evelyn Ohai Fernandes said of an archaeological site her family rebuilt as Kamokila Hawaiian Village. In old Hawai‘i, high-ranking Hawaiian chiefs would go there to hunt and play.
Today, Kamokila is still a playground, but for everyone. Evelyn’s family — four generations, to be exact — has worked for more than half a century to rebuild and maintain the site. The meticulously kept four-acre property, full of native Hawaiian plants, has more than a dozen rebuilt Hawaiian huts and structures, each for a different purpose, and displays of several artifacts and archaeological treasures found on the property, including a birthing stone, medicine rocks, a bell stone and petroglyphs.
The family-owned and operated business offers cultural tours through the property, canoe rides in Wailua River, kayak rentals and tours up the river, hiking tours to a waterfall, school field trips and lu‘au and wedding sites.
But what keeps the property open is much more than the commercial side of it.
“We are all passionate about keeping the culture alive,” said William Kihei Fernandes, Evelyn’s grandson. The site also serves a cultural education for visitors, locals and school children.
William’s brother, Benjamin Braga Fernandes, said schools from Hanalei to Kekaha, and even off-island schools, come to the property for field trips. The kids have fun — they love the Hawaiian games the best — while learning about the culture.
The story of Kamokila Hawaiian Village began when Evelyn’s father, Benjamin Ohai was still a boy. Evelyn said her father grew up in Wailua Mauka, the mountain side of Wailua, known today as Wailua Homesteads.
“In the olden days, it was called Olohena,” she said of Wailua Homesteads. Her father was familiar with Wailua River because back in those days, he depended on fishing in the river to survive.
“It was long ago,” Evelyn said. “There were not too many people up here. In fact I was also born up here in Wailua, in Olohena.”
Growing up, Benjamin Ohai was aware there were remains of an old Hawaiian village where Kamokila is today. The hills along the river and around the village also had caves where Hawaiians would keep canoes and prized belongings, according to Evelyn. Today, those caves have been closed, she said.
It was her husband, the late state Sen. Billy Fernandes, who had the idea to rebuild the site, according to Evelyn. Her father liked the idea and they went to work at it. The area was covered with mangrove, which had to be removed before they could to anything on the property. It was a lot of work, and they didn’t have money to hire workers, so they had to remove the mangrove themselves.
Evelyn’s father died in 1961 before he could finish the project, but her husband decided he would continue to work. With the help of family member Jefferson Johnson, friend James Kaneakua and others, they tackled the mangroves, armed with chainsaws and machetes.
Evelyn said her husband cut himself with the saw in many occasions, resulting in several trips to the doctor to get stitched up.
“I told him he should not do that anymore, he should stop,” she said. “But he was determined he was going to, he felt something down there.”
It took many years to clear the property. As a state senator, Billy Fernandes commuted back and forth to O‘ahu, so he had limited time to work on the project.
“It was a lot of work, blood and tears, but he finally accomplished it,” Evelyn said.
After all the clearing, they rebuilt the huts and structures with the same rocks from the old structures and a lot of bamboo. They used pili grass and leaves from fan palms for the roofing, the same material used in old Hawai‘i.
Evelyn doesn’t know what the original ancient site was called, but she said the rebuilt village was named after a Hawaiian woman who lived nearby. Kamokila Campbell lived in Wailua, and she had ancestors who once lived in the area. She would go to the area often to bring ho‘okupu — gift wrapped in ti leaves — and leave it there for her ancestors.
“So when the area was cleared, they called it Kamokila, after that woman,” Evelyn said.
Her grandson, Benjamin Braga Fernandes, said Kamokila Hawaiian Village first opened to the public in 1979, the year he was born. Three years later, Hurricane ‘Iwa damaged the huts. His grandfather restored the village and kept it operating.
When Hurricane ‘Iniki hit Kaua‘i in 1992, Billy Fernandes “said no, he wasn’t going to do it one more time,” Evelyn said. That was when their son, Kimo Fernandes, took over it. Kimo, with the help of his teenage sons, Benjamin and William, slowly rebuilt the village. It would take another five or six years for Kamokila to reopen.
Now, most of the work around Kamokila is carried by Benjamin, William and their crew. The legacy of keeping Kamokila operating is already guaranteed for at least another generation. The brothers say their children will “definitely” carry on with the family business.
“They’re already down there working and learning, it’s more like a lifestyle than a job,” William said of his children.
For now, it’s still Benjamin’s and William’s turn to hold the torch for the family, and they still keep it humble, Hawaiian style.
“We’re just maintaining the culture for the visitors, for the locals, for the Hawaiians, just trying to share what we have with everybody,” Benjamin said.
“I’m just a steward of the land,” William said. “I’m just passing through, trying to be the best steward I can be.”
Kamokila Hawaiian Village is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission fee is $5 for adults an $3 for children ages 3 to 12.
Visit www.villagekauai.com or call 823-0559 for more information.