Chiefs of old Hawaii would come to the valley seeking answers to their problems, positing their requests with kahuna who would take them to the gods, Kawewehi Pundyke told more than a dozen youths in trouble with the law this month.
Pundyke, who has led an effort to restore loi, or taro patches, above Kepaniwai Park, explained to the youths on their way to the work day in the loi that the priests would receive the answers from the gods and give them to the chiefs.
The POI (Positive Outreach Intervention) program works in the loi, or taro fields, of Lo‘iloa in Iao Valley.
The Maui News / LEE IMADA photo
This is a religious place, he said, noting that they were surrounded by the peaks Mauna Leo, or "Voice of God," and Mauna Kane, or "Mountain of God."
This is a place of reflection as well, he told the youths in the Maui police program, ironically called POI (Positive Outreach Intervention). Lessons of life, leadership and teamwork are learned; problems are solved; negatives are turned into positives here, he told them in the shade of the forest. Their work will be a legacy for future generations, and for their children and grandchildren to harvest.
Lo'iloa, where the taro patches in the valley are and the name of Pundyke's nonprofit organization, is full of symbolism and metaphors for life. He grabs a nearby false kamani, a nonindigenous almond tree brought into the islands post-Cook, that's about 3 feet tall and firmly implanted in the soil. Pundyke told the youths that his group is slowly ridding Lo'iloa of alien species, such as the one he was grasping, and let them know that most of the plants around them including numerous coffee trees were not native to the area.
"Nip it in the bud before it takes hold, before it grows so large it takes a multitude to take it out," he offered as a symbolic message to the youths.
And even if the plant does grow big, "bring the right people together to resolve that situation," Pundyke said. "When we come together, we can take it out."
But if they don't, Pundyke, a former police officer, offered them a not-so-subtle warning.
"Today you are wearing green," he said noting their T-shirts with the POI logo on the back. "Tomorrow, you might be wearing orange."
The youths, their chaperons, police commissioners, 2nd Circuit Judge Richard Bissen and other state Judiciary officials and friends of both POI and Lo'iloa made their way out of the forest to the clearing with five working loi, a sixth ready to be filled with water and starter taro and a seventh being readied. Pundyke said there may be as many as 50 loi in Lo'iloa that could be restored.
Before starting work, Pundyke gathered the group and turned their attention to a large pointed rock that he and his volunteers had stood up. It is named "Imi Pono" and means "to search for that that brings back balance, correction . . . and righteousness."
The rock, estimated to be 13 tons, is a miniature Iao Needle that stands beside the loi and points to "the source," or the gods above, he told everyone. Like the chiefs who came looking for answers from the gods, he urged those attending to leave a petition at the altar of Imi Pono.
The valley told him to upright the rock that had been lying flat, said Pundyke, who said the valley often speaks to him or enters his dreams. Carefully using a bottle jack, the rock was raised inch by inch. It even turned a bit during the raising that made it a perfect twin to Iao Needle.
After the talk and some instructions, the youths and others broke up into groups, some sinking their feet in the mud of the loi to cut leaves and pull out taro while others picked ti leaves. Afterwards, most went down to Iao Stream to clean up and for a dip in the cool waters.
As their laulau lunch steamed in pressure cookers, Pundyke broke out a poi board he made from a mango tree cut down while clearing the area and a pohaku, or rock grinder, made by master wood and stone carver Hoaka Delos Reyes. He began mashing the corms and made some poi with whoever was interested.
Fresh poi, laulau, opihi and dried aku served on ti leaves picked earlier made for a filling and delicious lunch.
POI and Lo'iloa have been working together since 2008. POI is the older of the two groups, having formed in 1999 and graduated its first students in 2000. More than 370 students have worked in the Lo'iloa loi in this partnership.
POI, a voluntary program for first-time offenders, has had 689 graduates and held 71 graduations in its history, said Allison Ishikawa, POI coordinator.
Of those graduates, only 11 percent go back to crime, she said.
Although the program currently is separate and apart from Family Court, there currently are discussions about incorporating POI into the juvenile justice system, she said.
POI requires youths to write a letter of apology, write an essay about what they did and "admitting what they did was wrong," perform community service and attend a "second chance" seminar put on by the Maui Police Department for youths and their families and covering issues such as drugs, alcoholism, Internet safety and domestic violence, said Ishikawa.
The partnership with Lo'iloa helps the youths fulfill their community service requirement. It gives "the kids something different to do," other than cleaning yards for senior citizens and painting over graffiti, said Ishikawa, who is a juvenile counselor with the department. They enjoy going into the muddy loi and jumping in the stream.
"We tell them it's a spa," she said.
Shayna and Ku'ulei, both 13 and arrested on alcohol and marijuana possession charges, agreed with Ishikawa's assessment. (POI officials asked that only first names be used).
"When you pull it (the taro), you get your hands dirty," said Ku'ulei, who enjoys getting dirty. "It's fun. It helps me learn about Hawaiian culture . . . learn new things."
For Shayna, the workday allowed her to "get out of the house" and "socialize" because her cellphone had been taken away.
"I have no life," she said, adding though, that her punishment is part of the process of her "taking responsibility" for her actions.
Shayna, who was working at Lo'iloa for a second time, plans to return. Actually, there were several POI graduates joining the workday. Many ask to return even after their community service commitment is completed, Ishikawa and Pundyke said.
Pundyke is thankful for the POI connection, which has grown to about a workday every Saturday.
"It really is because of POI that we are able to upkeep and expand so far," said Pundyke, who has been working with the Hawai'i Nature Center for about five years to develop the loi.
Lo'iloa's goal is to create a "sense of purpose and belonging" relating to the Native Hawaiian culture through education and reviving values such as honor and respect for oneself and others, its mission statement said. This is done through maintenance and expansion of Lo'iloa. The group works with all ethnic groups.
As an ambassador, protector and communicator of the history and culture of the valley, Pundyke says that he's had this special connection with this place since he moved to Maui 15 years ago.
"The place came calling to me," he said.
Pundyke would like to expand the Lo'iloa nonprofit by creating a full-time position to run programs and care for the loi. He would like to purchase a van to help transport youths and some tools and equipment to care for Lo'iloa.
There are some archaeological structures that they might want to resurrect. Pundyke added that University of Hawaii Maui College is using the site as an archaeological field school. There are pre-contact features, including a kauhale, or living compound, auwai, or traditional waterways, and the loi - many dating more than 1,500 years.
He also noted that there have been thefts of taro and leaves, including from a loi planted by his daughter for her high school graduation party. The loss of leaves stunted the taro growth, making the corms too small to use for her party.
Turning a negative into a positive, it was this loi that POI harvested Saturday. Sitting on a rock near that loi, Pundyke reflected on the effect the valley has on him and others.
"It's a nice day. The breeze is cool, The river is running," he said "With the busyness of life we just don't make the time to enjoy this a lot of the time."
While the POI youths require a little more attention, the valley offers answers for all, he said. A visit to Lo'iloa can help "people find the thing that is missing . . . to fill the void they are looking for."
"It's about reconnecting. . . having time to reflect on things," he said.
"It's the mountain of god. It's the voice of god," Pundyke said. "If you want to hear what the spirit says, good."
To support Lo'iloa, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write Lo'iloa, P.O. Box 880361, Pukalani 96788.
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.