I started learning about Papahanaumokuakea when I was a 22-year-old senior at Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at UH Hilo. I can still remember listening to the Kumu of our Ola Na Iwi research class, Kalani Makekau-Whittiker, speak with passionate excitement about Kekuewa Kikiloi’s dissertation that revealed the names of these elder atolls, reefs, bays, and shoals to the northwest of our main eight islands, saved throughout time and space in the written words of Kanaka ‘Oiwi keeper of knowledge, Kaiʻaikawaha. I can still remember listening to Kekuewa present his research with such deep reverence for this ʻaina. I can still remember the feeling of coming home to myself and my mauli as I learned more and more about Kuaihelani. We were charged with the kuleana of researching the ancestral name of what we know today as Midway Atoll. We could choose what kind of resources we wanted to delve into so thus my hoa papa, my classmates, and I dove into the vast sea of Hawaiian Language Newspapers, into our legends, stories, songs, and chants. I chose to focus my research on Kanikau, sacred lamentation chants uttered at the passing of loved ones. These chants are beautifully composed dirges, often times reaching hundreds of lines, that honor the transition from life to death with reverence so deep and profound that it only be described it in our language. I found myself completely immersed in the brilliantly crafted poetry and prose that my eyes met with every single day our research unfolded. I read the Mo’olelo Ka’ao of Keaomelemele and began to dream in kaʻao. I can still remember a dream I had where I all I could hear were voices speaking ʻōlelo Hawai’i in a way that we don’t speak it today and a piece of an ʻolena dyed kapa floating in the tide of a whitewashed ocean in its winter season. I am only now seeing that that wasn’t just a dream. It was showing it me where I was going to go back to before I even knew I was going to make the journey into pō in more than one season of my life.
It is so incredible to be able to look back now and still remember what it felt like to board the plane to Kuaihelani after a semester of learning as much as we could about our beloved kupuna islands. Aulani Wilhelm, who was leading the charge at NOAA at the time (**can someone please check what her position was there), and who was not new to the realm of Papahanaumokuakea accompanied us on this journey. I went over and sat next to her and began to ask her some questions about her time out here. I was so intrigued by the stories she shared. I felt an ember beginning to glow inside of me, bringing to light a deep desire to see the lands she spoke about. I asked her what her favorite of the islands was and without blinking an eye she said, “Holaniku,” and the sound of that powerful name felt like lightning flashing through my DNA, and without a blink of an eye I said, “I want to go there one day,” as we passed over the divine boundary lines of ao and pō, where Moku Manamana still stands in the Waialoha winds. I didn’t know it then, but kupuna heard me at a time when I still remember how to hear them.
Our time on Kuaihelani was magical. Memories of chanting to the sunset, adorned in our kīhei, still come to me when I watch sunsets from wherever my feet find me in the world. Our eyes were wide open, bright, and astonished at everything we saw. It was like seeing through our ancestor’s eyes. We swam with more fish than we have ever seen and alongside lālākea sharks who were well fed. We stood at the edge of one of the many piers and saw a hīhīmanu with a wingspan that matched a Kaʻupu, flying through the clear turquoise waters and I couldn’t help but cry at the beauty. When I look back now, I see just how young I was, how young we all were, and how much we all were trying to repair our identities as Kanaka ‘Ōiwi people by continuing to speak our language in a world that tried to erase it. I look back and see us as warriors, standing at the shoreline, continuing to dream of an easier pathway for the ones to come to walk upon. I didn’t realize just how brave we were back then and I’m still receiving lessons from my time there.
Just a short while after I returned from Kuaihelani, I received an email from my dear hoapapa who I traveled to Kuaihelani with, Kanoe’ulalani Morishige. It was a forwarded message from DLNR looking for an emergency hire to go to Holaniku for a 7-month winter camp. Without a blink of my eye, I responded and applied. And by the grace of the ancestors, I was chosen to go and I found myself packing for my next journey. This journey shaped me like the wind shapes the pali of Hamakua and it aligned me on the course I am now of my life. Ten, almost eleven years later, I find myself back here with my sister, Kapulei and I have no doubt in my heart and in my core that the ancestors laid this pathway for us to walk upon. I place my hands on the earth and my voice to the heavens every day in honor of that incredibly beautiful and sacred gift.
My back and my knees remind me daily that I am no longer 22 years old and my heart reminds me of how far I’ve come since the last time I was here. I find myself learning more and more about the recent human history of this powerful grandmother land and after a decade of standing for Mauna Kea, it is very hard to turn my head to the heartbreaking injustices that have happened in Papahanaumokuakea while our nation suffered the collective heartbreak of the illegal annexation of Hawai’i to the illegally occupying US. I no longer acknowledge this atoll by the foreign name a Russian navigator, Captain Kure, proclaimed it to be. That name could never ever encompass the mana of this land and it never will. I believe so deeply in calling these lands by the names passed down by Kai’aikawaha and placed by Kekuewa Kikiloi. These names are as old as time and you can feel it when you say them out loud. These lands have been waiting for us to say their names out loud. They have been waiting for us to find our way back here to help to heal with them. They have been waiting to hear our language chanted across these ancient currents. They have been waiting for us to remember them. Calling them by their rightful names acknowledges their mana and in turn, shows your respect for their mana.
I invite you to say their names, to use their names when you speak of them, when you write about them, when scientific research is done on and about them.
I invite you to say their names and to read Kekukewa’s dissertation – Rebirth of an Archipelago to deepen your understanding of why this is so important.
I invite you to feel these names in your chests, in your hearts, and in your minds.
I invite you to listen to the way they sound when they meet the air.
I invite you to record that feeling in your core and in your cells.
So that they may continue to live on.
So that we may continue to live on too.
Mokumanamana also known as Ha’ena – Formerly known as Necker Island
Lalo – Formerly known as French Frigate Shoals
Onunui and Onuiki – Formerly known as Gardiner Pinnacles
Ka Moku o Kamohoali’i – Formerly known as Maro Reef
Kamole – Formerly known as Laysan Island
Kapou- Formerly known as Lisianski Island
Manawai – Formerly known as Pearl & Hermes Atoll
Kuaihelani – Formerly known as Midway Atoll
Holaniku – Formerly known as Kure Atoll
E ola Papahanaumokuakea!
E ola Holaniku!
I offer these words to you as I fasten my ʻolena dyed kapa around the kīhei of Hale Haumea that sits on my shoulder.
na Hawane Pa’a Makekau
La 21 o Kepakemapa 2022