Paintings by Solomon Enos

Stories Have Teeth

Pearl Harbor’s legacy of
sharks, war, and restoration

I. Mo‘oleloI

THE CHILDREN SAT cross-legged and squirming in the church schoolroom, but as Auntie Paulette began her story, we all, as one, became still.

“I grew up in Pearl City, in a place called Peninsula, near the water,” she said. “And in that water, there was a shark named Ka‘ahupāhau. Ka‘ahupāhau was the shark goddess, and she was the protector of Pearl Harbor—we called it Pu‘uloa 2 back then.”

At fourteen, I was too old for church school, but today was a special day. Auntie Paulette Moore had come to tell us mo‘olelo from her childhood on the shores of Pearl Harbor. I knew Auntie Paulette as the kupuna3 who chanted the psalms in Hawaiian during church services. She had a round smiling face and always wore stylish hats with feather lei po‘o 4 to match her mu‘u mu‘u.5 I watched the hem of her long dress sway as she stood before our small congregation.

Ka‘ahupāhau was a huge shark, about fifteen feet long and strong. She patrolled the waters of Pu‘uloa with her brother, Kahi‘ukā of the “smiting tail.” Ka‘ahupāhau had made a vow to protect the people of Pu‘uloa. If a foreign shark entered into the three-loch bay of Pu‘uloa, Ka‘ahupāhau would chase them away or kill them. “That’s why you didn’t have man-eating sharks over there,” Auntie Paulette explained. “That was her area.”


Mo‘olelo: History, ethnography, myth, legend, account, description, tradition, story
Ke awa lau o Pu‘uloa: The many-harbored seas of Pu‘uloa
Kupuna: Elder, grandparent, ancestor
Lei po‘o: A garland worn on the head
Mu‘u mu‘u: Loose gown


I had always been afraid of sharks. When I was in fourth grade, a boy was attacked by a tiger shark. He was my age, bodyboarding like I did each weekend. In the news that night, a beachgoer described how “his eyes rolled back in his head” before he died. In class the next day, my teacher explained that sharks don’t want to eat people. They would rather have fish or sea turtles, their favorite food. She drew a picture of a bodyboard from below, complete with arms and legs that dangled from the sides.

“Now what does this look like?” she asked.

“A turtle!” we chorused, horrified

Nonetheless, I loved the ocean and began surfing at thirteen. The exhilaration of riding waves was only tempered by the dread of seeing a shark. I would perch on my board and imagine sharks in the gusts of current pushing past my feet, in the glint of a fin breaking the surface, in coral heads that lurked just below. I was in their realm. My arms moved awkwardly through the water as I paddled—nothing like the grace of fins. Peering down into the cobalt depths, I wondered what I looked like from below.


“ONE DAY, my brother went to swim in Mānana Stream, right at Bridge 18,” Auntie Paulette continued. Bridge 18 was a set of elevated railroad tracks from which the children often jumped into the water. The thrill of the drop was compounded with the danger of an oncoming train. “It was a big no-no in our family, but my brother jumped from the bridge anyway. Suddenly, his friend began to yell, ‘There is a dark shadow. Get out! Get out!’ But my brother, being kinda chubby, couldn’t get out that fast.”

I shifted from my perch at the back of the church schoolroom. The children, too, leaned closer. I thought I heard Auntie’s granddaughter Hulali gasp, “The shadow … it’s Ka‘ahupāhau!”



Seeing the excitement of her young listeners, Auntie Paulette continued, “A fin emerged from the water, and the shadow passed right by him. When he came out of the stream, he said it felt like sandpaper had brushed against him. His leg was covered in scratches.”

I tried to imagine the rough sharkskin scraping against my own legs. What terror and awe, this brush with the divine.

“When our neighbor, Tū tū Lumchee, saw the scratches on my brother, she said, ‘Ka‘ahupāhau. Indeed, she was telling you folks get out.’ My brother never jumped from the bridge again.”

