Waipā

Past ritzy Princeville, beyond the trend shops of Hanalei, over one-lane river bridges sits a breathtaking site of luscious greens and deep navy blue mountains. It's a veritable portal to ancient Hawai`i: Waipä.

The legend of Hāloa says that the first Native Hawaiian was born from a kalo – a taro root. Thought to have birthed a stillborn, Wākea (Sky Father) and the Daughter of Mother Earth, Ho‘ohōkūlani, buried their premature son, Hāloanakalaukapalili (quivering long stalk) in a spot that Ho‘ohōkūlani could tend to each day. She kept the area clean and free of all weeds and animals and stirred the mud as if she were tucking Hāloanakalaukapalili in to sleep. Soon, as her tears watered the burial sight, a green leaf poked through and slowly grew into a handsome kalo plant. Delighted by their new blessing, Ho‘ohōkūlani birthed another son and in honor of their first-born they named him Hāloa. Hāloa was strong and healthy. Wākea and Ho‘ohōkūlani told Hāloa that, unlike the normal duties of a younger brother, he needed to take care and watch over his older brother. Hāloa obeyed and tended to Hāloanakalaukapalili and the kalo soon began to grow in abundance. By his hands, the land became fertile and rich in medicinal leaves and nutritious kalo. Hāloa would then go on to forever care for his older brother and the land that provided for him.

Like the story of Hāloa, Native Hawaiian history is richly embedded in its soil. Respect for the land came first before any decisions were made within the ahupua‘a (land divisions). The connection to nature and the fruits of its labor was considered a blessing and honor rather than an expectation. Today, untouched land is hard to find within the islands. Most boast luxurious hotels along powdery beaches and conjure up shopping malls and energy efficient windmills. There are only a few left of what Hawai‘i would have looked like prior to the introduction of invasive species and overpopulation. One place, in particular, is a truly unique diamond amongst the few remaining gems. A place where the land is so sacred, the very name means a requested prayer to the gods. This place, tucked gently along the majestic Hanalei Bay, is known as Waipā.

In 1982, Hanalei residents were stunned to learn that Kamehameha Schools, a private trust fund, had plans to build a gated community on one of the last remaining ahupua‘a in Kaua‘i. Native Hawaiian advocate and repatriation leader LaFrance Kapaka-Arboleda, gathered residents of the North Shore community to inform them of the potential land distribution. Resident David Sproat recalls his reaction to the news.  

“We were all excited to propose another purpose for the land,” says Sproat who was baffled by the lack of knowledge that the lease-owners had of the 1,600 acre watershed. “They had some lots in rivers, streams and swamps up the sides of mountains… it just didn’t make sense. It wasn’t practical. They had no idea of the lay of the land and quite frankly I don’t think they cared.”

Motivated to do “something” other than watch another native land be taken away by greed and profit-driven corporations, leaders within the community began to rally together. Then, like any other movement, says Sproat, Waipā started with a lot of “energy and enthusiasm.” Residents instead proposed an idea of transforming the luscious valley into a non-profit organization dedicated to provide a hands-on cultural learning center for the community. As Kamehameha Schools’ sole mission is to perpetuate the land for the sake of Native Hawaiian people, Sproat stressed the importance of the resident’s opinions for the use of the ahupua‘a.

“We had discussions and we asked them,” says Sproat, a Kamehameha Schools graduate himself who wanted to create a place where all children could have access to learn about Native Hawaiian culture. “Why not use this land to educate and reach out to people instead of making it into a place that will be closed off to the community? It was really a ‘for-profit’ organization back then so it was hard to negotiate our idea to transform it into a non-profit… Waipā, however, was ever more important to build and create for the kids who didn’t stand a chance of getting into Kamehameha Schools.”

A private organization founded by the late Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop during a time of imperialistic corruption and eventually the overthrow of the royal monarchy, Kamehameha Schools was built from a trust fund that would ensure the fortitude of Hawai‘i’s Native Hawaiian people. As long as the child is of Native Hawaiian blood, he or she would be given the right to attend Kamehameha Schools. The problem, however, is that the competition to “get in,” says Sproat, was excruciatingly difficult. Sproat didn’t realize how fortunate he was to attend Kamehameha until he would hear from his mother, a teacher in the North Shore of Kaua‘i, about the countless children who would try and fail to attend each year.   

Along with representatives from each major family within the Hanalei district, Sproat became one of the initial board members and founders of the Waipā Foundation. After four dragged on years of heated negotiations, debates, meetings and discussions, Kamehameha Schools finally granted the lease over and accepted the idea to transform the ahupua‘a into a hands-on educational facility. But the battle of their vision, says Sproat, had only just begun.

