homepage logo

Kaai: Respect Pu‘u Keka‘a by removing all structures

By Staff | Mar 4, 2010

KAANAPALI — On the drawing board for the Sheraton Maui (Kyo-ya Hotels and Resorts) is a plan to increase its footprint at Kaanapali Beach. To mitigate potential impacts, public contributions are offered, including the creation of a cultural park on top of Pu‘u Keka‘a to recognize its historical, cultural and spiritual significance.

The lofty proposal is a tall order, as Pu‘u Keka‘a, colloquially referred to as Black Rock, has a history as lively and colorful as the lava flow that occurred roughly 580,000 years ago to form it.

Stories of its spiritual and cultural significance are as vital to the Hawaiians as St. Peter’s Gate is to the Christian heart.

In the physical plane, the 85-foot-high volcanic cinder and spatter cone stands as a division between south and north Kaanapali Beach. Eroded by the sea, the promontory is surrounded by a now-famous snorkeling spot.

According to legend, Pu‘u Keka‘a was formed by the demigod Maui, who changed a taunting shape-shifter into stone.

Historically speaking, Keka‘a was a farming and fishing village. Before 1800, some say it was the name given to the capital of the islands. It was the birthplace of Kaululaau, son of King Keka‘alaneo.

The great warrior King Kahekili ruled Maui in the 1700s. He was almost seven feet tall, and his 300-pound stature was described as pure muscle and bone. He excelled at the game of lele kawa, an extreme sport where the participants made daring feet-first leaps from high rocks into the ocean.

To Native Hawaiians, Pu‘u Keka‘a’s sacred promontory was a leina-o-ka-‘uhane, uhane lele or leaping place of ghosts, where the spirits of the departed soared from the Earth and joined their ancestors in the other world.

It is said that Kahekili made the leap from the top of the pu‘u. No man had ever attempted such a feat before and returned from the spirit world unharmed, establishing his divine right to rule.

A heiau (shrine) was situated on top of the pu‘u and burials surrounded the site.

With the coming of sugar cane in the mid-1800s, the face of Pu‘u Keka‘a changed. The area around it was converted into a landing station, where trains from the sugar mill in Lahaina unloaded cargo onto waiting ships.

By the mid-20th century, with the plantation economy in the throes of a gradual decline, the idea for the world’s first fully master-planned destination resort was born at a luau on the beach near Black Rock in 1956, where board members of the Pioneer Mill, a subsidiary of American Factors Inc., envisioned converting 500 acres of unproductive sugar cane land into a world-class resort.

It took ten years to realize the dream with the official opening of Kaanapali Beach Resort in December 1962, and the Sheraton opened its doors one month later.

“To induce the Sheraton to come to Maui,” Sam Kaai explained, “they gave them the place by the rock; and, of course, architects and designers come and make fantasy out of spirit. They had to be on rock.”

“Before AMFAC sold it,” Kaai added, “they removed all the bones. Because it was a station for landing sugar and molasses and a shipping point, they moved that, then talked about an upside down plan,” with the first floor of the hotel built on the top and the rooms below.

Born in Hana in 1938, Sam Kaai is a highly revered cultural treasure, a Kanaka Maoli practitioner and an educated man passionate about his culture.

In an interview with Lahaina News, he shared his knowledge and questioned the developer’s offer to honor Pu‘u Keka‘a’s historical, cultural and spiritual significance with a Hawaiian garden and park.

“They have not addressed the Hawaiian community at all. There are a whole body of contrary statements to the very thing that they have said, and I address the three words — the three ideas that make it okay — (these) are the three ideas that we have complete conflict with,” he said.

“Now, the Sheraton by saying that its landscaping would make it Hawaiian, does not fulfill the historical, cultural and spiritual side, not at all.  Historically, there were no trees on there, so adding bougainvillea or whatever on top of there doesn’t make it correct,” the Pacific voyager commented.

“The historical use of that place was no buildings on top; it was the leaping place of the soul, a place with reverence where one gives up the corporal and becomes part of the eternal world — a sacred site,” he added.

“Culturally, is it still in practice? Yes it is,” Kaai remarked.

In 2001, Patty Nishiyama of Na Kupuna O Maui organized a peaceful demonstration, where 800 people joined together — halau, canoe clubs, large ‘ohana and single families, school groups, troops and individuals from all ethnic backgrounds — to walk the path of aloha in the footsteps of the ali‘i, connecting two sacred West Side sites: Moku‘ula in Lahaina and Pu‘u Keka‘a in Kaanapali.

The procession was lead by then-Mayor James “Kimo” Apana and The Royal Order of Kamehameha.

Kyle Nakanelua and Ke‘eaumoku Kapu joined the march with a group of young men, Na Koa, who rededicated themselves, “soaring off the rock” at the end of the day.

“They leaped in the physical world to prove the continuity that they would do it in the spiritual world,” Kaai said.

“So it is recognized as a historical site; it is recognized as a cultural site; and it’s recognized as a spiritual site,” he concluded

The first-ever nonacademic Fulbright Scholar asked, “Why are those three words singled out as a solution when none of them have been addressed?”

“To respect it historically, remove all structures from the rock… not from around the rock,” Kaai stressed. “Treat like Punch Bowl — a memorial.”

Kaai challenged the developer, “Honor the host and remove everything, then you can go on record that you historically became aware, culturally accepting and spiritually accepting of the place.”