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Students uncover the past at Moku‘ula

By Staff | Jun 16, 2011

From left, Dr. Janet Six recently welcomed Akoni Akana’s parents, Frances and Kainoa Akana of Oahu, for the first time to the archeological excavation at Moku‘ula. Frances Akana said, “You know something, when I see that, tears came to my eyes. The water, the pier... I’m overexcited.”

LAHAINA — The pulse of the community along Front Street the past few months has been electrifying from one end of the historic corridor to the other, with Moku’ula rising again to serve as the piko (umbilicus) of attention.

Moku’ula was the sacred sanctuary of the Hawaiian ali’i. Located at the south end of the Historic District in the 500 block of Front Street underneath an abandoned softball diamond at Malu-ulu-o-lele Park, it was surrounded by a natural spring-fed pond, Loko o Mokuhinia, the home of the lizard goddess Kihawahine.

It served as a political and spiritual center from ancient times through the emergence of the Maui kingdom, the unification of the islands under Kamehameha, the introduction of Christianity and the period when Lahaina was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii (1837-45).

The site was abandoned in the late 19th century, buried under fill in the early 1900s and left undisturbed for nearly a century.

The Friends of Moku’ula (FOM), a nonprofit established in 1995, is dedicated to its restoration.

From left, Dr. Janet Six recently welcomed Akoni Akana’s parents, Frances and Kainoa Akana of Oahu, for the first time to the archeological excavation at Moku‘ula. Frances Akana said, “You know something, when I see that, tears came to my eyes. The water, the pier... I’m overexcited.”

In late March, FOM’s founder and spiritual leader, 54-year-old Akoni Akana, passed away, succumbing after a long battle with diabetes.

There was a memorial service in celebration of the visionary’s life at the World Heritage site on April 23.

The grand finale of the parade of events held the past two-plus months in honor of the kumu hula was held at Old Lahaina Luau at the north end of town at Moali’i on June 4, benefitting the Friends of Moku’ula.

The evening was grand, indeed, with Keali’i Reichel and star members of his halau performing on stage, stirring up the swirl of emotions passing from one table to another.

It was the commemorative film, however, about Akana that virtually lit up the night.

Shirley Kaha’i, FOM executive director, described the moment.

“When the lightening started, it was just on cue with Akoni’s chant; and I thought, he’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m up here; pay attention.’ “

The friendly flashes and bolts of light branching out across the starlit skies served as a dramatic backdrop to the old Lahaina Luau performers. It was chicken-skin stunning.

Before the end of the program, the crowd was passing along the words, “He’s here. I can feel him.”

The fundraiser, needless to say, was a stellar success.

“The Old Lahaina Luau, they were amazing. I just cannot say enough about them. I know we sold out. They had 64 tables of eight,” Kaha’i remarked.

But the show didn’t end on Saturday night.

There was another, more poignant story playing out the following Monday where an archeological dig is underway in a small fenced off area in the old ballpark.

With pick, shovel and trowel generating a steady background noise, yelps of glee and surprise were heard as would-be treasures from the past were uncovered.

Buckets of soil were passed from one to the other, heading toward the sifting station. The process was more than an assembly line. With an air of mystery prevailing, a dozen or so students, volunteers and professors were steeped in the moment of discovery.

University of Hawaii-Maui professor Dr. Janet Six is director of this scene, but the vision of the Friends of Moku’ula and its current and past executives are held as an overall guiding light.

“Friends of Moku’ula came to me in 2008, asking how we can make this an affordable project, ’cause money was an issue,” Six explained.

“Working with Akoni, at that time, Jessica Thompson and Shirley (Kaha’i), we designed a series of courses — Anthropology 281. It’s officially curriculum. It was an experimental class for two years; now it’s official, and it’s called Field Methods and Techniques. We also developed a lab class, so that we could analyze all of the artifacts once you dig it up,” Six added.

“In the summer, we do three weeks intensively. We have students from University of Long Island, San Diego State, UC Berkeley. We have students from all over Idaho and Boston. They come. They pay tuition,” Six said.

The assembly was immersed in the task at hand, uncovering the sacred island very carefully one layer, one unit at a time.

Rosanna Runyon is a volunteer. Her specialty is stratigraphy.

“We’re just cleaning the side holes, ’cause in archeology you want to make sure your side walls are nice and clear, so that you can see the different layers,” the young archeologist from Oahu commented.

“The side walls will tell you the stories – stratigraphy. It gives you the chronological time frame of happenings.”

The goal of the dig is to expose the boundaries of the island.

“When we find the berm, we will have an idea of where the edge of the island is, and then we’ll start opening up the area laterally and exposing the entire edge all the way around,” Runyon said.

“I would say it’s going to take a while — at least a year, then it’s (Moku’ula) going to be able to breathe again.”

Joel Yurkanin is a recent graduate of U.H. Maui College headed to Binghampton University in New York with her eye on a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Archeology.

This was not her first experience at Moku’ula.

“Moku’ula has always been kind of a puzzle. It’s like we might expect one thing, but another just comes up like something completely different. Moku’ula has been teaching me to go with the flow. It’s definitely been a week filled with just the discoveries I didn’t really expect to find. This has made it all the more exciting, because it was unexpected,” she said.

Jerry Kunitomo, past president of FOM, joined the workers at the site on Monday.

He had a different, more spiritual perspective than the archeologists.

“If you embrace Akoni as a kumu, you’ll know his kuleana was to teach. Moku’ula embodies the teacher and the classroom, where generations would continue to discover and perpetuate the culture.

“Akoni’s passionate lessons are peeled back with each layer of earth (and) watching the excavation was like watching the past come to life. You could hear history’s voice.