Priceless connections to Hawaii's ancient past were lost when cultural center burned
MAUI, Hawaii — It could be a long time before the full extent of human loss is known after the wildfires. The official death is more than 110 and expected to keep growing.
While people are grappling with that news, they're still trying to understand the loss of priceless artifacts and their connections to the island's ancient past.
The Na 'Aikane o Maui Cultural and Research Center was home to vestiges of Ancient Hawaii, before European colonization. "Old documents. Maps. Genealogy. Books that were actually signed by our kings," said Ke'eamoku Kapu, the center's steward. "Our cultural center was the hub for a lot of our native Hawaiian people longing for the past."
For Kapu, the center meant even more than the rare, tangible treasures of his ancestry. It was where his community gathered. "It was a place of worship. A place of traditional cultural, protocols."
The center was on the main thoroughfare in Lahaina, which was once the capital of the ancient Hawaiian Kingdom. Kapu returned to the rubble two days after the fire to see what was left of the town. "Oh, man. All my neighbors gone. Our churches are these apartment buildings that flourish with families. With generations of families gone."
He also went to the site of the cultural center with the hopes of recovering some artifacts. But he found very little. "Carving images made out of stone. That made it, one of them. And a stone that was given to me personally by different chiefs from the South Pacific, New Zealand, Tahiti, Samoa, so a great loss."
Some of the rare books and documents preserved at the center weren't just history — they were instructive materials for indigenous people fighting for ownership of the land and water that belonged to their ancestors. Kapu himself was involved in litigation that ended up at the state Supreme Court and won him the rights to hold on to the land that his family has owned since the days of the Hawaiian kingdom. He brought that knowledge to other community members at the cultural center.
"That was a great advantage of the center to bring families in and teach them what I've done in order to help them get their lands back and has been working all the documents. All those documents are gone."
As he talked, Kapu points his finger to his right temple.
"All I have is what I have in here. I just cried. Like we got erased."
Kapu said he still hasn't had time to process the loss. He's already been through three other fires on Maui before this one. "I cannot sleep. I wake up with nightmares. Wake up thinking everything is fine, only to wake up and see it's not. But I guess that's a reason why I'm doing what I'm doing. Because I got to stay busy."
What he's doing is working with Maui's Emergency Management Agency - helping to run one of the distribution centers in Lahaina with several members of his family. He's getting food, supplies and water to those affected by the fire. Kapu says indigenous people bring a unique understanding to this work.
"We know exactly what the general community is feeling now. Because we know about trauma. We know about being displaced."
Kapu is also serving as a liaison between the local government and indigenous community. He's on an advisory council to the mayor as the county navigates the response to this fire. "There's a lot of distrust right now, and our responsibility as advisors in the community is to alleviate that distrust, because if we don't, it is going to be chaotic."
He plans to keep working with the government as the recovery and rebuilding process continues. He's wary of the potential for payouts for property that was lost and is encouraging community members to try to hold on to their land.
"What is it going to take to rebuild the capital of the kingdom once again? What is it going to take? This is our legacy we're talking about. What is the payout for losing that?"
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