“We were just community people with jobs and families,” laughs Sproat. “We didn’t have a lot of resources to turn to. So it was a struggle for all of us. A lot of people had to step back because it was becoming too much to handle.”

From 1986 to 2000, Waipā was under many watchful eyes to produce results – with almost zero funds – as a for-profit organization formally known as the Hawaiian Farmers of Hanalei. Although Sproat says they were “lucky” to have gotten the lease prior to the notorious controversies and shamed politics of the “old board of trustees,” land agents would still come and “see what [they] were doing” from time to time. If not for the many helpful hands of volunteers, Waipā would not be where it is today.

“It was definitely a challenge to get everyone on the same page,” says Sproat. “But in the end, as a whole group, we had tremendous support from the community who believed in what we were doing.”

What they had started doing was making poi. Bags and bags of poi. Set on a 35-year lease with a probation of 10 years to produce weekly pounds of the Native Hawaiian staple, Waipā had found their niche and foundation to help Kaua‘i families from all over the island, especially within the Hanalei district.

“The bay itself has turned into a haven for the rich,” says Sproat. “Waipā is inclusive not exclusive. It’s a place for people and families to come to and feel connected to each other and the land again.”

Families are an insurmountable part to the success of Waipā including Sproat’s own daughter Stacy Sproat-Beck. A long-time volunteer at Waipā, Sproat-Beck became the executive director in 1994 when Sproat accepted the position of Kaua‘i Fire Chief. At the time, Sproat-Beck had just settled back home after graduating with a business degree from the University of Southern California and thought it would be the “ultimate opportunity to help restore an entire watershed.”  The ahupua‘a definitive boundary line from the mountain peaks of Mamalahoa to Hanalei Bay.

“There were not many opportunities for young people here who [leave] to get an education and want to do something other than work in the visitor industry,” she says.  “When I moved home, I decided I needed to create something for myself to do as well as for other people who want to come back and work with the community.”

Today Sproat-Beck manages Wāipa with the help of nearly 20 full-time and part-time employees and countless volunteers. Along with their poi distribution on Thursdays, Waipā hosts organic and Hawaiian plant gardens; a weekly farmer’s market; annual food and music festivals; a koa reforestation site; a coastal fishpond and nursery; the Waipā Stream Restoration Project; a visitor culinary tour; and the recent $2.8 million construction project to build a community kitchen, poi mill and hale imu (underground oven), which will serve as a support system for local farmers and food vendors.

Among the many contributions of Waipā, one of Sproat-Beck’s favorite is to provide educational opportunities for children. Thousands have come through to help tend the fields of taro, learn about Native Hawaiian history and the importance of their contributions to the environment. 

“We love the kids that come and learn about Waipā,” smiles Sproat-Beck. “They come with an open heart to the hands-on learning that takes place. There’s an importance to share our history and culture with our keiki (children). We need to pass it down to each generation so they may take over one day.”

Veteran volunteer Neil McManus has seen the tremendous transformation of Waipā and its efforts to strengthen the community. As a farmer himself in the subdivision of the Sproat’s hometown of Kalihiwai, McManus knows all too well the efforts of resiliency that Waipā has had to endure over the years. 

“You got to give up everything you want to do when it comes to taro farming,” says McManus, a retired U.S. merchant marine who volunteers on Poi Day and “any time” they need his help on the grounds. “The taro needs to be pulled or planted, weeded, the water needs to be tended to or let down, fertilization, tilling… there are a lot of aspects. You can’t just let nature take its course. It needs to be taken cared of and nurtured.”

If McManus could centralize a theme of Waipā to others, it would have to be “selfless participation.” He notices all the volunteers of Waipā have an understanding that their “contribution doesn’t always require a return.”

“People come with a sense of wanting to help without an expectation,” says McManus. “I’m so happy to see this place in existence and the efforts of people to help the land sustain itself and create a sense of community.”

Waipā – a collaborative community, “thanks to my boss,” says Sproat proudly – has grown into a place that’s rich in history, ideals and values of their kupuna (elders). A place for those to come and stay in touch with the land.

The recent passing of original Waipā board member Catherine Ham-Young Pfeffer, has confirmed the insoluble bond between the community’s past and its limitless future. As 2,000 people gathered at Waipā to say their farewells, Sproat went over to a bunch of his staff members and said, “this is what it’s all about.”

“It felt like a place that people could feel good about and be a part of the community,” says Sproat. “It was like a dream coming true.”