In many ways, Ka‘ahupāhau sounded like a firm but loving parent watching over the children of the land. There is an ‘ōlelo no‘eau6 about Ka‘ahupāhau: “Alahula o Pu‘uloa, he alahele na Ka‘ahupāhau—Everywhere in Pu‘uloa is the trail of Ka‘ahupāhau.” Ka‘ahupāhau knew the waters of Pu‘uloa intimately and moved through the alahele7 in ever vigilance. Mary Kawena Pūku‘i, a seminal Kanaka Maoli8 scholar, recorded this proverb with the note, “[This ‘ōlelo no‘eau is also] said of a person who goes everywhere, looking, peering, seeing all, or of a person familiar with every nook and corner of a place.” In the beautiful flexibility and lyricism of the Hawaiian language, people could share the attributes of Ka‘ahupāhau—her courage, vigilance, and extensive knowledge of a place.


ONE DAY, it is said, a powerful shark named Mikololou came from Maui to visit Ka‘ahupāhau and her family. Unbeknownst to the shark goddess, Mikololou had developed a taste for human flesh and expressed his admiration for the “fat crabs” of the area. Ka‘ahupāhau immediately recognized this warning sign—“fat crabs” was an expression used only by man-eating sharks to refer to human prey. Sensing danger, Ka‘ahupāhau warned the sharks and people of Pu‘uloa. Later that day, they lured Mikololou to a feast at a favorite place in the Waipahu River. They fed him cup after cup of ‘awa9. Once he was intoxicated, the sharks of Pu‘uloa chased Mikololou downriver where the fishermen of the area had strung their nets. He broke through net after net until he was finally tangled and hauled to shore. The people burned every part of the great shark’s body, except for the tongue. In some versions of the story, the tongue lay forgotten in the char until a group of curious children tossed it into the water. In other versions, a dog darted into the fray and grabbed Mikololou’s tongue. After eating a part of it, the dog dropped the tongue into the water, where it immediately sprang to life. Thinking only of vengeance, the tongue swam to the other islands, gathering a force of foreign sharks. They stormed Pu‘uloa, and a great battle ensued. Sharp teeth met flesh. Blood bloomed through the water. After days of fighting, Ka‘ahupāhau emerged victorious and upheld her place as the guardian of Pu‘uloa.


‘ōlelo no‘eauProverb, traditional saying
Alahele: Swimming trails
Kanaka Maoli: Native Hawaiian
‘Awa: Drink made from kava


These mo‘olelo of Ka‘ahupāhau are braided among the channels and lochs of Pu‘uloa. They cluster in the communities gathered along the shores and swim upstream, linking the wide region of ‘Ewa where Pu‘uloa lies. Ka‘ahupāhau’s mo‘olelo is so vast, it sometimes becomes contradictory. In some stories, Ka‘ahupāhau was born a human child and later was turned into a shark. In other stories, Ka‘ahupāhau was a stillborn human baby placedinto the waters of Pu‘uloa, where she transformed into a shark. And although other stories insist that Ka‘ahupāhau had been born a powerful shark goddess, the human origin stories point to a unique relationship with Ka‘ahupāhau. Many people of the ‘Ewa region traced their lineage back to Ka‘ahupāhau’s human family. It was common practice for fishermen to throw the biggest and fattest fish back into the water as an offering to Ka‘ahupāhau. Many considered her to be a beloved family member, a protective ancestor, or an ‘aumakua10. Special caretakers would take offerings of food down to the shores for the guardian shark. They poured ‘awa into her mouth and scraped the barnacles from her skin. “She loved kalo,11 and ‘uala,12 she liked that too,” Auntie Paulette had said, smiling. “She kinda had a sweet tooth.”

I tried to imagine the rough sharkskin scraping against my own legs.
What terror and awe, this brush with the divine.

