The State of Aloha

Here’s something I’ve noticed about a common dialogue that occurs when folks start talking to each other around here. When you go to some social gathering and you start chatting with someone, the question will almost inevitably arise: Where do you live? Answers vary.

Haiku, town, Upcountry, Hana, wai-side or west side are some of the common answers to this often-asked question. From there it might get more specific. “Oh yeah?” you might hear. “Where in Haiku?”

That’s when we descend into particularities. Pauwela instead of Haiku perhaps. Or maybe a road like Halama Street. Landmarks are also common. “By Kalama School next to the old chicken farm,” you could say.

Dividing Maui has a long history. Nowadays the island is generally divided into large swaths of land: West Maui, town, north shore, Upcountry, Hana, East Maui and Kihei. But if you go back to the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom, you will find that the island is divided into 12 distinct districts.

The large district is called a moku. A boundary could be a stream, mountain ridge or some other natural feature. Sometimes an entire island is a moku — like Kahoolawe, for instance.

On the island of Maui there are 12 traditional moku. Three encompass the west side: Lahaina, Kaanapali and Puali Komohana — a large district running from Waihee to Waikapu. The rest of the island is divided into nine distinct moku, each of which have their own characteristics.

With the exception of Hamakuapoko, all the other moku intersect on at the summit of a mountain on the slopes of Haleakala known as Pohaku Palaha, which literally means flattened or smooth rock. Pohaku Palaha is considered the center, or piko, of the island. From this one point extends the boundaries of most parts of the island.

The moku you live in is distinct and has its own characteristics. It has an identity of its own. Take the one I grew up in. Hamakualoa is the moku wedged between Hamakuapoko to the west and Koolau to the east. The boundary’s western border is in Haiku near Maliko Gulch and runs along the shore through the gulches of Pauwela, Kuiaha, Kaupakalua, Ulumalu, and onward through lesser-known gulches until you reach East Hanawana. This area is and always will be the area I know best.

But the moku isn’t the only division of land. Within the district are smaller areas — the well-known ahupuaa. It is usually a long, triangular-shaped piece of land that has a little bit of shoreline (and the outer reefs) and continues up the mountain into the uplands and forests. This unique division of land provided resources and climates from both the mountains and the sea. It provided balance for inhabitants of the ahupuaa and was designed to ensure everyone could live off the land.

These ancient boundaries have been making a comeback. Counties on Kauai and Oahu have over the years built signs recognizing the traditional borders between moku and ahupuaa. I remember driving on the windward side of Oahu years ago and noticed these informative signs showing a large pile of rocks — a traditional boundary marker from old Hawaii.

Turns out I wasn’t the only person who noticed these signs. A 7th-grader from Maui saw them when he was on Oahu last summer. He turned the experience into a project to work with the county and Native Hawaiian groups to bring similar kinds of signs to Maui. It was an open invitation initiated through a letter to The Maui News.

Last October that young man, Riley Regan, stood with around 100 others at Kenolio Park in Kihei for the erecting of Maui’s first designation of a moku and ahupuaa. The county’s Office of Economic Development created signs all over Kula Kai — the moku known today as Kihei. The signs are colorful and depict not only the names of the area but have symbolic colors and items distinct to the place.

For example, the Pulehunui ahupuaa is blue with pictures of turtles. That’s because this ahupuaa includes Kealia Pond — a home for the animals. The sign in lower Keokea is purple to represent the sweet potato that was harvested in the uplands of the area. South Maui is just the start.

The project is intended to spread to the rest of the island. It will help educate visitors and locals alike about the old boundaries that they call home. So now, at parties when folks ask where you’re from, you should find your ahupuaa and say it proudly. In my case, that’s the ahupuaa of Peahi just east of Kealii Iki.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”