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

The Island of Kanaloa

Kahoʻolawe is a very sacred island to Native Hawaiians. The island has many names. It is referred to as Kohemālamalama, Hineliʻi and Kahiki Moe. Kahoʻolawe 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 koʻa (fishing shrines) on Kahoʻolawe. There is also a navigation temple near Kealaikahiki point. Kanaloa is an akua for both ʻoihana lawaiʻa (fishing practices) and hoʻokele (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 Lānaʻi would sail to Kahoʻolawe 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 Kahoʻolawe. The channel is named Kealaikahiki or the “path to Kahiki (Tahiti)”.

What is the island like?

The entire island of Kahoʻolawe is considered an ahupuaʻa for the Honuaʻula district of Maui Island. It is seven miles from Maui. The sea between these two islands is known as ʻAlalākeiki. At one time Kahoʻolawe consisted of twelve ʻili land divisions. Today there are eight ʻili, Pāpākā, Hakioawa, Kanapou, Kūnaka-Nāʻālapa, Kealaikahiki, Honokoʻa, Ahupū, a me Kūheia-Kaulana.

[Administrative divisions on Kahoʻolawe] Image by Maximilian Dörrbecker.

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

Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve

[Explosions on Kahoʻolawe, 1965] Photo courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.Kahoʻolawe 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 Kahoʻolawe.

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

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

Kahoʻolawe 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

Kahoʻolawe’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 ʻaʻama (request for release) used on Kahoʻolawe. Many kānaka (people) travel to Kahoʻolawe to conduct ceremonies. For example, the start and close of the makahiki season is celebrated at Kahoʻolawe.

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

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

[Kahoʻolawe shrine] Photo by Andrew S. Wright.Kahoʻolawe is considered a wahi pana (storied place) and puʻuhonua (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 puʻuhonua, Kahoʻolawe is a refuge, or ʻsafe’ place, for people to practice and live aloha ʻāina. 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 ʻāina in caring for Kahoʻolawe, the sacred island of Kanaloa.

Some ‘ōlelo no‘eau for Kaho‘olawe

He uku maoli ia, he iʻa no Kahoʻolawe.
He is an uku, a fish of Kahoʻolawe.
He is a rebel.
Mary Kawena Pukui, ʻōlelo noʻeau #952 (1983, 102)

Kahoʻolawe ʻai kūpala.
Kahoʻolawe, eater of kūpala.
The kūpala is a wild plant whose tubers were eaten in time of famine. It grew on Kahoʻolawe.
Mary Kawena Pukui, ʻōlelo noʻeau # (1983, 144)

Pā ka makani ʻo ka Moaʻe, hele ka lepo o Kahoʻolawe i Māʻalaea.
When the Moaʻe wind blows, the dust of Kahoʻolawe goes toward Māʻalaea.
Mary Kawena Pukui, ʻōlelo noʻeau #2580 (1983, 284)