'Spoonful by spoonful,' Moku'ula slowly returns
Group prepares to submit restoration plans to county
The Maui News
By CHRIS HAMILTON - Staff Writer (email@example.com)
LAHAINA - The Friends of Moku'ula Inc. hopes to present to Maui County planners next month the first phase of its archaeological restoration and information center along Front Street, said Executive Director Shirley Kaha'i on Saturday.
The initial phase will cost $3 million, with the total three-part plan expected to cost more than $30 million, Kaha'i said. It includes a complete restoration of the former home of Hawaii's kings and queens, or alii, its wetlands and other water features, and an interpretive and community learning center.
Kaha'i said the group is 80 percent through the first part of the plan and wants to present it to Mayor Alan Arakawa's administration to get building permits to begin construction on the traditional hale, parking lot and service center, which will contain a kitchen and restrooms.
When the project moves into the next phase, the group's main partner for a decade, the Army Corps of Engineers, will do much of the work to restore the original wetland and fishpond surrounding the 1-acre island of Moku'ula, called Mokuhinia. Moku'ula is oblong, and the restored area would run parallel to and makai of Front Street.
"I do whatever I can do to help," said volunteer Lani Minihau, whose family lineage goes back to the alii who once ruled Maui, the Piilani clan. Kaha'i has dubbed her a "supervolunteer."
"I'm honored," she said about participating in the dig and restoration. "To me, it's a calling. It's about connecting our family back together. I feel like this is my responsibility to be here, to help create something truly special for our future generations."
Along with Maui County and the Corps of Engineers, Friends of Moku'ula is partnered with universities, museums, nonprofits and other dedicated volunteers and patrons. With the assistance of grants, Kaha'i said she hopes there will be sufficient funding to complete the project within the next several years, following many years of anticipation.
As Kaha'i spoke, she and about 15 volunteers cleaned up sections of the 15- to 20-acre site.
"We had a small group today, but we got a lot done," she said, standing on a dusty patch of land under a cloudless, bright sky.
About three feet below the contemporary surface lies historic Moku'ula. It once had a cavern and homes for royalty and their court. The large fishpond was connected to a series of ocean- and spring-fed canals and acted as a sort of moat around Moku'ula, archaeologists have said.
The island also had a shrine dedicated to the family goddess, Mo'o Akua Kihawahine, and the alii home might still be buried somewhere under a nearly abandoned baseball field across the street from the 505 Front Street shopping center. Overseeing the excavation is archaeologist Janet Six, assisted by a number of students from Hawaii universities.
But the bulk of the work is done by a core group of volunteers with ties to the community who are admirers of the culture and King Kamehameha III, or his grandfather, since this was one of their family retreats when Lahaina was the capital of the Hawaiian nation, Kaha'i said.
The entire restoration - and then expansion into a Native Hawaiian cultural center - has been an idea emerging for decades now. The vision solidified once Bishop Museum studied the area extensively in the 1990s, organizers have said. They and their partners used ground sonar equipment, satellite maps and historical documents to uncover the boundaries of the island and the wetlands, said Friends of Moku'ula tour guide Kalapana Kollars.
The archaeological dig began in the spring of last year. As workers have dug up the site, "spoonful by spoonful" over the past year, they've also come across a couple of possibly important finds, including a brick that may be part of a former palace and a piece of rope, Kollars said. The rope may have a connection to the spruce pier already discovered at the site and believed to have been a canoe dock for the island.
In addition, they've found cut stones for buildings and the tooth of a young dog believed to have been used as part of a sacrifice to Kihawahine, Kollars said.
The tiny section of hand-woven rope could have been used for anything from tying up canoes to the pier extending from the Moku'ula island to securing palm fronds to a hale, employees and volunteers guessed.
"It all doesn't look like a lot right now," Kollars said of the excavated area, so far about 20 by 40 feet. "But when the time is right, everything will be revealed to us."
It's believed that Moku'ula simply was abandoned by the alii after they moved their government to Honolulu in the mid-1800s, Kollars said. Most of the valuables were shipped to Oahu.
In 1914, Pioneer Mill filled in what had become a stagnant pond filled with mosquitos, he said. It's believed a combination of dredged mud from Lahaina Harbor and common trash was used. The area was a landfill until the 1940s.
That shocks people today, but it was the alii who let it go into disrepair when they left behind Maui, Kollars said. Now it's this generation's turn to restore Lahaina's past.
Some of the Friends of Moku'ula volunteers said they believed that the fill was done on purpose in large part to continue a concerted effort to remove all things Hawaiian.
Minihau said she believes that was the intention of the sons, daughters and grandchildren of Hawaii's original Christian missionary families.
"I find this exciting because so many of these sites have been destroyed over the years by development and can never be retrieved," said new employee Jenny Worth, who has a background in archaeology. "I'm just excited for the future."
For more information on the project, including artist renderings and how to donate, go online to www.mokuula.com, or call 661-3659.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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