Mary Kawena Pūku‘i remembers visiting the home of Ka‘ahupāhau with her uncle when she was still a child. “Most of the cave was deep underwater. A small plant laden with red berries hung over the entrance. When I reached to pluck one, my uncle pulled my hand back quickly and chided me. ‘Those belong to Ka‘ahupāhau.’”


10 ‘Aumakua: A family god, deified ancestor
11 Kalo: Taro
12 ‘Uala: Sweet potato


Hulali, Auntie Paulette’s granddaughter, also grew up with the mo‘olelo of Ka‘ahupāhau. For her, they were not simply stories. “My tūtū13 had a way of making them feel very real.” And there were lessons to be learned in each telling—respect for elders and kuleana14 to care for the land. Scholars point to Ka‘ahupāhau as a model of pono15 leadership. Her mo‘olelo reaffirm ethics of care and justice, and reinforce prohibitions on killing and greed. “My tūtū told me stories to keep the traditions alive, and so that I could look at nature in a different way,” Hulali says. Instead of associating Pearl Harbor with the bombing and war, she learned to see the fecundity of Pu‘uloa, especially the rich, multilayered ‘ā ina16 and waters of her home. The mo‘olelo taught Hulali to see humans, especially her family, as just one part of a vast and interdependent ecosystem. “I remember my family used to go and fish in Pu‘uloa all the time. There were farms and fishing villages everywhere.”


THE WATERS of Pu‘uloa teemed with wild abundance. Hulali’s great-grandfather would often fish for Ama‘ama.17 He would dig clams by the shore. Limu18 was plentiful, and the water was full of fish. Fresh streams flowed from high up in the Wai‘anae and Ko‘olau mountain ranges. The faces of these mountains were carved into ravines from years of catching clouds and collecting rain. The water flowed down into the great basin of ‘Ewa, watering lo‘i kalo19 and farms, feeding communities both near and far. All of that fresh water flowed to the sea at Pu‘uloa, creating a vast estuary teeming with oyster beds. Along the shores, stone walls enclosed shallow pools of salt water. These loko i‘a20 had slatted gates that allowed small fish to pass through with ease but trapped larger fish who had grown fat in the pond. Studies indicate that as many as thirty-six loko i‘a were along the shores of Pu‘uloa. But the mo‘olelo caution that this abundance could not be taken for granted. “It was a two-way type of relationship,” Hulali explains. “It was our job to take care of the waters, and it was Ka‘ahupāhau’s job to protect us.”


13 Tū tū Grandmother
14 Kuleana: Responsibility, privilege, right
15 Pono: Goodness, uprightness, excellence, well-being, prosperity, justness
16 ‘ā ina: Land, earth
17 Ama‘ama: Mullet
18 Limu: Seaweed, underwater plants
19 Lo‘i kalo: Taro paddies
20 Loko i‘a: Fishponds


“In the old days,” Auntie Paulette had said, “the children were taught to chant her name.” If they were ever lost at sea, if they ever saw a shark while swimming, they called out to the guardian shark:


And she would come. She would scare away the bad sharks. She would bring the children to safety. I remember sitting in that crowded church schoolroom, mouthing the syllables of her name, Ka‘ahupāhau. I tried to carve her name into my mind, Ka‘ahupāhau—a mantra against the fear I felt every time I went surfing. Ka‘ahupāhau—if I called to her, would she save me too?

As she chanted, I noticed sorrow in Auntie Paulette’s voice. Later she would explain: “When they started to build up Pearl Harbor, and after World War II and the bombing, Ka‘ahupāhau left. She swam out to sea because the waters weren’t clean anymore.”


HEARING THESE WORDS, I Felt Like Crying. I Had Been To The Shores Of Pearl Harbor Only Once, But I Remembered The Signs Posted Along The Shoreline: Contaminated Fish & Shellfish. For Your Health, Do Not Eat. I Remembered The Chemical Smell Of The Water, Its Murk Glossed With Yellowing Rainbows.

