The Polynesian voyagers who crossed the Pacific landed first on the Big Island of Hawai'i. Their settlements spread up the west coast, where they thrived on the bounty of the sea and the rich volcanic soil of the uplands, reaching a peak population estimated at about a million.
Today their traditions are honored at Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The park's annual Cultural Festival, held this year on June 24-26, was also the 50th edition.
National Park Service interpreter Eric Andersen calls it "the biggest and most important cultural festival" -- not just on the Big Island, but in all of Hawaii. While the festival has come and gone, festivities and special programs marking the park's 50th anniversary are slated to continue through December 31, which means half-a-year of periodic cultural enrichment beyond the Park Service's normal interpretive offerings.
This year's Cultural Festival was something of a renaissance, too, as the park completed the cleanup from the tsunami that rolled across the Pacific from Japan. It hit the Big Island's southwest shore during the morning of March 11, depositing marine debris and causing the park to be closed for a time.
But long before it was a park, this landscape was an important community for the Hawaiians.
An Important Ahupua'a
The ancient Hawaiians developed a system of land division in which each community occupied an ahupua'a that stretched from the sea to the mountains. Until King Kamehaha II, son of the uniter of all the Hawaiian islands under one monarchy, abolished the system, native Hawaiians lived in such places.
The ali’I (royal chiefs) occupied an area known as “the Royal Grounds” and administered the Hōnaunau jurisdiction.
Adjacent to the village and the Royal Grounds was the pu'uhonua, or “The Place of Refuge.” The only way to reach the pu'uhonua, a temple complex on a peninsula with water on three sides, was by swimming across a bay known as “the shark's den.”
The kahuna (priest) who presided there was required to provide sanctuary and absolve the miscreant of any and all wrong-doing.
As the old ways were abandoned, old lava rock walls crumbled, thatched structures disappeared, fish ponds filled in, and traditional Polynesian practices were replaced by Christian ones.
Today the historical park preserves these areas and shows something of Hawaiian life as it was, with rebuilt or faithfully reconstructed features of the ahupua'a, and cultural programs that bring the past to life for visitors. Structures include a half-size temple, a tall wooden offering platform, and thatched, open-ended A-frames that served other functions. A half-mile marked cultural trail winds through the sites.
50th Annual Cultural Festival
As it has every year for half-a-century, the Cultural Festival brings the site to life and takes visitors back to old Hawai'i as it was up to the 1800s. The festival attracts several thousand native Hawaiians and occasionally mainland-based cultural practioners in traditional dress for whom Hawaiian practices truly resonate, even if their own heritage is elsewhere.
From the opening ceremony on Friday morning to the closing ceremony on Sunday afternoon the festival attracts locals from the Big Island, people from other islands, and visitors from the mainland and abroad who come for the dance, the music, the chants, the games, the food samples, and to learn about (and perhaps try) the skills of making useful objects from wood, lava rock, leaves, and plant fibers. Call it cultural entertainment.
The Royal Grounds, once reserved for the ali'i, is the site of demonstrations of such skills as gourd carving, coconut leaf weaving, bark cloth fabric making, house thatching, Hawaiian games, and more.
Family activities abound with no bouncy castle in sight.
Among the most popular events is the hukilau, an ancient form of communal fishing -- and it takes a village to fish this way.
Part of the group takes a fiber net into the chest-deep water at the entrance to Keonone'ele Cove and beat the water with ti leaves to drive the fish into the net. Others on shore pull the net, tug-of-war fashion. While other songs and chants are authentic to the core, spirited hukilau participants break into a pop song from the '50s:
Oh, we're going to the hukilau, A huki, a huki, a hukilau.
Everybody loves a hukilau, Where the laulau is the kaukau at the big luau.
We throw our nets out into the seas, And all the ama ama come a swimmin' to me.
Oh we're goin' to a hukilau, A huki, huki, huki, hukilau.
What a wonderful day for fishin' The old Hawaiian way.
In the old days the fish would be caught (that being the purpose of fishing), but since this is a national park, the net is lifted and no fish are harmed.
On each of the festival's three days, more than 1,000 people desend on the park, but on the other 362 days of the year, it is a quiet, contemplative place where visitors not only see how the anicent Hawaiians lived, but feel their spirit.