Pahukini is a heiau of the highest chiefly order perched in the middle of the now closed Kapaa landfill.

For more than 30 years, community groups and individuals have tried to protect the heiau, a Hawaiian temple site, from damage in its unlikely setting in a garbage dump and to make it more accessible to the public.

Yet the city has not always made access to the heiau and community volunteer opportunities a priority.

The word heard most often when Pahukini is mentioned is “sad.” Sad to think that the majestic 120-by-180-foot structure that once stood on a promontory overlooking Kawainui Marsh, with sweeping views out to the ocean, is now almost obliterated from sight by invasive grasses and weeds.

Lehuakona Isaacs walks in chest and head high overgrown grass at Pahukini Heiau located above Kapaa Refuse Transfer Station.
Lehuakona Isaacs walks in chest-high, overgrown grass to the ancient Pahukini Heiau, which is located above the Kapaa Refuse Transfer Station. Issacs is president of a group that wants to help maintain the site. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

In 1987, community volunteers working together in a massive clean up of Pahukini thought they had an agreement in place to protect the heiau forever. But for a number of reasons their efforts lapsed.

Native Hawaiian Nanette Napoleon, who was among the key figures spearheading the original protection effort in 1987, says, “We restored Pahukini. Then it went underground. We can’t let this happen again.”

The city said Thursday it is reviewing a document for a new co-curatorship of Pahukini Heaiu with two nonprofits and HC&D, the concrete and cement company situated next to Kapaa landfill.

The nonprofits hoping to be co-curators with HC&D are the Kailua Hawaiian Civic Club and Ahahui Malama I Ka Lokahi.

City environmental services deputy director Tim Houghton says discussions began in March to create a draft co-curator agreement that’s currently under review by city attorneys and the state’s Historic Preservation Division.

Lehuakona Issacs, president of Ahahui Malama, says once the agreement is officially executed, the group wants to coordinate community service projects at the heiau at least once a month. He’ll also escort individuals in to see the site whenever he has free time.

Chuck Burrows of Kailua Hawaiian Civic Club says the co-curatorship is crucial to gain regular access to Pahukini to allow Native Hawaiians to protect the heiau and conduct their religious practices.

The city is in charge of the heiau’s protection because it owns the Kapaa Landfill, now Kapaa Transfer Station, where the historic treasure sits.

On The National Registry

In a weird coincidence, the city opened the Kapaa Landfill in 1972, the same year Pahukini Heiau was put on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the national registry, Pahukini is described as “a monumental example of the engineering knowledge and religious dedication of the Hawaiians in constructing their temples of worship and ceremony.”

The city’s first co-curatorship agreement was drawn up with partners Ameron-HC&D, a concrete company, and the Lani-Kailua Business and Professional Women in 1987 after community volunteers had competed the original cleanup.

Paukini Heiau
Maintenance of Paukini Heiau has been sporadic over the years. Here is the heiau in better times after HC&D cleared the exterior early last year. Courtesy:

The second and last co-curator agreement was reached with Kailua Hawaiian Civic Club and HC&D in 2001 but expired in 2006.

“After that, the City basically ignored the heiau which is really sad,” said Linda Goldstein, a now retired HC&D executive, who led the company’s effort to protect the heiau for more than two decades.

Burrows, of the civic club, says the lapse is also partially their fault. “We needed to keep pushing harder for an agreement and we didn’t,” he said.

A Sacred Site Buried In The Grass

High Chief Olopana, the paramount leader of the windward side of Oahu, is believed to have rallied hundreds of workers to build the Pahukini Heiau around 1110 A.D.

It was one of three heiau Olopana built surrounding Kawainui. The other two are Holomakani and Kawaewae.

Pahukini is a luakini heiau, the type of structure used by ruling chiefs for human sacrifices during time of war and other stressful periods to seek favor from the god of war, Kukailimoku.

Today, Pahukini is covered by tall Guinea and elephant grasses, with invasive plants and young trees poking through its rock floor.