Had the shark goddess forsaken us? Even the smallest ones? Even the ones still calling her name?


II. The Water Connects Us

WE HAD A CLEAR VIEW of Pearl Harbor from the roof of our house in Kapālama. For months my grandfather stood on that roof and watched the landscape change, filling with the grays and browns of docks, runways, and ships from the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He watched the waters yield to all manner of destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers, submarines, and battleships. Piers reached out into the azure waters, mooring the vessels of “Battleship Row.” On the morning of December 7, 1941, my grandfather caught a glimpse of planes swerving overhead. Climbing onto the roof, he called, “Come see! The boys are playing a real dogfight out there.”

My grandmother looked out the window and saw immediately what was going on. Pearl Harbor burning in the distance and her family, every last one of them, with the face of the enemy.

For years after the bombing all Hawai‘i residents lived under martial law. There were curfews and blackouts, the press was censored, civilians were fingerprinted and required to carry identification cards at all times. Japanese Americans like my grandparents had to take special care to demonstrate their allegiance to the United States; in fear of raids, they hid or destroyed their family photographs, Buddhist altars, letters, language—anything that would link them to Japan. Auntie Paulette’s father, who was Kanaka Maoli and not at risk, helped friends hide items. At one point, Auntie Paulette opened their closet to find it full of samurai swords. Nonetheless, Japanese American teachers, community leaders, doctors, and priests were rounded up and sent to internment camps. “It was a time of war,” my grandmother explained, but it was also a place of war. Every story I heard about Pearl Harbor began and ended with the war.


HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? How did a whole place become synonymous with war? As the story of Mikololou reminds us, there is power in the tongue. Power in the words we use. The words of U.S. Commodore Charles Wilkes in 1844 redefine the identity of Pu‘uloa as “the best and most capacious harbor in the Pacific.” The words of U.S. Lieutenant I. W. Curtis, two years later, praised the harbor’s “perfect security” and the “immense profits [that] might arise from it.” In these accounts, Wilkes and Curtis actively changed the narrative of Pu‘uloa from one of deep spiritual connection to the ‘āina to one of militaristic function. And although stories like these can seem like dusty narratives that you might hear in a church schoolroom, they carry teeth.

At the time of Wilke’s and Curtis’s reports, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was an independent nation with signed recognitions of sovereignty from more than a dozen countries, including the United States, but these treaties did not stop the U.S. military from pursuing its desires for a base here. In 1873, Major General John Schofield and Lieutenant Colonel Barton Alexander disguised themselves as diplomats to gain access to potential harbors as part of a discreet scouting mission. In a confidential report to Secretary of War William Belknap, Schofield effused about the harbor at Pu‘uloa: it was “the key to the Central Pacific Ocean,” he wrote, “valueless to them [the Kanaka Maoli] because they cannot use it, but more valuable to the United States than all else the islands have to give.” Hawai‘i was a blank slate to him, an opportunity not to be missed.

The Hawaiian government refused to cede control of Pu‘uloa, citing fears that such an installation would facilitate U.S. annexation of the islands. But in 1893, a group of pro-annexation haole21 businessmen took control of the Hawaiian government and colluded with the U.S. military to land troops in Hawai‘i and overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom, an act that was illegal under international law at that time and today. Changes progressed rapidly. Construction of a naval base began at Pu‘uloa in 1900. The coral at the entrance to the bay was sawed and hauled away, opening the harbor to large warships. In 1909, with the U.S. Congress appropriating millions of dollars at the urging of Prince Jonah Kū hiō Kalaniana‘ole, Hawai‘i’s first delegate to the House of Representatives, the U.S. Navy began building a dry dock at the mouth of Pu‘uloa.


