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Nonprofit plans to restore vandalized Olowalu petroglyphs

Pu’u Kilea was struck with paintballs last month

Splotches of paint mar the surface of the Pu’u Kilea, a historic petroglyph site in Olowalu, on Tuesday. The nonprofit Kipuka Olowalu is seeking volunteers to help clean up and restore the cliff face in the wake of the recent vandalism. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A West Maui nonprofit is seeking to restore an Olowalu Valley cliffside etched with petroglyphs that were defaced by hundreds of apparent paintball shots last month.

Kipuka Olowalu, which was “outraged and deeply saddened by the heartbreaking vandalism of this beloved and significant site,” is calling for volunteers to help with the restoration of Pu’u Kilea as well as the rest of the valley.

“I think we all kind of felt the same thing — it was just really sad,” Kainoa Horcajo, board vice president and co-founder of Kipuka Olowalu, said Wednesday. “Just that somebody would not take into account the larger context of doing this kind of stupid and really mindless act on something that is so important to all of us.”

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources was notified June 29 of the vandalism at Pu’u Kilea, a basalt cliff containing about 100 petroglyphs, known as ki’i pohaku, some of which are estimated to be more than 300 years old.

Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement Lt. John Yamamoto guessed that “several hundred paintballs were shot” in the seemingly random “attack,” and that the paintball gun was likely fired from the road. Maui Paintball in Olowalu soundly condemned the incident, saying on Facebook that “if we ever find out who did this, not only will you receive a lifetime ban from the field, we will turn you in to the authorities.”

Vandals peppered the mauka/left section of the Olowalu rock formation, Pu’u Kilea, shown on Tuesday. The incident was reported on June 29. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“No leads, but the investigation is still active and we hope someone steps forward with information,” DLNR spokesperson Dan Dennison said Friday.

Hinano Rodrigues, DLNR’s statewide History and Culture Branch chief and a current resident and lineal descendant of the area, said the images depict people, animals and some canoes — essentially everyday life of early Hawaiians. He said he wasn’t sure of the age of the petroglyphs or whether they told a particular story.

“We really don’t know. A lot of the petroglyphs were not done as a composite that may reflect a story,” he said. “A lot of them were done just as one petroglyph by itself. I have a feeling the petroglyphs were not made to tell a story but to tell about people that lived there.”

Once promoted by the Visitors Bureau and equipped with stairs to view the cliff face up close, Pu’u Kilea often fell victim to vandalism in the ’70s and ’80s when people took the sightseeing opportunity as a chance to carve their own names or images into the rocks or to deface the ancient petroglyphs, Horcajo said.

Eventually the cement stairs and railing were removed and tourism agencies began advertising it less, he added.

In 1999, a group of Maui residents that included Horcajo’s father founded the Olowalu Cultural Reserve to look after the area. After the nonprofit dissolved, Horcajo joined forces with Rodrigues and Ekolu Lindsey, whose father was also involved in restoration, to continue the work as Kipuka Olowalu in 2020.

The nonprofit is a small but busy operation of nine board members and staff, some of whom are out in the valley nearly every day to remove invasive species, put native plants in the ground and rebuild old lo’i walls on the 72 acres under the group’s purview. Rodrigues, the board president, said the area is leased from landowner Olowalu Elua.

Prior to the vandalism, Kipuka Olowalu had received $15,000 from the World Indigenous Science Network to restore and protect Pu’u Kilea, as well as $135,000 in CARES Act funding to help residents who lost jobs in the pandemic get back to work by assisting conservation nonprofits. The funding allowed Kipuka Olowalu to begin work in the valley on Oct. 12, and within just the first eight weeks, the progress was “incredible,” Horcajo said.

“It was like watching ‘Extreme Makeover: Olowalu Edition,’ “ he said. “Just seeing things, that this is an overgrown area you could not see through, to lo’i running with fresh water and taro growing out of it and native plants — it was amazing. . . . Between the smiling plants and the smiling faces it’s been really rewarding.”

Olowalu was once a large population center with access to the ocean, good reefs and calm waters where canoes — and later ships in post-Western contact times — would come to dock, Horcajo said. The estimated population of Olowalu and Ukumehame in the early 1800s was about 1,000 in each area, according to Rodrigues.

The “twin valleys” hold special significance for Rodrigues. He’s a descendant of Chief Kamakakehau, a konohiki of Ukumehame, and comes from a line of taro farmers and fishermen from both valleys. His mother’s name, given to her by her great-grandfather William Ho’opi’i, the Olowalu schoolteacher and principal, is Kamaileolihau, meaning “the maile of Mount Lihau in Olowalu.” His sister’s name is Kapuaolihauulakalaeohekili, or “when the red lehua up at Mount Lihau blossoms, its redness is reflected down at Cape Hekili.”

“Our family names and our family identity goes actually into the geography of Olowalu,” said Rodrigues, whose name came from the hala trees that grew in his grandmother’s Olowalu backyard.

“My mom, her sister who lives next door, and my cousin who lives in the back are the last of the family, and for the most part Hawaiians, left in Olowalu,” he said. “Everyone else sold and left and now it’s just millionaires around us.”

As a DLNR official, Rodrigues couldn’t comment directly on the vandalism during an ongoing investigation, but spoke to the importance of historical sites and artifacts, saying that archaeology is not about things, but about people.

“Making a rock carving into basalt is hard work,” he said. “So that person had a reason to do it. And so if we lose the petroglyph, we lose the thought that a human being hundreds of years ago actually made that petroglyph, and thus we lose an identity and a connection to a place and people.”

Horcajo said that Kipuka Olowalu is mulling the best way to remove the paint from the cliff face. Given that paintballs are mostly water and food coloring, a good rainfall or washing could remove the paint.

“A water hose would get it off. We’ve actually looked at the hose bibs that are in the area, getting on a ladder and just making sure we can reach,” Horcajo said. “We actually don’t want high pressure (water) or even to scrub the rocks because that might cause unintended damage. They are very high up there. We’re talking about the best way to do it to protect the rock face but also protect ourselves.”

Volunteers who’d like to assist in the cleanup or general restoration of the valley can sign up on the nonprofit’s website at kipukaolowalu.com or email kipukaolowalu@gmail .com.

Preventing vandalism in the future doesn’t come with easy answers. Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin, who holds the West Maui residency seat, said that monitoring the historic site with cameras or security would be expensive and may not be feasible, especially if the land is privately owned.

However, there are other ways to promote awareness and protection of sacred sites. She pointed out that the county archaeologist is working on a cultural overlay map of sensitive areas that would allow the county to set stricter requirements for development or other kinds of work in those areas.

“It could be local kids, it could be tourists, it could be whoever,” Paltin said of the Pu’u Kilea incident. “But I think a lot of it has to do with better education of locals and tourists about what makes Hawaii unique and special and a sense of pride in that, for everyone that lives here, not just for Hawaiians.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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