Since the co-curatorship lapsed in 2006, Burrows has continued informally to take community groups into the heiau site but only about twice a year. The last community visit was in May.

HC&D has also come periodically to cut down the tall grasses on the grounds around the structure but not recently.

When community volunteers banded together for the first time in 1987 to clean Pahukini, University of Hawaii anthropology professor Jocelyn Linnekin, a co-founder of the effort, called the heiau,  “A spectacle in a sea of garbage.”

After driving out to see Pahukini Friday, I would call it a spectacle drowning in a sea of grass.

“You used to be able to see Pahukini from the H-3 highway,  but it is not visible any more,” says archaeologist Paul Cleghorn.

Napoleon worries now that people can no longer see the heiau, it is in danger of moving out of their consciousness.

A Long Decline

During the original restoration effort, the heiau was in real danger of crumbling apart with banyan and Java plum trees and huge Christmas berry bushes beginning to destabilize the heiau’s floor and sides.

Hundreds of community members drove out to Kailua to work at the landfill during that 1987 effort.

Pahukini Heiau archive photograph.
A drum ceremony conducted by Aloha Dalire for the 1988 re-dedication of Pahukini. The name of the heiau means “many drums.” Courtesy: Nanette Napoleon

The volunteers managed with weed whackers, pruning shears and machetes to clear the heiau of alien plants and garbage that had drifted in from the dump and settled on the sacred site.

Archaeologist June Cleghorn says even Marines from Kaneohe’s Marine Corps Base Hawaii helped out during the first cleanup effort. Cleghorn is the senior cultural resources manager at the Kaneohe base.

Oahu Heritage Council, an offshoot of the Historic Hawaii Foundation, sponsored the project that proceeded with a blessing and assistance from then-Mayor Frank Fasi’s administration.

A crew of inmates from Oahu Community Correctional Center came to the heiau later that summer to do the heavy work of cutting down banyans, java plum trees and Christmas berry bushes that had invaded the heiau’s floor.

I was a graduate student in anthropology then. My job that summer was to supervise the inmates along with their prison work crew supervisor Jerry Jellison to make sure the work didn’t accidentally damage the archaeological integrity of the structure.

“We cannot let this happen to Pahukini again. Never again.” — Nanette Napoleon, one of the leaders of the first restoration effort in 1987.

Pahukini Heiau’s decline had actually started long before in the 1950s when Kapaa Quarry was active in the area. Quarrying operations carved away a huge portion of the hill on which the heiau sat.

“But the heiau was left intact after some of the quarry workers were convinced supernatural powers still operated at the heiau because of the inexplicable accidents that befell their power equipment,” noted a historian in documentation submitted to place Pahukini on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lehuakona Isaacs said when he was a student at Kamehameha Schools he remembers students from Kailua telling him that the quarry workers got spooked when they came to work one day to find a bulldozer weirdly tipped over.

When I was working with the prisoners, some were similarly spooked by a belief in the ghostly power of the heiau.

I told them not to worry about angry spirits because the Rev. Abraham Akaka had blessed the heiau before we began our community clean ups. But some of the inmates still remained convinced that it was sacrilegious to stand on the structure. I let them work instead on the ground below.

Most of them were Native Hawaiians. As the days went on, they seemed to become emotionally involved in the project.

When they departed from the heiau for the final time, they left behind a note signed by each of them, which they carefully hid in one of the walls. The handwritten note thanked the heiau for allowing them to help with its revival.

Pahukini Heiau archive photograph.
Different nonprofits served as caretakers of the Pahukini Heiau for nearly 20 years until their agreement with the city lapsed in 2006. Courtesy: Nanette Napo

Pahukini, like the mythical Lazarus, may soon rise again with the help of the new co-curatorship.

Houghton of the city’s Environmental Services Department says the city is determined to do it right by making sure there is future public access to the site.

Napoleon hopes this time Pahukini’s care will last into perpetuity. She says she expects that it will because the young Native Hawaiians today are so passionate about their culture.

“We cannot let this happen to Pahukini again. Never again,” Napoleon said.

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