21 Haole: White person. Formerly, any foreigner


Just under this new construction site was a sea cave said to be the home of Ka‘ahupāhau (or in some stories, her son). As the crews set to work on the dry dock, an old fisherman paddled up in his canoe and asked the men to stop. “Build it somewhere else,” he begged. The fisherman was a caretaker of Ka‘ahupāhau and came to the area every week to feed the shark and offer prayers. “It means nothing to the haole of today,” one worker explained. The old man returned again the next week with tears in his eyes, warning that they would be “punished severely” for desecrating Ka‘ahupāhau’s home. He returned week after week for years, but the project did not stop.

The crews continued to dredge soil, silt, and sand from the widening hole, until a series of mechanical problems beset the project. First the pump broke, and then a boiler; the cement would not pour, and water kept on welling up in the hole. Then in February 1913, the bottom of the dry dock began to buckle. Water poured in, tearing apart the timber framing until the whole structure collapsed. Watching the walls fold in, a worker described “an explosion of tons of black powder” as the water power reduced the heavy timber to “kindling.” As crews set to work clearing the mud and debris of the first attempt, they found the skeleton of a fourteen-foot shark.

The U.S. military now controls almost 4 percent of the total land in Hawai‘i. The Pearl Harbor Naval Complex alone controls more than 12,600 acres in Pu‘uloa. Military installations occupy nearly a quarter of O‘ahu. There are bases, bunkers, harbors, airfields, shooting ranges, and barracks spreading across the islands, forbidding entry. Helicopters pass low over our neighborhoods, rattling windows and drowning out voices. Convoys of giant, beige military trucks trace the roads between bases. Warplanes dart overhead and battleships are always on the horizon.

The military’s presence means that we live constantly in the landscape of war, always bristling for another attack. Entry to the dry dock is forbidden without military clearance. The public has access to the waters at just two county parks and the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. Although the parks receive few visitors, the memorial hosts almost two million people a year. The memorial tells the story of the bombing on December 7, 1941, and the United States’ involvement in World War II. In the old photographs, bombs rain down, ships sink, and smoke billows into the sky; 2,390 lives are lost. Pearl Harbor is the reference point in this landscape: how we were betrayed, how we were surprised. It is meant to justify the sacrifices we must make.

I visited the memorial as a child. I peered down at the sunken body of the USS Arizona through murky veils of harbor water. From the gleaming observation deck, I could see a rippling shadow of the hull, now covered in brown algae. A round hatch rose above the water, and the air smelled of petroleum. “Black tears,” our tour guide had explained. Every day since the attack on Pearl Harbor, over a gallon of oil has leaked into the waters from the sunken fuel tank. A crowd gathered to watch a patch of oil rainbow across the harbor’s skin. My own tears came later, as I watched old footage of the bombing and then the names of the dead scrolling across the screen. Standing in that place of war, I felt suddenly older, entrusted with the solemn imperative to never forget this tragedy. The story of the bombing felt untouchable; it seemed to spread, covering the entire harbor. In this place, to ask “Why?” was a form of sacrilege.

Pu‘uloa is still an active military installation and the seat of the Pacific Fleet. The soil and sediments of the Pearl Harbor Naval Complex contain dozens of contaminants, including lead, cadmium, and other volatile compounds. In 1992, the Pearl Harbor Naval Complex was placed on the Superfund’s national priority list, making it one of the country’s most contaminated places. And although the EPA now assures us that “there are no immediate threats to human health or the environment at the site,” the remediation goals that were set in 2015 have yet to be achieved. The water and shores are full of battery acid, mercury, diesel fuel, chromic acid, and plastics. Oil has leaked from underground fuel tanks, collecting into a 20-acre plume—half the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Outside the naval complex, mangroves curve with the contours of the bay, their seeds licking down toward the harbor, rippling under the hands of wind. Pu‘uloa is vast, but the water connects us, blooming oil, heavy metals, shopping carts, human detritus, and waste.


