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The Ka‘ono‘ulu Story

Local historical researchers present one thousand years of area’s history.

August 11, 2014
Frances Duberstein - Contributing Writer , Maui Weekly

Maui residents had an opportunity to learn about one of South Maui's most culturally important traditional settlement areas, Ka'ono'ulu ahupua'a, during a lecture presented by the Maui Tomorrow Foundation. A little more than 50 people showed up to hear the presentation at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary building on July 23. Titled "The Ka'ono'ulu Story: One thousand years of history," the presentation included a slide show and talk story session facilitated by local historical researchers Lucienne de Naie and Daniel Kanahele.

Before the unification of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui was organized into individual ahupua'a, mountain-to-sea land divisions that ran from the upper slopes of Haleakala to the coastal regions far below. The Ka'ono'ulu ahupua'a included the part of Kihei located between the Maui Lu Resort and the sanctuary. The area has a rich history tied to the presence of underground water sources and freshwater coastal ponds.

A map showing the exact location of Ka'ono'ulu was displayed on a wall, and as attendees arrived for the presentation, they were encouraged to pinpoint on the map where they live, giving them an opportunity to see their relation to this area.

Article Photos

Local historical researchers Lucienne de Naie (left) and Daniel Kanahele presented “The Ka‘ono‘ulu Story: One thousand years of history,” which included a slide show and talk story session.

De Naie, a freelance journalist, grant writer and board member of several local nonprofits, explained that the area's best-known fishpond (called "Kalepolepo" or "Ko'ie'ie" fishpond) is located within Ka'ono'ulu, indicating the significance of this region for ancient Hawaiians, especially the presence of royalty. Historic writings associate the fishpond with a number of prominent chiefs, including Umi, Kihapi'ilani, Kekaulike and Kamehameha I, as well as the legendary menehunes. The fishpond, which is located directly in front of the whale sanctuary building on South Kihei Road, was a source for robust marine and estuarine aquaculture in ancient times. The region was used for limu (seaweed) gathering, and fishing and food gathering from the sea and the fishponds along the coast.

The landscape looked much different then, according to de Naie, as it was significantly greener due to the presence of native plants and crops. Fresh water in the area was a result of Maui's dense Upcountry forests that existed prior to the late 1800s. There were also large waterways feeding down through Ka'ono'ulu. The main one was Kulanihakoi ("heavenly stream") Gulch, said de Naie.

Kulanihako'i Gulch and its tributaries are an important cultural resource in the area. De Naie explained that there is a consistent pattern of archaeological evidence of habitation and activities within Ka'ono'ulu since 800 AD, especially in the land mauka of Pi'ilani Highway, the site of the proposed 88-acre Pi'ilani Promenade shopping center. Cultural practitioners feel this region has an abundance of sites associated with traditional Hawaiian practices of observing the sky, both at night and during the day, when cloud and weather patterns could be examined.

Fact Box

After the presentation, attendees expressed a variety of reasons for their interest in the area.

"I came to learn about the interactions along the ahupua'a and the relationship to current uses," said Maui resident Marge Bonar. "Having recently been to Italy, I am trying to understand why history can affect current decisions so differently in different cultures."

Kate Steinberg, who has lived in Maui for 12 years, said she came because she was interested in educating herself about the Hawaiian culture. "It is a real privilege to live here and I want to be a responsible steward of the culture as well as the land and its resources," said Steinberg.

"A site that may appear to be a pile of stones may actually mark a seasonal passage of the sun or moon or particular stars," said de Naie.

Kalepolepo, a village surrounding the Koa House store and inn, thrived in this area in the 1840s.

"Our Kihei-Makena Community Plan and our Maui Island Plan tell us it's very important to identify, preserve and enhance cultural and historic resources and cultural practices to provide a sense of history and define a sense of place for the Kihei-Makena region," said de Naie. "The first step is to understand the history of the area and to advocate for preservation of the cultural resources which still remain to tell the story. Without a voice, these legacy resources disappear in our present system and we are all the poorer for the loss."

In the 1840s, Ka'ono'ulu was claimed by Hewhewa, a chief who was a close ally of Kamehameha I. The land later passed to a Chinese farmer and several others before it came to the Rice family and then became the Ka'ono'ulu Ranch in the early 20th century. After years of deforestation and eroded silt repeatedly being washed down the mountain during storms, the coastal ponds dried out, and the land became only suitable for cattle grazing. An heir of Hewahewa attended the presentation and explained that his family had never formally sold the land; the family still feels they own it.

The 1970s brought more change, when thousands of acres in Kihei were rezoned for housing, resorts and commercial use. Several developments were built in Ka'ono'ulu over the years, beginning with the Maui Lu Resort in the 1960s (on the site of the Ka'ono'ulu Ranch pig farm).

When Ka'ono'ulu Estates was built in the 1980s, areas that had functioned as wetlands along Kulanihako'i Gulch were developed and the drainage area reduced. Now the area is subject to flooding, although environmental documents for the developments had previously concluded there would be no drainage impacts.

There are proposals to build thousands of new units on either side of the Kulanihako'i Gulch, which would most likely result in many of the last remaining waterways being filled in. De Naie and Kanahele concluded the presentation by stressing the importance of these waterways, as they not only provide natural drainage, but also reduce the amount of pollution that reaches the ocean, clean and filter water for us to drink and support the area's wildlife and fisheries.

After the presentation, attendees asked questions about the status of rebuilding the Kalepolepo fishbond (a project that has been in progress for the past 20 years, due to volunteer efforts in the community), as well as the role that de Naie's research played in the SouthWest Maui Watershed Project.

For more information about helping restore the fishpond, visit



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