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by Karoline Cullen
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

"Huli!" The command to switch sides is quickly followed by "Imua, imua!" "Go, go!" I change my paddle from left to right, thankfully not dropping it in the process, and lean into a furious stroke. The call "Hoe h?pi!" or "Paddles up!" brings welcome relief to burning shoulder muscles. The outrigger catches the crest of the wave, speeds up, and we're rapidly surfing towards the shore.

I am one of six paddlers in an outrigger canoe off the shore of Kihei, Maui.

(photo 1)

The waters are calm, sea turtles swim around the canoe, and we stop for a short lomi lomi massage break on shore. Not only are we getting our morning exercise paddling, we are learning about the cultural traditions of the once royal Ko'ie'ie Fishpond. Our guide Vene is the Fishpond Protector or Guardian. Who better to teach us about the ways of the ancients?

(photo 2)

After gleefully catching the wave for our short canoe surf, he carefully navigates the canoe through an opening in the lava rock wall of the pond. As he does so, he explains how fishponds work. Walls of stones and boulders are built higher than the highest tide and an opening in the walls is fitted with a wooden sluice gate with vertical spaces between the slats. Small fish pass into the pond through the openings and feed on the algae and seaweed. Once fish grow larger than the spaces between the slats they cannot escape. Pond stocks can then be carefully maintained and harvested for both subsistence and ceremonial purposes.

(photo 3)

We slow our canoe and clamber over the sides into the waist deep water to better inspect the walls. The bottom of the pond feels slick with algae and silt oozes between my toes. The pond is about 500 years old. Legend tells of it being built by Menehune, Hawaii's mythical people of extraordinary powers. In reality, over 10,000 people worked on its last reconstruction. Chiefs were considered wealthy if they had many loko i'a or fishponds in their jurisdiction. Some, like this one, were reserved strictly for ali'i or royal use.

When Captain Cook came to Hawaii in the late 1700s, there were more than three hundred and fifty fishponds, feeding thousands. By 1900, there were less than one hundred ponds, and at the start of the 21st century, there were less than four. In Cook's time, there were about one million Hawaiians and they were self-sustaining. The land was divided from the highlands to the sea according to a system called ahupua'a. Every inhabitant was assured access to water, food, building materials and natural medicines. Today there are about 1.4 million Hawaiians and they import ninety per cent of what they need. Vene sadly shakes his head at this decline in self-sustenance.

The fishpond restoration project was started by Vene's uncle who wants to reintroduce some of that long lost ancient culture and wisdom. He convinced Vene to join his pursuit even though the way to achieving that goal and how it would be funded was not always clear. His uncle advised "Whatever you put in, you'll get out." Initially, grant money was scarce. Now the project has gained momentum and the roster of volunteers and funding sources has grown.

(photo 4)

Interrupting his tale, Vene sloshes over to a volunteer who comes from New York annually to work on the fishpond. Together they barely manage lifting a meter diameter lava rock into place. On community work days, many muscles strain as massive boulders are passed hand to hand. Smaller rocks fill the gaps and stabilize the construction. Vene reverently claims every stone carries the power of the ancestors, which may explain why many are drawn to work on the walls. The pond covers about three acres and is almost two meters deep in spots. There is a lot of wall yet to build. Vene's passion for his culture shines in all he does. While strumming a ukulele, chanting a paddle rhythm, explaining the symbolism of a flower, or blowing a conch salute to the four ends of the earth, his broad smile radiates love and respect for the ancient ways. In parting, he translates. "Ha" is the breath of life: "Wai" is water, the source of life; " I" is the spirituality of life. "Don't forget," he insists, "When you put them together as the ancients did, you have the essences of Hawai'i."

(photo 5)


Ko'ie'ie Fishpond


As attributed below

1 author ready to paddle (G. Cullen photo)

2 fishpond guardian Vene (K. Cullen photo)

3 canoe near fishpond walls (G. Cullen photo)

4 volunteer heaving rocks (G. Cullen photo)

5 Vene and the author (G. Cullen photo)

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