Denby Fawcett: Show Respect For Lahaina By Restoring Its Once Lush Wetlands - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

It is too early to focus on rebuilding, but cultural advocates already see an opportunity to return to a Lahaina of the past.

I heard a Maui resident on Hawaii Public Radio Friday refer to Lahaina as a “living graveyard.”

A raging wildfire that blasted down the mountains on Aug. 8 left behind a somber place of suffering, a hallowed cemetery to be treated forever with quiet respect.

It is clear Lahaina never again can be the rowdy tourist mecca it had become where mai tais abounded at sunset as crowds of visitors combed the streets in search of cheap T-shirts, and “traditional luaus” featured skinny women dancing the Tahitian tamure in coconut bras.

I am certain that even the most fun-loving visitors would feel uncomfortable to return to the same boozy touristic experience of the past — the beer and burger stands, the cheesy art galleries — if they knew it had been resurrected atop the ashes from a fire that killed more than 100 people.

Many of the dead were hard-working service employees who toiled at two and three jobs to provide the vacation fun for outsiders.

It is too early to focus on the specifics of how Lahaina will be rebuilt. But Maui cultural advocates are already talking about how this will be an opportunity to return to a Lahaina of the past when the seaside area was known by its original name “Lele.”

“That is our legacy,“ says Keʻeaumoku Kapu, a longtime West Maui activist who has fought for decades to get formerly Hawaiian-owned farmland back into the hands of Hawaiians.

“No ka noho ʻāina, no ka ʻāina,” says the Hawaiian proverb, meaning the land belongs to the people whose ancestors have dwelled upon it. They determine what happens to the aina.

Thatʻs what Kapu and a group of community advocates expressed in a news conference Friday: no rushing ahead with Lahaina redevelopment without taking a pause for the survivors to heal and without giving the residents a strong say in how the incinerated village will be restored.

Mokuula Mokuʻula Lahaina Maui fires pond
This rendering of Mokuʻula situated Mokuhinia Pond at the south end of Lahaina at the intersection of where Shaw and Front Streets are today. (Courtesy Friends of Mokuʻula)

“We feel the government is steamrolling the process without consulting the community,” Kapu said at the news conference.

‘The Venice Of The Pacific’

Kapu told me in a phone call Saturday he sees an opportunity to return Lahaina to what it was, before the sugar plantation, before the tourism, before the banyan tree — something exponentially better than the touristy town it became.

“Lahaina was once considered the Venice of the Pacific. It was a living, viable place,” he said.

Lahaina, which means “merciless sun” in Hawaiian, then was cooled by irrigation canals, some wide and deep enough to be traversed by canoes, and spring-fed wetland ponds. Shading the waterways were massive groves of ulu, large canopy breadfruit trees that stretched as far as Olowalu.

A Hawaiian proverb: “Halau Lahaina malu i ka ulu” says “Lahaina is like a large house shaded by breadfruit trees.”

Free flowing water abounded,” said Kepā Maly, a cultural ethnographer.

Maly says a registered title map shows as late as 1884 the stream system coming from the West Maui mountains spread water across what today is a burned wasteland.

“We have the opportunity to rebuild from ground zero.”

Archie Kalepa, legendary surfer from Lahaina

What we know as Lahaina town today was up until the late 19th century dotted with taro loi and loko (fish ponds), Maly says.

The ponds, fed by underground springs, were home to fish so plentiful all you had to do was walk in the shallow water and scoop them out with a hand net.

Abundant water rushed down from several streams behind Lahaina — among which were Kahoma, Kanahā and Kauaʻula — to create an extensive wetland that attracted a large population of Native Hawaiians with places of worship and chiefly residences.

King Kamehameha IIIʻs royal residence Mokuʻula was at the south end of Lahaina on an island in the 7-acre freshwater pond called Mokuhinia.

“Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) was at the end of a long line of divine, illustrious ancestors. His home at Mokuʻula served as a bridge between the dying light of Hawaiian antiquity and the challenges of a rapidly westernizing society,” wrote P. Christiaan Klieger in the book “Moku’ula: Maui’s Sacred Island.”

Mokuʻula was built over the grotto of the auburn-haired lizard goddess Kihawahine who protected the royalty living there.

Water Diverted

It had served as the spiritual and political home of Maui’s chiefs since the 1400s and became the seat of Kamehameha dynasty until Kamehameha III moved the capital to Honolulu in 1845.

