The mountain of Mauna Kea on the Big Island and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine Monument have gotten a lot of attention recently as areas many Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

But judging by the number of ancient chants and stories that have come down to us, and the famous alii or chiefs associated with it, the birthing stones of Kukaniloko far surpassed those areas in importance in ancient times.

The area has been stewarded by families for generations, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is now working on a master plan to preserve it for posterity.

OHA’s Role In Preservation

OHA was created in 1978 to provide an official center of gravity within the state government structure that would politically empower the Hawaiian community to seek opportunities for self-determination. The original law that provided for a Hawaiians-only election of OHA trustees was struck down, and now all registered voters can choose trustees.

While it seems widely known that OHA manages an investment portfolio and other assets on behalf of its Native Hawaiian beneficiaries, it is less well understood that one of the most important purposes of creating OHA was to have an institutional placeholder until such time that some degree of self-determination is politically achieved.

At that time, the self-determination model widely anticipated to emerge from a negotiated settlement with the United States was for a nation-within-a-nation relationship, such as exists with Native American Indian tribes. Since then the option of an independent nation has gained some serious traction within the Hawaiian community.

Kukaniloko Birthing Stones, birthplace of Hawaiian royalty located in Wahiawa. 20 sept 2016
The birthing stones of Kukaniloko, birthplace of Hawaiian royalty. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In anticipation of either model of nationhood, one of OHA’s flagship initiatives over the years has been the deliberate fee title acquisition of culturally valuable lands. This establishes a geo-cultural footprint that, along with commercially valuable lands, physically defines the nation. These culturally valuable lands are categorized as legacy lands not measured or valued for their revenue potential but instead for their importance as wahipana – legendary or sacred places.

Examples of OHA’s legacy acquisitions are the 1,800 acres of Waimea Valley on Oahu, 20,000 acres of Wao Kele O Puna forest lands on Hawaii Island and the 20-acre Palauea Cultural Reserve between Kihei and Makena on Maui.

By contrast, examples of OHA’s commercially valuable lands are its 30 acres at Kakaako Makai adjacent to Kewalo Basin and the Gentry Pacific building in Iwilei purchased by OHA and renamed Na Lama Kukui.

The Birthing Stones

In 2012, with assistance from the Trust for Public Lands and the state, OHA secured 516 acres of a 1,732-acre parcel in Central Oahu purchased from the Galbraith Estate. Within the acreage OHA acquired is a 5-acre site known as Kukaniloko that sits just outside Wahiawa town on the left side of the road heading to Haleiwa.

According to research conducted by the OHA research department, in ancient times, the area called Lihue of the central plateau of Oahu was the Royal Center. Here the highest-ranking children were born and raised to be the leaders of the people of the nation. Kukaniloko was one of two places in Hawaii specifically designated for the birth of high-ranking children; the other site was Holoholoku in Wailua on Kauai.

Kukaniloko was set apart for the birth of high-ranking chiefs on Oahu, and to be born there assured a status of divine descent and those privileges which came with such status. Birthright maintained the purity of divine lineage and established the chiefs as gods with the privilege to manage the sacred lands, precious natural resources and the beloved people.

Kukaniloko Birthing Stones entrance, birthplace of Hawaiian royalty located in Wahiawa. 20 sept 2016
The entrance to Kukaniloko in Central Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The birth of chiefs at Kukaniloko was eye-witnessed by 36 chiefs, one of whom was the father. Today, 36 stones stand in the complex representing these chiefs. In ancient times, there was a heiau or temple nearby where the newborn chief was taken for the recitation of genealogy, purification ceremonies and severing of the umbilical cord. Sacred drums were sounded to announce the arrival of the chief.  The reign of those alii born at Kukaniloko was said to be marked by good deeds, peace and prosperity.

In my opinion there is no more sacred Hawaiian place than Kukaniloko.

Although there is some academic debate about the accuracy of dating the site, Kukaniloko is thought to have been constructed as early as 1100 and to have served as a place for chiefly births until the mid-1600s; the famous alii Laamaikahiki, Mailikukahi and Kakuhihewa were born at Kukaniloko.

The site has remained sacred to Native Hawaiians. Kamehameha the Great had wanted his wife, Keopuolani, to give birth at Kukaniloko in the early 19th century, and the site remained an important place to visit throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Kukaniloko also appears to have been utilized to study the sun, moon, planets and stars relative to features upon the landscape to mark time and place. Some of the stones at Kukaniloko may have been used as reference points to observe the setting sun at equinox at Mauna Kaala. Recent studies of the archeoastronomy of Kukaniloko suggest that the calculations made there were far more complicated than those made at Stonehenge in England.

Seeking The Future Through The Past

The space limitations of this column frustrates the enormity of the geo-physical and spiritual tapestry of the 36,000 acres that forms a surrounding radius. It is nestled between the majesty of the Waianae and Koolau mountain ranges, which flow toward this central plateau and merge at Kukaniloko to form the piko or navel of Oahu.

In my opinion there is no more sacred Hawaiian place than Kukaniloko.

OHA has formally launched a comprehensive and community-inclusive master planning initiative that intends to provide the highest level of care and cultural nurturing. High on the priority list is managing respectful public access to this sacred place that is in the early throes of becoming a popular visitor destination.

Kukaniloko Birthing Stones, birthplace of Hawaiian royalty located in Wahiawa. 20 sept 2016
Thirty-six chiefs eye-witnessed the births of members of the Hawaiian royalty at Kukaniloko. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Hawaiian Civic Club of Wahiawa down through the years has maintained a remarkable vigil as caretakers of Kukaniloko. Some of their families claim unbroken genealogies that connect them through the centuries to the sweeping legacy of their ancestors. They continue to serve as the primary stewards of this remarkable place in our midst, and they are working to restore it.

They want to reforest with koa and iliahi or sandalwood trees, which once covered the area. Through reforestation, they intend to manage the watershed.

Their third focus is on education. They want to build a visitor center, make parking more accessible, and provide docents to educate our keiki and the visitors who come from all over the world to be in this place.

Together with OHA and the larger community, they will work to preserve this sacred place.

About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.