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On-the-ground efforts key to cultural preservation

Kahele meets with local nonprofit, airport and hotel officials on Maui stop

Congressman Kai Kahele learns the history of the heiau at the Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge from longtime cultural practitioner Kapono‘ai Molitau on Monday. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photos

WAIHEE — Visions of thriving native ecosystems and families participating in traditional Native Hawaiian cultural practices within the Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge became more vivid on Monday afternoon as nonprofit leaders and a Hawaii congressman scanned the historical landscape.

Nonprofit Hanona was recently selected among 35 Native Hawaiian educational organizations, Native Hawaiian community-based organizations and other similar groups by the U.S. Department of Education to receive federal funding to continue its mission. The Maui-based organization was awarded a $742,252 grant under the Education of Native Hawaiians Program to fund its Ho’oko Na’auao Project, which aims to restore the cultural landscape of Kapokea — once a thriving village — as well as strengthen the Hawaiian identity by offering hands-on learning and in-person instruction from cultural practitioners.

During an overcast Monday afternoon in Waihee, Congressman Kaiali’i “Kai” Kahele visited the remnants of the heiau and discussed its history with Hanona staff.

“Our culture and our history as Native Hawaiians, and nonprofits like Hanona to bridge that gap between keiki and kupuna, is really important,” Kahele said. “We have one of the last cultural practitioners of heiau restoration here on Maui, you know, and once we lose that knowledge, it’s very difficult to transfer that knowledge to our keiki.”

Kahele is serving his first term in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Hawaii island, Maui County, Kauai and rural parts of Oahu.

Congressman Kai Kahele (from left), Hawaii Land Trust president Laura Kaakua and Native Intelligence owner Kapono‘ai Molitau discuss the vision of nonprofit Hanona on Monday afternoon at the Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge.

The nonprofit’s project will focus on Halau Na Hanona Kulike ‘O Pi’ilani and will offer education on traditional Hawaiian studies, such as chanting, prayer and hula, and traditional practices like Hawaiian dry stack masonry, housebuilding, indigenous land stewardship and restoration of the inland fishpond and several heiau.

“It’s not just about one thing, it’s not just about the heiau — it’s about aina, it’s about cultural protocols and it’s about archaeology and learning how to navigate that while also maintaining the traditional knowledge,” said Carmela Leilani Noneza, chair of the board of directors.

According Hanona’s website, the four pillars of learning that underline Hanona’s mission are: kahuna nui, a priest that is well versed in the four pillars and provides a foundation for learning; ho’omanamana ka pule, reestablishing the power of traditional prayers; ka mauli ola (the breath of life), preserving the relationship and lifestyle of Native Hawaiians through hula, including traditional and modern dances; and huna no’eau, ensuring that traditional materials are used to create implements, costumes and adornments.

Hanona was established under the direction of Kumu Hula Kapono’ai Molitau, who has been a Native Hawaiian traditional cultural practitioner for decades.

Molitau, also the owner of Native Intelligence, said that a program like this is “so important” for protecting and preserving the culture for future generations.

Having the ability “to grow up in this space,” to truly understand the history of the area that was once populated with two ancient villages, Kapoho and Kapokea, is beneficial for both Native Hawaiians and non-natives. He hopes the project’s long-term vision becomes a reality during his lifetime.

“We are very fortunate to be able to continue this work,” he said.

Kahele said that traditional restoration projects would not be possible without community-based efforts from nonprofits like Hanona and partner organization Hawaii Land Trust.

The land trust, a nonprofit that works to restore coastal lands and beaches as well as cultural landscapes, owns the 277-acre Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge, which is considered among the most culturally significant sites in the state and was slated for development before the land trust purchased the parcel in 2011.

The refuge consists of 277 acres of protected wetlands, dunes, marine shoreline and reef systems.

“Through Hanona, we can have Waihee be this thriving place of cultural practice and so, it’s just a beautiful partnership,” said Laura Kaakua, president and CEO of the land trust. “We can continue our resiliency through native ecosystem restoration and then we can have Hanona here to really build that next generation of practitioners.”

Considering that there are many sacred and special places in Hawaii that “we need to protect for perpetuity,” Kahele said that one of the main ways to continue supporting such organizations at the federal level is through grant funding, but also through various partnerships.

“We have relationships with the Native Alaskan community, Native American community and seeing what they’re doing in their own locals, their own states, their own cultures,” said Kahele, who, as the only Native Hawaiian member in Congress representing the state, hopes to bring the indigenous perspective to the room. “So that’s another thing we can do, is share information and find out what they’re doing as far as language revitalization, culture, arts, special places like this.”

The Hawaii island native is stopping on Maui for a few days to visit community organizations as well as leaders at the Mayor’s Office, Kahului Airport and Maui Memorial Medical Center to address specific needs for the county.

He will also be discussing President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, a 10-year agenda aiming to create jobs, cut taxes and lower costs for working families.

“It’s been great getting a chance to see different things on the island,” he said. “Whether it’s meeting with small community groups or seeing what the mayor is doing in regards to axis deer or other wildlife issues on island, getting a chance to come out (to Waihee) is a nice break from that, to see what a small community nonprofit like Hanona is doing with federal grant money they were able to get and how they are planning to partner with HILT and specifically with this place, this heiau and its restoration.

“It’s going to be a big project but it’s something that’s really important for the community.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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