The outer temple wall is in the background, and the holehole stone, where human flesh was separated from bone, is on the bottom right.
What you share with the world is what it keeps of you. —Noah and the Whale
Situated on the northern coast of the Big Island overlooking the Maui Strait is Moʻokini Heiau, said to be the first temple built on the Hawaiian Islands. Legend says that the temple was built in a single night in 480 A.D. by the Menehunes–dwarf-like master builders who never worked on the same project twice. They stood in a line 12 miles long and passed rocks one by one from Pololu Valley to Kohala. Later, in 1370 A.D., Moʻokini Heiau was converted into a luakini heiau, a war temple, and was dedicated to the war god Ku, thus beginning a new era of human sacrifice.
After walking three miles in the wrong direction, my family and I finally found the torn-up strip of road that led to the temple. The guidebook hadn’t lied when it’d said some of the puddles were large enough to have their own ecosystems. The water was vermilion and reminded me of the turmeric latte I’d had the day prior. Who knows what was at the bottom. Waves crashed to our right, while the road snaked along the coast and then jutted inland to the remaining temple ruins.
We walked and walked and suddenly we arrived, a dilapidated sign the only prelude to the monument. There were no signs telling us the history of the temple. No labels at the holehole stone where human bodies were stripped of flesh. No placard with numbers explaining when, and who, and how many. All of that had to be scrounged up later. The only sign present was a bronze plaque recognizing this as a national historical landmark with the words “United States” and “U.S.” symbolically pounded out.
Different landscapes conjure different feelings within us. I’m always shot with eagerness and a touch of ferocity when I barrel down the sidewalks of NYC, while all I feel is reverence when I stand in Yosemite Valley at sunset, dwarfed by sun-splashed granite walls. Standing there at Moʻokini Heiau with rain clouds scattered in the distance and a broken rainbow clinging to the air, I didn’t know what to feel. Awe and sadness and beauty all wrapped together. But this wasn’t my culture, these weren’t my people whose lives were given to the gods, and without context, without information to orient myself, I didn’t know how to carve out the distance between myself and these ruins.
There are different levels of public access in Hawaii for historical monuments and ecological wonders. It ranges from sacred burial grounds marked with crossed sticks and a sign reading Kapu, keep out, to national park visitor centers that are open 365 days a year. Although part of the U.S., Hawaii has its own history and culture, and the people there don’t share everything with us. They don’t have to.
Moʻokini Heiau wasn’t always accessible to the average person. The temple was only open to ali’i and kahuna, chiefs and priests, until 1978 when Kahuna Nui (High Priestess) Leimomi Moʻokini Lum lifted the taboo and rededicated the temple to the children of the land (Hawaii). She later rededicated the temple again in 1994 to the children of the world. Since then, Leimomi Moʻokini Lum and her family have hosted a variety of visitors at the heiau, including many school groups and curious children.
“I invite everyone to visit,” said Mealani Lum, a direct descendant of the Moʻokini lineage, in an interview with Big Island Television. “I like to talk to people. Especially kids. Hawaiian kids especially because if they don’t know where they came from, they won’t know where they’re going.”
Knowing that the heiau welcomes outsiders–at least by the family that runs it–perhaps I would’ve felt differently as I stood in the rays of slanted sunlight, staring at green carpeted rocks, trying to imagine the textures of life that had existed in their presence. Or maybe I wouldn’t have. Maybe I still would’ve felt like an intrusive outsider peeking behind a door meant to be locked. Maybe that’s the point.
“For anyone sensitive to the colonial environment which has rendered this ancient cultural site into a quaint and isolated scenic adventure often taken by non-culturally affiliated tourists,” write Peter Mills and Kathleen Kawelu in their paper Decolonizing Heritage Management in Hawai‘i, “the very act of visiting Mo‘okini evokes an uncomfortable sense of misappropriation.”
Monuments like this resurface the complexity of our bloody, tangled history. We are no heroes. No nation of this world has ever been strong or great without carving their name into the backs of others. Every victory is a scar. So in places like this, it’s a gift to be invited in to witness and learn. A gift to feel uncomfortable and think about cultures that are not ours, that we haven’t respected in the past, that time and time again still allow us to partake in their rituals and private histories. It’s a gift.
“The Indigenous person occupies a world of tradition in a sense that is generally unknown to a western generation,” writes Chris Ryan. “It is the clash between a sense of eternal relationship of self and place versus the culture of the 15 second sound bite.”
I think this is why we–white, culture-deprived people like myself–like to visit places like Moʻokini Heiau. They feel unfamiliar, and we long to tap into something greater than ourselves, something that brings us closer to divinity or death. In the era of the 15 second sound bite, it’s easy to feel untethered. But places like Moʻokini Heiau remind us that things can endure. That art and history and culture won’t disappear if we drop our phone into a puddle or lose our external hard drive. The collective memory of the world will outlast us all, and sometimes that feeling alone is reassuring.
Chapman, Dohn. “The Eerie Aura of Mo’okini.” Earthstonestation, 29 May 2015, earthstonestation.com/2015/05/22/the-eerie-aura-of-mookini/.
Mills, Peter R, and Kathleen L Kawelu. “Decolonizing Heritage Management in Hawai‘i.” Scientific Research, Aug. 2013, file.scirp.org/Html/35283.html.
“Mookini Heiau and Kamehameha Birthsite, Kohala.” Big Island Television, Hawaii, 29 May 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdPost_3Q0I.
Ryan, Chris, and Michelle Aicken. Indigenous Tourism the Commodification and Management of Culture. Routledge, 2007.