Today, much of South Maui's cultural history lies beneath what is now known as Kihei. But just because it's out of sight doesn't mean it's not an important part of Maui's collective history.
Community interest was evident when the Waimaha'iha'i District Neighborhood Association (WDNA) hosted what turned out to be a standing-room-only presentation about the history of South Maui by local historical researcher Lucienne de Naie. Given the incredible turnout to hear de Naie, it was apparent that many South Maui community members are craving information about the area.
A member of the Maui community for over 28 years, according to the self-deprecating de Naie, she is an "amateur historian and researcher" who has worked alongside archaeologists and kupuna to document cultural sites--many under the threat of development. But there's nothing "amateur" about the body of work she has compiled on South Maui's cultural history.
Local historical researcher Lucienne de Naie presented the little-known history of South Maui at a Waimāha‘iha‘i District Neighborhood Association meeting.
In 2006 when Maui Tomorrow Board member Maile Lu'uwai received a grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) to fund Project Ka'eo, Archaeologist Theresa Donham and de Naie were hired to research and write the 400-plus page tome, entitled, "Project Ka'eo: The Challenge to Preserve Cultural Landscapes in Modern Makena: A land famous with the Chiefs from the distant past."
During months of research done at Bishop Museum, state archives and Bailey House Museum for the Ka'eo book, de Naie came across many references to the history of the Kihei area. She has begun to link these with more recent research and photos to present Kihei history talk story events.
In her presentation, entitled, "The Land of Kula Kai," de Naie exposed her audience to a much different South Maui than can be observed today. According to de Naie, much of the area we know refer to as Kihei was traditionally known as Kula Kai (or Kula by the Sea) and has a strong connection with Kula 'Uka--the Kula we are more familiar with as a stand-alone part of Upcountry Maui. But this wasn't always so.
Well before the unification of the Hawaiian Islands under Paramount Chief Kamehemeha I, in 1810, the social organization of Maui was highly stratified. An ali'i nui (high chief) ruled over each of the mokupuni (islands). A lesser chief, or ali'i 'ai moku, was appointed to govern each moku (district). In turn, an ali'i 'ai ahupua'a was appointed to rule over individual ahupua'a (mountain-to-sea land divisions).
The moku of Kula is divided into 17 ahupua'a, six of which run from the upper slopes of Haleakala to the coastal region far below. The six are Pulehunui, Waiakoa, Ka'onu'ulu, Waiohuli, Keokea and Kama'ole. The coastal portions of these Kula ahupua'a comprising Kula Kai and were home to four large loko i'a (fishponds) starting with Kalepolepo (also known as Ko_ie_ie Loko I_a and Ka'ono'ulu Kai) to the north.
The upland residents of Kula primarily grew sweet potatoes and dry-land taro and traded these staple crops with their down-slope neighbors in exchange for marine resources, such as fish and limu.
According to de Naie's research, the place name Kihei applied to only a small portion of the South Maui coast and was limited to the area where the Kihei pier is now located--closer to Ma'alaea than to Wailea.
The Kihei coast featured at least four 15th century fishponds. Kalepolepo loko i'a, the smallest of the four, is the best-known fishpond representing South Maui's once-robust marine and estuarine aquaculture. Restoration of the pond began in the 1990s.
The area known as Waimaha'iha'i (one translation is "broken water") lies to the south of the four fishponds. It is near the boundary of two ahupua'a--Kama'ole and Keokea--where the Kihei Public Library and fire station now sit. The area once had large sand dunes and a possible inland pond or wetlands.
Under the guidance of Archaeologist Donham (now the lead archaeologist for the State of Hawai'i), the Kama'ole Ko'a, a heiau associated with fishing, was restored at the library site. It was part of a fishing settlement shown on 1870s maps, but its history likely existed hundreds of years earlier.
Kaluaihakoko, or Cove Beach, as it is known today, was also shown as a settlement, surrounded by a coconut grove on the old map. Kama'ole also has several other fishing shrines, or ko'a, still remaining. Some are likely under the sea.
The important connection between Kula 'Uka and Kula Kai continued through the first half of the 19th century with sandalwood, Irish potatoes and sugar grown mauka being transported to Kalepolepo to be loaded onto merchant ships bound for California.
Drought, deforestation and changing markets diminished this commerce by the 1880s. By the turn of the 20th century, the government-owned lands of Kihei were offered as Hawaiian Homesteads: Waiohului-Keokea homesteads in 1911 followed by the Kama'ole homesteads in 1922.
During World War II, many of South Maui's beaches underwent "modifications" by the U.S. military. Ancient sand dunes were bulldozed and reefs blasted to facilitate access for amphibious landing craft. After WWII ended, undetonated ordinance was used to blast a hole in the Kalama Park near shore reef, with the intention of improving the swimming beach and allowing for more boat traffic. What actually resulted was the loss of the reef and the disappearance of the wide sand beach once referred to as the "Waikiki of Maui."
Today, the primary connection between Kula 'Uka and Kula Kai seems to be the persistent drainage problems that plague sections of South Maui when it rains Upcountry.
According to de Naie, there were once several hundred acres of wetlands along the South Maui coast--many of which were backfilled in the construction boom that began in the 1970s and subsequently developed. The natural drains that still carry waiwai (fresh running water) from the mountain to the sea have been "plugged." The abundance once so valued by the Hawaiian culture, now deemed "runoff," is viewed as a problem that needs to be mitigated rather than an opportunity that should be embraced.