Hānau hou he ʻula ʻo Kahoʻolawe
Rebirth of a sacred island
— Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission

The Island of Kanaloa

Kaho‘olawe is a very sacred island to Native Hawaiians. The island has many names. It is referred to as Kohemālamalama, Hineli‘i and Kahiki Moe. Kaho‘olawe is one of the kinolau (body forms) of the akua Kanaloa. In Polynesian cultures, Kanaloa is the god of the deep sea. Many of the traditional practices on the island are related to Kanaloa. There are many ko‘a (fishing shrines) on Kaho‘olawe. There is also a navigation temple near Kealaikahiki point. Kanaloa is an akua for both ‘oihana lawai‘a (fishing practices) and ho‘okele (navigation).

[Moaʻula iki] Photo by Andrew S. Wright.

Fishing and navigation

[George Helm] En route to Kahoʻolawe. Photographer unknown.I ka wā kahiko (in the old days), fishermen from Maui and Lāna‘i would sail to Kaho‘olawe to harvest the abundant ocean resources. There are also numerous places on the island dedicated to training and preparation for long distance navigation. Today Native Hawaiians continue to use the stars, weather and waves to navigate across the open ocean. There is a sacred ocean channel on the southern side of Kaho‘olawe. The channel is named Kealaikahiki or the “path to Kahiki (Tahiti)”.

What is the island like?

The entire island of Kaho‘olawe is considered an ahupua‘a for the Honua‘ula district of Maui Island. It is seven miles from Maui. The sea between these two islands is known as ‘Alalākeiki. At one time Kaho‘olawe consisted of twelve ‘ili land divisions. Today there are eight ‘ili, Pāpākā, Hakioawa, Kanapou, Kūnaka-Nā‘ālapa, Kealaikahiki, Honoko‘a, Ahupū, a me Kūheia-Kaulana.

[Administrative divisions on Kahoʻolawe] Image by Maximilian Dörrbecker.

Kaho‘olawe is the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands. It is seven miles wide and eleven miles long. Kaho‘olawe is a dry island, averaging only 25 inches of rain per year. Moa‘ula is the name of the highest mountain peak on Kaho‘olawe.

Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve

[Explosions on Kahoʻolawe, 1965] Photo courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.Kaho‘olawe has gone through many changes in the last 200 years. The sacred island of Kanaloa was utilized as a penal colony, as ranch land, and as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy. These activities destroyed the natural environment of Kaho‘olawe.

The effects included increasing erosion, polluting the water and covering the landscape with unexploded bombs. In 1976 the group Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) filed Federal Suit to stop Navy bombing on Kaho‘olawe. Shortly after, Kaho‘olawe was nationally recognized as a historic place. Nine years later the U.S. Navy was forced to stop the bombing of Kaho‘olawe.

[Unexploded bombs] Unexploded ordnance and scrap metal on Kahoʻolawe in 2003. Photo by Michael Gawley.Kaho‘olawe’s deed of ownership was transferred to the State of Hawai‘i. The Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) was created by state law. KIRC manages the island and surrounding ocean. Kaho‘olawe is now held in trust for the future Native Hawaiian Government. Native Hawaiians have special rights and kuleana for the island of Kaho‘olawe.

Kaho‘olawe was taken in December 1943 by the United States under Martial Law. In 1953 President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10436 reserving the island for naval training purposes.

Restoring Kanaloa

Kaho‘olawe’s sacred relationship with Native Hawaiians has been restored. The mana of the island continues to nurture and be nurtured by Native Hawaiians. The following is a mele komo (request to enter) and a noi ‘a‘ama (request for release) used on Kaho‘olawe. Many kānaka (people) travel to Kaho‘olawe to conduct ceremonies. For example, the start and close of the makahiki season is celebrated at Kaho‘olawe.

Mele Komo
He haki nu‘anu‘a nei kai    Indeed a rough and crashing sea
‘Ō‘āwā ana i uka               Echoing into the uplands
Pehea e hiki aku ai           How does one land
‘O ka leo                          By the voice
Mai pa‘a i ka leo               Please don’t hold back the voice

Ke Noi ‘A‘ama
‘O ‘Awekuhi o kai uli        Pointing tentacle of the deep sea
Kuhikau, kuhikau             Direct, direct
E hō mai i ‘a‘ama             Grant an ‘a‘ama
I ‘a‘ama aha                     An ‘a‘ama for what
I ‘a‘ama ‘ia au                  Releasing me from my obligations as your guest

[Kahoʻolawe shrine] Photo by Andrew S. Wright.Kaho‘olawe is considered a wahi pana (storied place) and pu‘uhonua (place of refuge) on all levels of government. “As a wahi pana, the island is dedicated to Kanaloa, the honored and respected ancestor/deity who cares for the foundation of the earth and the atmospheric conditions of the ocean and heavens. As a pu‘uhonua, Kaho‘olawe is a refuge, or ‘safe’ place, for people to practice and live aloha ‘āina. The KIRC’s main mission is to restore the native species, control erosion, and provide an opportunity for Native Hawaiians to reconnect with Kanaloa (KIRC: Volunteer Packet, 3).” Native Hawaiians will continue to practice aloha ‘āina in caring for Kaho‘olawe, the sacred island of Kanaloa.

Some ‘ōlelo no‘eau for Kaho‘olawe

He uku maoli ia, he i‘a no Kaho‘olawe.
He is an uku, a fish of Kaho‘olawe.
He is a rebel.
Mary Kawena Pukui, ‘ōlelo no‘eau #952 (1983, 102)

Kaho‘olawe ‘ai kūpala.
Kaho‘olawe, eater of kūpala.
The kūpala is a wild plant whose tubers were eaten in time of famine. It grew on Kaho‘olawe.
Mary Kawena Pukui, ‘ōlelo no‘eau # (1983, 144)

Pā ka makani ‘o ka Moa‘e, hele ka lepo o Kaho‘olawe i Mā‘alaea.
When the Moa‘e wind blows, the dust of Kaho‘olawe goes toward Mā‘alaea.
Mary Kawena Pukui, ‘ōlelo no‘eau #2580 (1983, 284)