Mokuula Mokuʻula Lahaina Maui fires pond Denby Fawcett column
Lahaina was formerly a lush site of fish ponds and wetlands like these nearshore wetlands in 1910. (Courtesy: Hawaii State Archives)

Much of the upland water that fed the sacred pond, other nearshore canals and fishponds and the mauka taro loi disappeared when it was diverted to irrigate what became the 14,000-acre Pioneer Mill sugar plantation.

The end of Kamehameha IIIʻs  sacred pond and island was initiated with a 1918 executive order from the territorial government of Hawaii giving Maui County permission to drain the area, which was then turned into a baseball field. Now the remains of the wahipana, or sacred place, are buried 3 feet under the asphalt and dirt of the defunct sports field.

In the 1990s, kumu hula Akoni Akana formed the nonprofit Friends of Mokuʻula, set up an office on Front Street from which he worked until his death in 2011 to try to restore the pond and kingʻs mausoleum and residential island to their former glory.

At the request of  Kamehameha Schools and Makila Land Co., the land development successor to Pioneer Mill, Maly and his wife, Onaona, have written a two-part study using primary source accounts written in Hawaiian language to detail how Lahainaʻs Native Hawaiians lost control of their water to sugar and other development interests.

As the water was increasingly redirected to the plantation, the Hawaiians suffered famines.

“The worst part is when the sugar plantation closed in 1999 it did nothing to remediate the scarred land it had exploited for more than a century,” Maly says.

Going forward, any proposal for rebuilding Lahaina is certain to set off a war for water use.

But Hawaiian scholars say the need for a wiser allocation of the water is obvious to face the future challenges posed by climate change. They see the aftermath of the Lahaina fire as a time of hulihia — defined as a turning, a change to return to the natural cycle that has been deeply disturbed — to build new expectations for the future.

“I would like to see the land restored and made productive again. It is the right thing to do. I would like to see Mokuʻula and Mokuhinia Pond  revived. The land is out of balance. It is time for hulihia,” says Davianna McGregor. 

McGregor is a professor and a founding member of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

It wonʻt be easy. The scorched West Maui uplands will have to be reforested to generate more rain, especially if water is to be directed to restore nearshore Lahaina into the wetland it once was.

“We have the opportunity to rebuild from ground zero,” legendary surfer and Lahaina native Archie Kalepa said Friday at the Na ʻOhana o Lele news conference.

It is a time to ponder seemingly impossible ideas such as restoring Lahainaʻs landscape to when it was rich in water. As Kalepa put it, “to go back to the values that allowed Hawaiians to thrive in this place.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Read this next:

Maui County Council Hears Grief And Rage From Fire Survivors Demanding Accountability

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

This mainlander, respectfully says:The entire burn area must be searched by elders for mementoes and precious iwi.Then it should be covered, replanted, whatever, and turned into a large memorial area. No walking on it! Let it be a graveyard, a place to put up plaques and photos of the deceased. A place where people can pay tribute.I have been, many times, to Lahaina. There is plenty of room up the streets to rebuild. I could never walk over the dead!Let it be a quiet place to remember.

Kasia · 1 month ago

Obviously, a terrible tragedy for Lahaina and Maui in general. But I find it too idealistic or even naive to advocate to a return of the times of the Hawaiian kingdom* life during the kingdom was not pure bliss - especially for residents of islands conquered by Kamehameha (see battle of Nuuanu). The kings also allowed or encouraged the plantations which greatly impacted the ecosystem. * if tourism had to stop in every location which experienced a disaster, nobody could visit London (Great Fire), San Francisco (earthquake), Ft.Myers (Hurricanes Charlie and Ian), the Florida Keys (Labor Day Hurricane) etc. All these places eventually rebuilt.* most of the land is not in the public domain but in private hands. Current landowners should not be prevented from rebuilding, selling their private property. If the government wanted to use eminent domain to ensure a "vision", where would funds for compensation come from?Like it or not, the economy of Maui and Hawaii depends on tourism. We are already seeing the impact the drop in visitors has on the entire island. The decision on rebuilding should be taken by residents of Lahaina (all ethnicities- not only native Hawaiians)

Miamiflyer · 1 month ago

Interesting perspective. Can we reclaim the Hawaii Kai and Waikiki lands that were filled too?

PurePoiDog · 1 month ago

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