For most people, it’s just another popular tourist destination. A 700-acre valley of pristine wetlands with side cliffs reaching almost 2,000 feet high, hundreds of cascading waterfalls, not to mention it’s home to one of Hawai‘i’s most secluded surf spots located on a beautiful black sand beach. It’s like heaven on earth. But for the local people of Honoka‘a it is so much more, it’s home; it’s culture. It’s their playground, their icebox, their everything.
So, naturally, when the interdependent community caught wind that the state of Hawaii was looking into buying leased land in the area, their reaction was one of surprise and confusion. Already coping with issues of trespassing from the influx of uninformed visitors, the community banded together to form a unified voice with a mission in mind — to ensure the preservation of the culture and that the historical natural landscape rests in the hands of those who know it best.
According to gohawaii.com, a Hawaii Tourism Authority website, Waipi‘o is the largest and most southern of the seven valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains and is located on the northern portion of the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast. The road into the valley is very steep and is estimated at a 25 percent grade that only a four-wheel drive vehicle can handle. The road gains over 800 vertical feet in 0.6 miles and is said to be the steepest road of its length in the United States and possibly the world.
Waipi‘o stretches a mile wide at the coastline and almost six miles deep into the back of the valley. The serene Waipi‘o River winds its way to the ocean, living up to its name, “curved water.” Visitors are attracted to the valley’s abundant foliage, wild terrain and waterfalls. But within the land, the history of the Hawaiian people is still very much alive today.
Waipi‘o Valley is known as the Valley of Kings, and previously was home to Hawaiian ali’i (royalty). It was also the location of the ancient grass palace of the kings of Hawaii and known for its nioi (beach cherry) stands. Only those with a righteous lifestyle were allowed to ascend the sacred platform of the high chief Liloa. Liloa was a righteous ruler in the 1300’s with multitudes of descendants. Historical and cultural sites are also found throughout the valley, including countless burial sites.
Signs at Waipi‘o’s entrance attempt to educate visitors about the sacred history of the land, with one reading “these sites are protected so please DO NOT DISTURB!” But an explosion of unwarranted exposure through tourism websites, bloggers and travel books has increased traffic in the valley. More and more, people are found driving their all-terrain vehicles on the beach, getting lost by the waterfalls and trespassing.
Valley native Darren Gamayo said many visitors accessing the beach have been unaware of what lies beneath the sand. “The past few years, they’ve been finding white particles on the beach,” said Gamayo. “They took some of those particles to a university and realized that those were actually bone fragments…”
It’s these issues and more that had politicians on Oahu working in support of State senate bill 3063. According to an article in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald on April 8, 2014, SB 3063 aimed at creating an avenue for the purchase of land in the valley from the Bishop Museum and established a working group to address issues of preservation. According to the article, many members of the proposed working group were business or government-affiliated representatives. Valley residents were quoted as being largely caught off guard and wondering what would happen to their leased land and the valley as a whole if the state were to one day acquire it.
Local surfer John Fero said that’s one reason why he wants to raise awareness about the area’s history. “These lands were set aside for the preservation and conservation of our culture,” said Fero. “I’m not talking about the typical misinterpreted ritualistic ceremonial culture, it was set aside to preserve the practical side of our people – fishing, farming, stewardship of the land and everything she has to offer.”
According to Bishop Museum’s web site, Charles Reed Bishop founded the organization in 1889 in honor of his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of the royal Kamehameha family. The Museum was established to house the extensive collection of Hawaiian artifacts and royal family heirlooms of the Princess, and has expanded to include millions of artifacts, documents and photographs about Hawaii and other Pacific island cultures. Today, Bishop Museum is the largest museum in the state and the premier natural and cultural history institution in the Pacific, recognized throughout the world for its cultural collections, research projects, consulting services and public educational programs. It also has one of the largest natural history specimen collections in the world.
As reported by an article in the Hilo-daily newspaper published April 15, 2014, SB 3063 successfully made its way through the House and Senate, but was killed per the community’s request. Both the bill’s language and the lack of community input seemed to raise a lot of questions for stakeholders in the valley.
Jesse Keone Potter, president of the nonprofit group Pohaha I Ka Lani, an organization that works to preserve and restore indigenous Hawaiian culture, assists his wife, Kulia Kauhi Tolentino, with her educational outreach program in the valley. The Potter-Tolentinos lease their land from Bishop Museum and their parcels are located in the Nāpo’opo’o region of Waipi‘o Valley. The area is a wahi pana (special place), with rich history and more than 400 terraced rock wall enclosures that date back to 1200-1800 A.D. Their work preserves these structures and teaches students at local high schools and volunteers about traditional Hawaiian farming practices, focusing on kalo (taro) production, while educating others of the mana (power) of the area.
And with their leased land being located on a the direct path to Hi’ilawe Falls, Hawaii’s tallest waterfall that cascades down 1,300 feet in the back of Waipio, the non-profit has faced challenges with random hikers, tour groups, and visitors trespassing on their way to visit Hi’ilawe.
Potter was quoted in the April 8 article saying that’s one reason the bill struck a chord with him. According to the article, one part of the bill read “the Legislature further finds that the acquisition of privately owned lands or interests in lands in Waipio Valley would enhance public access to and permanent protection of these resources.” He spoke out against the enhance public access portion, recommending it be removed and that the language focusing on the protection of the valley’s resources be moved up in the bill. Eventually, SB 3063 was deferred, and the Waipi‘o community quickly organized their association, creating different sectors to help solve the problems from the ground up, local surfers included.
“With the surfers, they might go on the recreational side of the valley,” said Gamayo. “They can come in as part of the community association and malama (take care) the beach and control the area.”
And according to Fero, that’s exactly what they intend to do. “Waipi’o is, was and always will be a gathering place, a place where differences don’t matter,” Fero exclaims. “Waipi’o loves sharing and showing off her beauty and regardless of what any piece of paper, land holders or anyone says, she belongs to everyone that is willing to take care of her.”
Bishop Museum owns approximately 530 acres of land in the valley, and currently leases to 46 individuals. Some valley residents are still waiting with baited breath for their leases to be approved. Until then, valley residents are linking together, holding community meetings to discuss options for a new working group and future possibilities for the valley. With Waipi’o truly being one of the last places on earth where one can genuinely escape from the outside world, local residents, farmers and surfers believe they are the premium stewards of the land and its water resources. As the Hawaii state motto goes, “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono,” the life of the land shall be preserved in righteousness.
For more information on how you can help with the preservation and restoration of the Hawaiian culture in Waipi’o Valley, visit www.pohahaikalani.com.
Author Shawn Pila took a very sensitive approach in writing this article. He met with the valley community members prior to entering and visiting the land, and honored the wishes of those whom did not wish to be involved in shedding limelight on such a sacred and secret place. It was his intention to publish this article in Freesurf Magazine in order to raise awareness about SB 3063, and help give a voice to all the Waipi‘o Valley Ohana.