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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 12, 2003

Hawaiians pay homage on Nihoa visit

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

ADAM'S BAY, Nihoa — Ten Hawaiians spent the night on Nihoa, seven of them members of a cultural group reconnecting with early Hawaiians who once lived on the island.

Many of those former residents still are there in spirit, said Kaumakaiwa Lopaka Kanaka'ole.

"Uninhabited, my eye," he said. "They never left."

The group sailed to Nihoa aboard the voyaging canoe Hokule'a, retracing a route not sailed in a Hawaiian canoe in more than a century.

The island has not been lived on full time since long before European contact 235 years ago. Ni'ihau residents say their families continued to visit seasonally through the 1890s.

Nihoa is rich with bird life and archaeological sites. There also are human burials.

The group arranged the visit to renew the broken relationship with the people who lived here.

"It was everything we hoped it would be," said Edward Halealoha Ayau, of Moloka'i, who serves as Native Hawaiian representative on the advisory council to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.

The group, representing all the main Hawaiian islands, studied chants and protocol for two years leading up to the visit.

On seeing Nihoa materialize on the western horizon, the emotions ran deep.

"When we first saw the island, tears were coming down my face. I wonder if this is how our people felt when they first saw the island," said Noelani Tachera, a Bishop Museum culture and education specialist.

The culture group was brought to the island from Hokule'a by small boat as the voyaging canoe's crew kept reverential silence at the group's request.

The canoe was an important part of the mission, they said.

"To retrace the route the way my ancestors did it ... , this is a very important dream that I'm living," said Kainani Kahaunaele of Anahola, Kaua'i.

Keoni Kuoha, a Hawaiian language lecturer at Chaminade University, said doing the trip in the canoe enabled him to "get a glimpse of what my ancestors went through."

The trip, for him, is a chance "to pay my respects — to the earth of the island, the iwi (bones) in the ground, and the stones that were piled by hand."

Kamana'o Crabbe, an O'ahu political psychologist, said Hawaiians wanted to restore Nihoa to the commonly understood family of Hawaiian Islands.

"We are here to reclaim that Nihoa, Mokumanamana and the islands beyond were part of our pae 'aina — the island chain ... this is part of our one hanau — our birth sands."

The concept of a direct family relationship between islands and people may be a strange one to those trained in Western cosmology, but it is an integral part of early Hawaiian beliefs, Kanaka'ole and Ayau said.

"The objective of the whole huaka'i (voyage or mission) was for reconnection," said Kanaka'ole, a Big Island cultural practitioner and great-grandson of a hula legend, the late Edith Kanaka'ole.

The foundation on which reconnection ceremonies and the entire visit is based is a traditional Hawaiian world view in which the land is directly related to the people — like an ancestor or an elder sibling, said

"This is a protocol issue because the islands are, in Hawaiian creation theory, the preceding people, like older ancestors. The relationship is that of a younger sibling to an older sibling," Ayau said.

The cultural group begins with the understanding that Hawaiians before the arrival of Capt. James Cook in 1778 were well aware of the islands northwest of Kaua'i and Ni'ihau. Those islands appear by name in various chants, and Hawaiians on Kaua'i told Cook's crews about them and gave sailing directions to one of them.

Kanaka'ole said that in traditions of the goddess Pele, there are stories of the Northwestern Islands having been visited before Pele and her clan moved on to the main Hawaiian Islands.

"Nihoa and Mokumanamana were always mentioned in there," he said.

"As a Native Hawaiian, you already have a connection. This is the act of acknowledging this connection," Kanaka'ole said. "It's almost as if you meet a member of your family for the first time. You're born with the connection, but when you meet, you acknowledge it."

The group is also committing to a responsibility for the islands as it reconnects to them, said another member of the cultural group, Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, the director of the University of Hawai'i's Center for Hawaiian Studies.

"As beautiful as those islands are, as untouched as they are, the state of the environment there is not pono (good, right, in perfect order). There are still some big problems that the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have to face," she said, like marine debris and human activities that damage reefs, islands and wildlife.

After the group spent the night on the island Wednesday, Hokule'a left Nihoa yesterday afternoon for an overnight run to Ka'ula and Ni'ihau, before returning to Kaua'i and then Honolulu on Sunday.

Advertiser staff writer Jan TenBruggencate is sailing aboard Hokule'a, sending back dispatches along the way.