Maui Fires Destroyed a Cultural Center of Native Hawaiian History

Photo for The Washington Post by Mengshin Lin
Sifa Vea, left, hugs Ke’eaumoku Kapu after dropping off donations at Lahaina Gateway Center in Lahaina, Hawaii.

LAHAINA, Hawaii – Long before Front Street was lined with surf shops and art galleries, it was the gateway to the Kingdom of Hawaii, a spiritual and cultural capital, its ground sacred.

For Kanaka Maoli – Native Hawaiians – it remained so, through a long and violent history of colonialism, land theft and government overthrow that transformed Lahaina, turning wetlands into sugar plantations, then into hotels and residential developments marketed to wealthy vacationers.

But a network of community leaders, elders and organizations here have protected and passed down traditions and cultural practices, prime among them the Na ‘Aikane O Maui Cultural Center on Front Street, which helped young people learn traditional art and longtime families fight for rights to their ancestral lands.

Then came the fire. It destroyed the building, full of hundreds of Kanaka Maoli artifacts – from 19th century land deeds stamped in wax, to traditional feathered capes and old maps that impressed the most studied cartophiles.

“It’s never going to be the same,” said Ke’eaumoku Kapu, 60, who founded the center and had battled for decades to win the rights to his ancestral family’s West Maui land. Inside, he said, were legal documents that he hoped would help other families prevail in disputes with developers and others who staked claims to properties Native Hawaiians believed to be theirs.

It will be impossible to replace all that burned, Kapu said from beneath a tent in an aid distribution hub he set up outside a pharmacy in downtown Lahaina. He said he was counting on ohana, the Hawaiian word for family, to ease the loss. And he will rebuild.

Na ‘Aikane O Maui opened on Front Street in 2011, taking over an 11,000-square-foot cream-colored building in the heart of the Lahaina Historic District, which was a National Historic Landmark. It was on this block that King Kamehameha III built his royal complex in the 1800s, and it was a deeply meaningful place to Native Hawaiians and other residents.

From the start, the center was meant to be a community hub. Kapu encouraged families to sit in its immense library and do genealogical research, tracing their family histories back generations to amass enough material to mount a reclamation case against the governments or entities that took their land long ago.

“The future is in the past,” he liked to remind them.

But it also held workshops and art classes, teaching weaving and carving, and displayed cases of Kanaka Maoli artworks. The center shared the building with several other nonprofits, forming a network of groups dedicated to preserving and promoting Native Hawaiian culture.

“This place was radiant,” said Kaipo Kekona, Kapu’s stepson and the president of Hawaii Farmers Union United, which held the monthly meetings of its Lahaina chapter at the center.

It’s a fitting description for a building in the middle of a town whose name roughly translates to “cruel sun” in Hawaiian.

A few years before the center opened, Kapu began a lengthy legal battle to win control of his family land in Kauaula Valley, uphill of Lahaina, from one of the island’s most prominent real estate developers.

The land, where his ancestors once grew taro on their homesteads, was what is known as a kuleana plot, a designation that dates to an 1850 piece of legislation allowing Native Hawaiians to claim parcels they were cultivating. But few who were eligible received the land, and the law created an arcane mechanism that plantation owners used to pry plots away from families.

Kapu, spurred on by his father’s dream of living on their ancestral land, began a meticulous study of historical property law. He can now recite the years and titles of various legal codes, a familiarity with jurisprudence that has proved formidable in court.

“There’s so much distrust of the government for very good reason, and for Native Hawaiians in particular,” said Christina Lizzi, an attorney on the island who has represented Kapu in another dispute, over water rights. “A lot of folks have no interest whatsoever in engaging in the courts or legal system.”

But Kapu learned the system, used it and won. Again, and again, and again.

“In Hawaii, it’s one of those miracles to see that somebody is actually getting their land back,” Lizzi said.

On Maui alone, Kapu said, there have been two dozen such victories in recent years, totaling some 600 acres of land. It’s a small fraction of the island’s total area, but it represents important progress, he said. And he had hopes this recent success would lay out a road map for other families to follow.

The wins were coming at a time of momentum for the larger international Land Back movement that seeks to return lands to their indigenous owners. Over the last several years, tribes in the continental United States have reclaimed thousands of acres.

“You have to go through the process time and again. Appeal, lose. Appeal, win. I’ve learned enough to help families throughout the state of Hawaii,” Kapu said. “Everybody’s looking, from all over the world, to the state of Hawaii and they’re asking us: ‘How do we go forward? How do I get my property back?'”

After the Maui fires, these fights will only become more important, Kapu said, as developers look to buy up burned properties, exacerbating an already serious housing crisis. With most of the town torched, families will soon face the difficult decision to rebuild or to sell, a financial squeeze that some fear will lead to a land grab that will reverse Land Back gains.

Kapu, his family and Lizzi almost didn’t make it out of Lahaina last week, when the blaze was closing in. Lizzi, who had just moved into a caretaker apartment above the center a month earlier, woke that morning to fierce wind. It had blown debris into her car and shattered her back window, and it was beginning to strain the center’s roof.

She opened her door and saw deep black smoke billowing toward the center. Lizzi fled with Kapu and his wife, Uilani, as they steered a family car through gridlocked streets into the hills above Lahaina, somehow avoiding flames there. Along the way, they ran into their children, who were also evacuating. Together, they looked down at the town and quietly watched fire close in on the center.

Gone were Na ‘Aikane O Maui and the treasured artifacts inside. Historic maps had been stacked next to a newly-acquired scanner; the center’s staff was days away from digitizing the cracking century-old documents.

Also immolated were irreplaceable family heirlooms. One was the kahili, or feather standard, that Kapu made after his father died a few years ago, in accordance with Kanaka Maoli tradition. The kahili, a pole adorned with feathers that signifies power and honors the deceased, contained the ashes of Kapu’s father. He had wanted his dad close to him every day.

In recent days, the family has been consumed by the immediate disaster response, but now has begun to consider how they will rebuild – not whether. They have set up a fundraiser and donations are beginning to come in.

“Oh, we’re going to bring it back,” Uilani Kapu said. “People are saying, ‘Hey, we got wood, we’ll give you guys wood.'”

Lahaina “needs a hub for us to meet, and we’re going to make it happen,” she said.

Ke’eaumoku Kapu, meanwhile, has found it easier to focus for now on the concrete tasks of aid distribution. The job is never-ending, and he has little time to think about the stone foundation that is all that’s left of his cultural center, his life’s mission. On a recent scorching afternoon, Kapu was busy at the donation site, coordinating supply convoys and welcoming volunteers from across the state.

“If I lay down and don’t do anything, I may not be able to get up again,” he said. And he returned to work, beneath the cruel sun.