Friday, April 28, 2006

Pana O'ahu: Sacred Stones, Sacred Land

Panaoahu_2 Following up on some posts on recent scholarship on property monographs (Bourgeois Nightmares and Broken Trust) and a couple on cultural property (on native culture and the Elgin Marbles), I thought that I'd talk about a wonderful book, Jan Becket and Joseph Singer's Pana O'ahu: Sacred Stones, Sacred Land (University of Hawaii Press, 1999). It has black and white pictures of sacred sites around O'ahu.

The book grew out of controversy over the construction of the H-3 Interstate in the early 1990s that obliterated many ancient sites, including--it is believed--the Kikuiokane Heiau (shrine).  The authors describe in their preface how the H-3 controversy led to their efforts to photograph sacred sites:

The demolition of that heiau gave rise to this project: an effort to locate and document remaining heiau and smaller shrines on O'ahu before they too suffer the same fate. Kukuiokana Heiau itself had been partly dismantled many decades before by Libby, McNeill & Libby Pineapple Company in a failed effort to grow pineapple in Kane'ohe.  We know, however, that it was an important structure in the region: An old photo taken from the Pali lookout miles away shows a massive platform of some stone where the freeway now passes.  But this is merely the latest in a long series of dismantlings.  If the roadbed of H-3 is made from the remnants of a heiau, so is much of the roadbed of highway circling the island.  The stones of Kanahau Heiau, connected in myth with the goddess Hi'iaka, helped pave the old road from Kailua to Waimanalo.... (xi)

Kailuaheiau2 Pana O'ahu has beautiful records of many of the Heiau--and other smaller sites as well--around the island.  Some Heiau were huge--they measured often more than 50 feet by more than 100 feet.  What remains of them now are sometimes stone platforms, at other times stone fences.  And at other times, little more remains than mounds of earth.  Structures once sat atop the mounds.  The sites are, indeed, moving: they are places where centuries before westerners arrived, Native Hawaiians labored to build impressive monuments to their Gods and their culture.  At right is a picture of the Ulupo Heiau in Kailua.  The amount of work that it took to build that structure (apparently much of which has now been taken for local fences) is simply astonishing. And below appears another view of the Ulupo Heiau; if you look closely you'll see a line of steps towards the middle.  These are the steps that (according to legend) the "Menehunes", the "little people," who constructed the Heiau, are said to have used.

Kailuaheiau Pana O'ahu sits at the border between archeology, history, native culture, and to a lesser extent law--and, thus, has to mediate between conflicting disciplines.  The "proof" that historians want to establish a site as a Heiau is different from those that Native Hawaiians may accept.  And, though this is not a book about law, it has some implications for people working on the legal issues of historic preservation.  As Becket and Singer say

Who decides which sites are to be preserved?  Who determines significance?  Up to the mid 1960s, these life-or-death decisions were left to the discretion of the landowner. On the entire island of O'ahu, only Kukaniloko Heiau was given any official status to protect it from destruction.  Presently the thumbs-up/thumbs-down determination is made by he State Historic Preservation Division, by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, by contract archaeologists (often paid by developers), and by private landowners. Preservation laws and those who enforce them do not always take into account the interests of future generations of Hawaiians. (xxiv)

The authors are concerned about the implications of having more people visit the already fragile sites.  So they include no directions for readers interested in seeing the sites in person.  This is, of course, an understandable decision.  In part I think that people need to see these sites, partly to gain an appreciation for the labors of the people who built them.  And I think once people see them, they'll be more likely to take action to preserve them from destruction.  The authors say as much: "On a tiny and increasingly crowded island caught up in a frenzy of land speculation and development, one way to protect the sites that remain to be relocated and those already identified is to communicate their wonder and sanctity to as many people as possible, so that everyone on the island will begin to perceive them as the cultural treasures they are and begin to accept responsibilty for their preservation."  (xv)  (This, of course, gets into some pretty tough decisions; as I talked about this weekend, a similar argument has been used to justify keeping the Elgin Marbles in the British Musuem, because more people will see and appreciate them there than in Athens.)

KupopoloalbStill, some of the Heiau are already in state parks--like the one in Kailua mentioned above and another one in Waialua, Kupopolo Heiau, which is pictured at right.  That beautiful Heiau sits on a bluff about 300 feet above the Pacific.  Of course, the sites are subject to vandalism and driving more traffic to them will likely lead to more destruction, inadvertent or intentional.

As I say, it's a beautiful book, which reaches across centuries, to give readers a sense of the connections of humanity to property.  If you, like many property lawyers, are interested in the preservation of historic sites, I think you'll love this book.  It inspires one to think about how statute and common law might assist in the preservation of sacred sites.  It's part of the on-going discussion of cultural property, how best to preserve it, and who should be able to access it.  The book is also  part of creating an aloha jurisprudence and I think it's a very important book for the propagation of respect for Native Hawaiian culture.  Read it; you'll really enjoy it.

Endnotes: Many thanks to my colleague Carl Christensen, who was an important scholar of Hawaii biology before law school and more recently has used his abilities to help protect Native Hawaiians' legal rights, among a lot of other worthy causes.

Alfred L. Brophy

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Ulupo Heiau is a wahi pana (sacred site) that is cared for by the Kailua Hawaiian Civic Club and 'Ahahui Malama i ka Lokahi. The two groups have been designated as co-curators of Ulupo Heiau and the surrounding lands which contain taro lo'i and other historic and archaeological features. We are clearing Hau below the heiau and restoring the taro lo'i back into production. We are also going to be restoring an ethno-botanical landscape of Hawaiian culturally-important plants.

We conduct service projects at Ulupo Heiau. We are supported by contributions and grants. If any of your readers wish to suport our efforts they can contact me at Our website is at:

Malama pono!

Rick Ka'imi Scudder

Posted by: Kaimi Scudder | Jun 20, 2006 6:49:52 PM

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