At night, they studied the stars and their steady but ever-shifting movement across the sky. This was not an academic exercise. The student was learning ancient navigational techniques—the same scenario may have played out more than 1,000 years ago. The stakes were high, for it would be the young student’s responsibility to help guide their sailing vessels back to the Polynesian islands from which they came. Each piece of the cloud, current and star puzzle indicated the optimum opportunity to launch their vessels for what had to be an enormously dangerous voyage of thousands of miles across the ocean and weeks, if not months, at sea.
In an era when most Western ships rarely ventured out of sight of land, Polynesians were sailing massive distances, able to pinpoint tiny islands in the vast ocean.
While there may still be debate about the early settlement of Hawai‘i, there is substantial evidence that Hawaiians returned to the far reaches of the “Polynesian Triangle” from the Hawaiian Islands. Stories and chants that passed from one generation to the next detailed frequent voyages to and from what is now French Polynesia.
Hawaiians produced a vast array of products from a basic pattern of land use called ahupua‘a—pie-shaped land divisions that ran from the mountains to the sea. The entire island of Kaho‘olawe was an ahupua‘a within the Maui district of Honua‘ula. Kaho‘olawe was further divided into ‘ili composed of several watersheds that run from the island’s central spine to the sea.
Photo: Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission
But it was the discovery of an “adze” (stone wood-sculpting tool) in the 1930s in the Tuamotus, a group of islands between Hawai‘i and Tahiti, which many believe proved these incredible voyages occurred. Some scientists analyzing the chemistry of the tool determined the adze originated at a quarry on Kaho‘olawe.
Indeed, the very name of the point the young navigator and his teacher viewed from their lofty perch contains a literal clue: Kealaikahiki translates to “Pathway to Tahiti.”
Perhaps known more for its tortured recent past than its ancient place in the Hawaiian Kingdom, Kaho‘olawe remains a place of great mystery. Most residents of Hawai‘i know it was utilized as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor until President George H.W. Bush ended its bombing in 1990. Many also know the island was utilized for ranching prior to the bombing period, or that a 10-year effort to rid the island of unexploded ordnance was only partially effective in achieving its goal.
But the island is also a place of great cultural, spiritual and historical significance. Nestled between Maui, Lāna‘i and Moloka‘i, Kaho‘olawe is 11 miles long and seven miles wide, rising to a height of 1,477 feet. This small area features a treasure trove of archaeological and cultural links to the past, including ancient burial places, fishing shrines and religious monuments.
According to documents produced by the federally created Kaho‘olawe Island Conveyance Commission for the United States Congress in 1993, Polynesian voyagers and settlers arrived in Hawai‘i about 200 A.D. Although archaeological evidence suggests they came from the Marquesas Islands, voyagers from Tahiti, Samoa and other islands in Southern Polynesia may also have come.
Evidence indicates small fishing communities were established along the Kaho‘olawe coastline around 1000 A.D. During the second influx of voyagers to Hawai‘i, who are believed to have come from the Society Islands between 1200 A.D. and 1400 A.D., Kaho‘olawe rose to a place of importance as a navigational center. Additional place names on Kaho‘olawe also reference great voyages to and from Tahiti.
Located in the “rain shadow” of Maui’s Haleakalā, rainfall has always been in short supply on Kaho‘olawe. Geographical evidence suggests rainfall totals were higher centuries ago, primarily due to more significant forestation on Maui, which created a “rain bridge” to Kaho‘olawe.
From 1400 A.D. to 1600 A.D., inland areas were utilized for dryland agriculture crops such as sweet potatoes. Although evidence suggests the existence of small inland communities, most historians theorize the settlements were not permanent.
In the 17th century, the island’s largest community was established on Kaho‘olawe’s eastern coast. Hakioawa, which became the island’s cultural, political and religious center, featured the largest heiau, or religious shrine, found on the island.
By 1800, the population of Kaho‘olawe seems to have declined significantly. Harsh, challenging living conditions and scarce sources of fresh water may have prompted residents to move to larger, more populated islands. Interisland warfare among ali‘i and diseases brought by whalers, traders and explorers may also have contributed to the population decline.
Ships logs of western explorers in the late 1700s and early 1800s describe Kaho‘olawe as barren and isolated with little, if any, indication of human habitation.
In 1795, King Kamehameha I brought all of the Hawaiian Islands under one central government. Under Kamehameha and his successors, isolated areas such as Kaho‘olawe became refuges for ancient practices and beliefs.
The history of Hawai‘i winds through the valleys and sea cliffs of Kaho‘olawe. Nearly 3,000 archaeological and historical sites and features have been documented. The island has been revered as a wahi pana (special place) and a pu‘uhonua (sanctuary).
In 1981, the entire island was placed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its settlement remains, religious and burial sites, petroglyphs, fishing shrines and ancient stone tool quarry site.
For many Native Hawaiians, Kaho‘olawe is a place of deep, spiritual connections to ancestors and a place of healing.
“Kaho‘olawe has an effect on you that you cannot describe,” said Michael Naho‘opi‘i, executive director of the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), the state agency that currently manages the island. “It is where many of us come to learn to be Hawaiian.”