III. The Shark in Us

ACROSS HIGHWAYS, past shipyards, through cement corridors, we arrive at a gate and a guard booth. This land along the shores of Pu‘uloa is military housing, restricted, but we have come with permission to visit Loko Pa‘aiau, a fishpond tucked away behind the houses. We cross the threshold and suddenly the land turns lush, green lawns run up to the doors of stately suburban homes, each like the next. We turn from the web of cul-de-sacs to a narrow gravel road and then an open chain-link fence. Beyond are the glittering waters of Pu‘uloa. A long berm reaches out across the water, forming an oval pool. In the mud along the banks, water birds peer into the face of the pond. A lick of wind rustles a grove of milo trees, and their wide, heart-shaped leaves seem to nod at us. A woman stands near the fence, her silver hair pulled back from her kind face. “Aloha,” Auntie Kehaulani Lum says, “Welcome to Loko Pa‘aiau.”

Auntie Kehau is one of the kia‘i loko22 of this ancient Hawaiian fishpond. The pond was built over five hundred years ago by Mo‘i Wahine Kalanimanuia, the queen of O‘ahu. She made her home next to the pond and governed the island in peace for over sixty years—a feat that was as remarkable back then as it would be today. “We realized that the essence of this place is peace,” says Auntie Kehau. “And it becomes then a way that we relearn to live together in harmony.” The restoration of Loko Pa‘aiau has brought together military, governmental, and community groups, becoming a model for what positive collaboration could look like. For many years, the pond was forgotten and overgrown with invasive mangroves. The public could not access the area because it lay on military land. More than twenty years ago, the ‘Aiea community asked the Navy for permission to restore the pond, but they did not grant the community access until 2013. At this time, the Navy allocated funds to remove sections of mangrove along the shoreline of Pu‘uloa. Navy archaeologist Jeff Pantaleo selected Loko Pa‘aiau as a site for restoration and reached out to community groups for guidance. The ‘Aiea Community Association, Ali‘i Pauahi Hawaiian Civic Club, and other groups and individuals from the surrounding area collaborated with military officials and families to restore the pond and to plant native species along the banks. Loko Pa‘aiau has become one of a handful of places on the island where locals and members of the military can interact and begin to heal relationships that have been troubled and distant for generations.


22 Kia‘i loko: Fishpond caretakers


Auntie Kehau emphasizes the importance of this interpersonal work in the restoration of Loko Pa‘aiau. “In our [restoration] efforts, it’s not just about the physical return, it is about the spiritual return of aloha—our peace and love for each other…. And aloha doesn’t mean that we condone bad behavior. Aloha means that we never let them leave our heart. And then we can ask, How do we help each other heal? This mission of healing is written into the preservation plan for the pond, and includes partnerships with Tripler Army Medical Center and the Wounded Warriors Project to build a network of healing for all peoples. The leaders of Loko Pa‘aiau have begun to build a small hale</em 23 for ho‘oponoponolomilomi, and la‘au lapa‘au 24 practitioners, along with healers of other traditions. The pond hosts groups of students, military families, and community members. When they visit, they have the opportunity to practice Native Hawaiian protocol for entering into the space, offer prayers at a small altar, and feed the guardian deities of the area.


How did this happen?
How did a whole place become synonymous with war?


We don’t believe that Ka‘ahupāhau is gone,” says Auntie Kehau. “For us, she is not just a physical shark. She has so many manifestations. And in that way, she never dies. She only disappears because we forget. We don’t say her name. We don’t care for the realm around her. That’s our kuleana.” Auntie Kehau and other kia‘i25 who care for the pond offer gifts of ‘uala, kalo, banana, or fish to Ka‘ahupāhau and the other guardians of Pu‘uloa. When I visit, I am invited to make offerings as well. It is dusk and the air is alive with a chorus of nightfall. The sun sinks behind the Wai‘anae Mountains, but there is still enough light to see the deep purple of the ‘uala I hold in my hands. I stand on the berm of the fishpond, looking out at the quiet waters of Pu‘uloa. The shores are thick with mangrove. Farther afield, warehouses, towers, the shadows of industry are silhouetted in the soft orange of the setting sun. I tear a piece of potato and toss it into the water. It is low tide, too shallow for sharks, but a fish tail ripples the skin of the harbor. Behind me in the pond, an ae‘o26 nestles her beak into her black-and-white feathers. Another ae‘o walks by in graceful, back-kneed steps. “There are other birds who visit too, auku‘u27 and kolea,”28 Auntie Kehau says. “They are so forgiving. As soon as we took out the mangrove, they came right back.” I watch this endangered native bird step carefully over the rippling water. The light from the setting sun seems to bend into me. Waves lap gently against the shore, a breath, another breath.


