maui hawaiian village: a cultural gem in waihe‘e valley

MHVillage_haleNestled within verdant Waihe‘e Valley is Maui Hawaiian Village, where you can step back in time and experience early Hawaiian life up close and personal. Property owner Joshua Chavez has partnered with the Hewahewa family, longtime Waihe‘e Valley residents, to provide an opportunity to share the traditions and values of the Hawaiian culture that sustained life for generations through food, shelter, clothing, and medicine.

Janet and I are greeted at the Kahului Park & Ride lot by spunky Janai Kealoha, who drives us to the Village in a luxury air-conditioned van. Janai tells us we’ll be visiting the site of a seventh-generation family taro farm in West Maui, an area that’s often referred to as the “breadbasket of the island.”

After a 30-minute drive, we disembark and are greeted by two of our guides for the morning, Kepa and Ka‘awa, as well as Kaniloa Kamauno, through whose property we will traverse on foot to get to the Village. Kaniloa grew up in this valley. He tells us Waihe‘e is different from other moku (districts) because it was known for the ali‘i (chiefs), in particular Kamehameha The Great’s favorite wife, Ka‘ahumanu, who designated Waihe‘e as a place of refuge from war. Kaniloa says at night Waihe‘e Valley is peaceful and quiet, with a blanket of luminous stars overhead, and so dark you can’t see your hands in front of your face.

Kepa, who’s dressed in a traditional malo (loincloth), points the way to the Village, and tells us we will hike approximately 20 minutes. We walk through Kaniloa’s lo‘i kalo (taro patch), then head up a trail that’s been etched through the grasses that grow in abundance in this lush rainforest valley. We hear the Waihe‘e River, one of Na Wai ‘Eha (The Four Great Waters), surging nearby.

At the end of the trail is the first of three hale (traditional thatched-roof shelters) that have been constructed at the Village. Kepa tells us it’s Hawaiian tradition to announce your arrival and intentions (known as “protocol”). “It’s like calling Grandma to find out what’s for dinner and ask if you can wash your clothes at her house,” he quips. We’re joined by Kawika, who intones an oli (chant). A young family—Kekoa, Kahaku, and baby Kaihe, also dressed in traditional garb—emerge from the hale and intone an answering oli welcoming us to their “home.”

At the farthest hale, called Hale Kuku (to pound), Kahaku treats us to a kapa-making demonstration. She explains the bark from paper mulberry makes the best kapa (cloth), and that the Hawaiians made the finest kapa in the world. Hawaiians were the most creative kapa-makers also. “Hawai‘i was the only culture in the world where geometric stamps were made from bamboo, which told mo‘olelo [stories],” she says. “Kapa dyes were also unique to Hawai‘i,” she continues. “Hawaiians used a variety of roots, leaves, flowers, and bark to produce beautiful colors in their kapa.”

To make kapa, raw bark is fermented in salt water to bleach it, then it’s pounded repeatedly to increase the size of the piece. In ancient times only women were allowed to make kapa, but the men made the pounding tools. “Every tool made a different, unique tone, so you could tell who was making kapa that particular day,” says Kahaku. To illustrate, Kahaku enlists a keiki on the tour to pound kapa with her. The rhythmic sound produced by the tools is mesmerizing. Kahaku tells us women chanted while making kapa, and that they weren’t satisfied until a piece was perfect—no holes or tears. She deftly demonstrates the technique for repairing a hole: you just keep working the fabric with your implement until the fibers meld together and the hole magically disappears.

Ka‘awa takes a moment to teach us the true meaning of the word “aloha.” “Alo means presence,” he says, “while ha is breath. Aloha is a way of living in harmony and treating each other with love and respect.”

We move on to the second structure—Hale Ku‘i Kalo (poi pounding)—where we find Kawika already in the process of making poi. Kekoa explains poi was the staple food in the ancient Hawaiian diet. “Fish, limu, and shellfish were considered ‘side dishes,’” he explains. “Poi provides complete nutrition,” he continues. “And not just the leaves and root. The milk that the taro plant produces contains a high concentration of calcium.”

Kawika is combining cooked taro with water and pounding it into what’s called pa‘i‘ai, a substance with the consistency of stiff dough. Kekoa says Hawaiian men put pa‘i‘ai in ti leaves to take with them while fishing and hunting. Speaking of men, while kapa making was relegated to only the women, in ancient times men did all the poi pounding. To make poi, pa‘i‘ai is mixed with more water to form the smooth consistent paste we’re all familiar with.

Kekoa tells us taro is considered the ancestor of Hawaiians, and tradition prohibits speaking poorly of one another while consuming poi. “It would be like talking smack about your tutu,” he jokes.

At the other side of the hale, Kahaku demonstrates the craft of making cordage. “Ancient Hawaiians had no nails until the missionaries brought them,” she says. “So Hawaiians used cordage for fishing lines, canoe ropes, and to bring down large trees in order to make canoes.” Cordage was made with braided coconut fibers and twisted hau bark. Kahaku demonstrates the technique for twisting hau bark on your leg. “Now you can see why Hawaiian men had no hair on their legs,” she says with a laugh.

We move on to Hale Mea Hawai‘i (Hawaiian things), where there are interesting displays of Hawaiian tools and photos of days gone by.

We follow Ka‘awa down to Waihe‘e River, who discusses the significance of Na Wai ‘Eha (The Four Great Waters), and how much of Maui’s water goes to making sugar cane. He says the entire island of O‘ahu, which doesn’t produce sugar cane, uses 100 million gallons of water per day. By comparison, much smaller Maui utilizes 400 million gallons per day. I find this astonishing, and it deepens my understanding of the ongoing struggle between Maui’s taro farmers and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company over our precious water resources.

We’ve reached the end of the tour, and Kepa blows what I first think is a pu, but it’s actually a pu ‘ohe (bamboo trumpet) which he says Kekoa made. Kepa tells me a family’s pu is passed down from generation to generation. “Our family doesn’t have a pu, but we have this pu ‘ohe instead,” he explains.

Kepa blows the pu ‘ohe one more time to announce our departure, and we hike the 20 minutes back to Janai and our van. Janet and I reflect on the loina (Hawaiian values) the Hewahewa family has so generously shared with us this morning. Maui Hawaiian Village is an amazing and authentic cultural experience on the island, not to be missed!

–heidi pool


­­WHAT •

Maui Hawaiian Village, a unique opportunity to experience early Hawaiian life up close and personal. The two-hour ‘Aina Tour costs $99, and the three-hour ‘Aina Nui Tour costs $129.


On private property in Waihe‘e Valley. Meet at the Kahului Park & Ride lot to be driven to the Village.


Tours on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.


244-2221; Note that online bookings must be made at least two days in advance.


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