Shirley Kaha‘i gets very upset when people say the preservation project at Moku‘ula is taking too long. Sitting behind her desk in the modest Friends of Moku‘ula offices at 505 Front Street, the executive director gestures to her bookshelf. “Look at all these binders, these reports and these volumes of papers. We are here every day moving the project forward.” Kaha‘i admits the process can be discouraging, but wading through red tape takes time. “The last three years my focus has been to get activity out there,” says Kaha‘i. “It took 18 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 20 years ago when Friends of Moku‘ula founder Akoni Akana was encouraged by Mike White of Kaanapali Beach Hotel (now a County Councilmember) to do something about the almost-forgotten historical 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 archaeological study, conducted by the Bishop Museum in 1993.
Akana founded the Friends of Moku‘ula in 1997, with a mission to protect and preserve historically significant sites including Moku‘ula and the pond Mokuhinia. From the beginning of his quest to his untimely passing earlier this year,
Akana realized that generating revenue was always going to be a challenge. A key piece to the funding puzzle has been involving 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 project has attracted talent from afar, including New York University professor Pam Crabtree, esteemed archaeologist Doug Campana and students from Boston, Berkeley, Idaho and across the nation.
The objective of Six’s excavation is to find and define the perimeter of the Moku‘ula island. That will allow the Army Corps of Engineers to create a “buffer” around the island and work on the restoration of the wetlands. Army Corps rep Cindy Barger says they’re still in the planning phase, analyzing the unique challenges of the area and looking at the existing 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. Barger says the Corps hopes to finish collecting soil samples and testing for contaminants this summer. At that point they’ll complete their planning phase and move on to environmental assessments.
The biggest hurdle the Friends of Moku‘ula faces is funding to cover long-term goals, including landscaping, parking and an 1,800 square-foot hale. The last infusion of funding, a $30,000 grant from Hawaii Tourism Authority in 2009, won’t get them all the way there.
Jerry Kunitomo, a former Friends of Moku‘ula boardmember, 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… The culture would drive the economy and the benefit would be the economy driving the culture.” ■
Friends of Moku‘ula will hold a fundraiser and tribute to Akoni Akana on Saturday, June 4, at the Old Lahaina Luau with a guest appearance by Maui recording artist Keali‘i Reichel. Call 667-1998 for more information