23 Hale: House, building, shelter
24 Ho‘oponopono, Lomilomi, and La‘au lapa‘au: Hawaiian healing practices
25 Kia‘i: Caretaker
26 Ae‘o: Hawaiian stilt
27 Auku‘u: Black-crowned night heron
28 Kolea: Pacific golden plover





For years, I was convinced that the shark goddess was gone. We had broken our sacred covenant and she had left us. For years, I turned Auntie Paulette’s words over in my mind: “She swam out to sea because the waters weren’t clean anymore.” Where did she go? I wondered. And will she ever return? “Ka‘ahupāhau—” I called to her under my breath. I sat on my surfboard and stared down at the deep blue of the water. “Oh, Guardian Shark. Oh, beautiful muscle.” I raised my eyes and set them down again at the horizon. I found parts of myself that were so immense, it was lonely to move within them.

Yet, as I met more and more kia‘i of Pu‘uloa, I began to see Ka‘ahupāhau’s presence in them and their ethos of care and responsibility. All across Pu‘uloa, communities and individuals are working to restore the land and waters—groups like Hui o Ho‘ohonua in West Loch, Pouhala Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, Kupu, and many others. Under their guidance, students grow native cultivars to plant on the shores of Kapapapuhi Point Park. Military volunteers cut and haul away mangrove. A trash dump becomes a refuge for native birds. Thousands of oysters filter pollutants from the water. At Loko Pa‘aiau, caretakers focus on the long view. “It is going to take generations, but the larger vision is that the pond is restored and we can feed people out of it again,” says Kim Moa, a volunteer kia‘i loko. “A lot needs to happen. We need to figure out the water quality issues and make sure it is even safe to go inside the water. But, as we spend more time there, I think about how a place changes a people. How it feeds you even when it’s not necessarily doing it with mea ‘ai.”29

I, too, think about the ways that a place changes a people. Although I do not have a long ancestral bond to this land like many Kanaka Maoli families, I feel shaped by and responsible to this place where I was born. Somewhere deep, I know every element that is me was first this island—the breath of the trade winds sweeping down the Ko‘olau Mountains, the circulation of rain into streams, into aquifer and ocean, the waves that run across the Pacific Ocean to break on this shore. This place has smoothed the rough edges of my temper and eased away my delusions of self and other, knitting me into a community. I remember the ‘ōlelo no‘eau, “Alahula o Pu‘uloa, he alahele na Ka‘ahupāhau—Everywhere in Pu‘uloa is the trail of Ka‘ahupāhau.” And we can still follow that trail. Let it lead us to a deep knowledge of the land and waters of our home. Let it stir in us kuleana—to feed, before we are fed. Let us arrive again in that place of abundance.


29 Mea ‘ai: Food


January 2022 Update:
Read Laurel Nakanishi’s follow up web exclusive: “Voices from the Aquifer.” 


Subscribe to Orion Ad

Laurel Nakanishi grew up on the waters of O‘ahu’s aquifer. She is a poet, educator, and author of the book, Ashore.


No comments yet.

Submit Your Comments

Please Note: Before submitting, copy your comment to your clipboard, be sure every required field is filled out, and only then submit.