Restoring the ancient sites of Lahaina
A sacred location for Hawaiians for thousands of years hides beneath the surface buried by bureaucracy.
Shirley Kaha’i gets very upset when people say the preservation project at Moku’ula is taking too long or moving too slowly. Sitting behind her desk in the modest Friends of Moku’ula offices at 505 Front St. the executive director gestures to her bookshelf, “Look at all these binders, these reports and these volumes of papers. We are here everyday moving the project forward.” Kaha’i admits the process can be discouraging, but wading through red tape takes time. “The last 3 years my focus has been to get activity out there.” Says Kaha’i. “It took eighteen months to get permission from the burial council.”
The project, restoration of the ancient island of Moku’ula and the surrounding wetlands was set in motion more than twenty years ago when founder of Friends of Moku’ula Akoni Akana was encouraged by Mike White of Kaanapali Beach Hotel (now a council member) to do something about the almost forgotten historic site. Lori Sablas of Kaanapali Beach Hotel recalls the moment: “I was appointed by Mike White as the director of the Po’okela Program, and Akoni was one of the hotel’s Kuhina, ambassadors of aloha. We did a class called ‘Lahaina Historical Tour’ where we taught about the history of this area. Akoni so eloquently delivered the story of Moku’ula, his passion was obvious. Mr. White challenged us to explore restoring it, and we lobbied the County of Maui resulting in a $100,000 grant.” This helped fund the initial archeological study conducted by the Bishop Museum in 1993.
Akana founded the Friends of Moku’ula in 1997 with a mission to protect and preserve the historically significant sites including Moku’ula and the pond Mokuhinia, allowing the creation of diverse economic opportunities through the preservation. From the beginning of his quest to protect and restore this sacred area to his untimely passing earlier this year he realized that creating revenue to continue the project was always going to be a challenge. Part of laying the framework for the task of restoration was setting up involvement with the Army Corps of Engineers and the University of Hawaii Anthropology and Archaeology departments.
Akana and Janet Six, Professor of Anthropology and archeology at UH Maui College, worked together to brainstorm the class at Moku’ula that Six runs today building on the earlier Bishop Museum digs. (MauiTime did a story on the groundbreaking class in March 2010.) The symbiotic relationship between students, teaching, Hawaiian cultural and historic education and public archaeology are win win, while Friends of Moku’ula keeps archaeology costs down by working with the University. This also attracts amazing talent to the project like New York University professor Pam Crabtree, esteemed archaeologist Doug Campana, and students from Boston, Berkeley, Idaho and across the nation.
The objective of Janet Six’s excavation is to find and define the perimeter of the Moku’ula island. They do not plan to touch the moku. Then the Army Corps of Engineers will have a defined area for Moku’ula which they will have a “big buffer” around the island to work on the restoration of the wetlands. Cindy Barger a rep from the Army Corps of Engineers states they are in the planning phase, analyzing the challenges to the area, and looking at the existing condition and future condition of the site. “Under the Water Resources [Development] Act of 2007 we have a lot of hoops to jump through.” says Barger, citing a federal law aimed at overseeing flood-control and certain environmental projects. Bargersays the Corps hopes to finish collecting soil samples and testing for contaminants this summer.” At that point they will complete their planning phase and then move on to environmental assessments.
The biggest hurdle the Friends of Moku’ula faces is the funding to cover the long term goals set for the site like completion of their Phase I site Plan that includes a future interpretation center, landscaping and parking. The last infusion of funding, a grant for $30,000 from Hawaii Tourism Authority in 2009 won’t get them there. Their strategic plan includes building an 1800 square foot hale that needs proper engineering.
Jerry Kunitomo, a former boardmember of Friends of Moku’ula explains one of the facets of Akana’s vision for Moku’ula, “One day residents and visitors [will] tour the restored site and become stakeholders in her history. When that happens Lahaina’s historic presence would forever be protected. Every decision made about Lahaina would have to consider the impact on the royal compound. A symbiotic model would be formed. The culture would drive the economy and the benefit would be the economy driving the culture.”
Friends of Moku’ula will be holding a tribute to Akoni Akana and a fundraiser this Saturday, June 4 at Old Lahaina Lu’au with a special guest appearance by Maui recording artist Keali’i Reichel. Call 667-1998 for more information.
See this column in Lahaina News from Shirley Kaha’i
National Geographic story 2011: