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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Hawaiians rebuild an altar

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

The rock altar, or ahu, outside 'Iolani Palace stands reconstructed by students and elders after its weekend desecration by vandals.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Native Hawaiian teens and elders have spontaneously joined forces to rebuild an ahu, or stone altar, on the 'Iolani Palace grounds that had been destroyed by vandals the previous evening.

Armed with only steady hands and strong backs, they returned some 50 stones including rocks weighing up to 30 pounds to the ahu site on Sunday.

Junior Inoaokalani Leong, a senior at Halau Lokahi Public Charter School, said he was upset when he heard about the altar's desecration. "I was thinking 'Who would do this? Who would do such a thing?' "

Elders such as Henry Noa, head of the Reinstated Hawaiian Kingdom, explained to Leong and about a dozen of his Halau Lokahi classmates the intricacies of building an altar. Within an hour, the ahu was restored. Afterward, the students offered a blessing and a chant.

The lesson learned by Leong, 18, was simple: "No matter how much they knock this down, we can rebuild this."

Stones from the ahu were found strewn through the diamondhead-makai end of the palace grounds Sunday morning, suggesting the vandalism took place earlier that morning or late Saturday night, according to kupuna Mel Kalahiki. One of the stones was found on an old grave that had been erected for Neighbor Island ali'i. Another ended up some 20 feet above ground in the branches of a large banyan tree.

The original plan for rebuilding the altar, Kalahiki said, was to gather the stones on Sunday and to return with enough muscle yesterday to do the rebuilding. That plan changed when the Halau Lokahi students showed up with their kumu, Hina Wong.

He was pleased at the students' doggedness. "They're the next generation," Kalahiki said. "They're going to be around when we're gone. And they felt the significance, which is good."

Ikaika Hussey, another Hawaiian activist, also was moved by the cooperative effort. "It was a beautiful thing," he said. "People came together and the ahu is standing strong again. It really is a testament to the resiliency of the community."

Wong and her students had spent the morning offering chants, dancing and other cultural protocol at two different events, and were on a lunch break when she received a phone call about the ahu. While the group had made other plans, there was no hesitation about what had to be done.

"The students are taught to be vigilant and pro-active in what they do, and not be reticent of the needs of the Hawaiian community," Wong said, noting that her classes have appeared at federal court, Honolulu Hale and the state Capitol to express their views on different topics.

While there was a happy ending at the palace, those who gathered there Sunday are still scratching their heads over what happened. What makes the desecration especially suspicious to them is that an ahu and lele, or altar stand, built by Hawaiians atop Mauna Kea were destroyed by vandals last week.

Hussey said the destruction of the ahu on palace grounds appeared to be the work of at least five or six people.

"They scattered the rocks pretty far," Hussey said. "It took a lot of effort to get this done."

Hussey said regardless of the intent, "it was kind of an attack" on a sacred site. "It's pretty obvious that it's an important site. It's next to a burial mound and the burial mound says "kapu - do not enter."

Kalahiki said he hopes it was just the act of some people under the influence of alcohol or drugs who had no idea of the harm they caused.

But Wong said she has no doubt those who desecrated the ahu knew what they were doing. "It was a hate crime," she said.

Kalahiki was among those in 1993 who helped build the ahu on the grounds of the only royal palace on U.S. soil to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

People from the Neighbor Islands and the Mainland brought stones from their homes, the graves of their ancestors or other places that represented their origins to be placed at the ahu.

Over the years, the ahu has grown as more people have placed their stones there. Hussey said an ahu built in such a manner is a symbol of strength and unity. "A rock by itself is just a piece of rubble, but when it comes together, it makes a wall," he said.

Early the morning of Feb. 14, representatives of the group Mauna Kea Anaina Hou learned that an altar at the summit of Mauna Kea, built in 1998, was destroyed.

Group member Kealoha Pisciotta said that in the Mauna Kea incident, the altar stand known as a lele was hacked by what appeared to be a machete, while the rocks of the ahu were flung about. Those responsible for that act of vandalism, and the motives behind it, also remain unknown, Pisciotta said.

That ahu also held the personal effects of two Hawai'i soldiers killed in Iraq. "It just causes hurt to the families who have suffered already," she said. "And it's an affront to the people who have come from all over to show reverence for Mauna Kea."

There's little to prove a connection between the two acts.

Pisciotta said the two ahu are similar in that both are in open areas that allow the public to place new offerings upon them. "Both serve for all to be able to come to offer reverence and prayer."

Additionally, she said, both have a tie to royalty. The ahu and lele at Mauna Kea were sanctioned by the Royal Order of Kamehameha I.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.