Rupert Rowe sits on a log in the only shade found on the southeast corner of Po‘ipū and Ho‘owili roads on Kaua‘i’s South Shore. The sliver of shade comes from the trunk of a felled banyan tree, which if its girth is any indication, once towered over the area.
You could say this is Rowe’s living room, because he spends the better part of his life here these days—ever since he stood at the far corner of the property in 1998 and took one look at the 13-acre site. Back then, piles of rock and an impenetrable tangle of non-native trees the likes of kiawe, Java 7 plum, African tulip and banyan, made it near impossible to see what it could be. Once cleared, it turned out to be an ancient Hawaiian village with remnants of house sites, fish ponds, taro fields, idol sites and, possibly, the most complete sporting arena in the state and all dating back to the mid-1400s. But Rowe immediately knew the place—situated smack in the middle of a popular visitor destination—was special and committed his life to seeing it fully restored. One of Rowe’s favorite sayings is, “You give the past to the future and the future to the present.”
It’s hard to miss Ke Kahua O Kāneiolouma these days as you drive Po‘ipū Road. At the turnoff to Po‘ipū Beach Park, four 16-foot tall ki‘i stand sentry at the intersection. Their appearance in July 2013 made public five year's worth of hard work by Rowe and a team of 25 volunteers.
Rowe wears a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and boots. A long, grey braid curls over his lean shoulder. In a place where visitors lounge on the beach in swimsuits and stoked surfers ride glassy waves, Rowe is dressed for manual labor—eradicating weeds, steadily cutting down invasive trees and rebuilding rock walls.
There are many English translations of “Kāneiolouma,” but the one that has deep meaning for Rowe is “man who pushes and pulls.” The same could be said of Rowe himself. He serves as the po‘o, leader of the restoration.
The work to restore the cultural site may be hard but finding willing hands proved easy for Rowe’s Hui Mālama O Kāneiolouma, the county-appointed steward for the site. Dave Wellman produced a 3D map of the site. Billy Fields stepped up to build a rock perimeter wall. James Kanani Kaulukukui carved the ki‘i. School groups, hula troupes and others have also turned up to help.
“You must have a vision and mission,” Rowe said. “By having the two, you can accomplish what many thought was impossible.” Rowe attributes the success at Kāneiolouma to just that.
When Rowe and his team cleared the brush and weeds alongside the roads, Kāneiolouma seemed to appear overnight. But respected archaeological expert Henry E.P. Kekahuna surveyed the area back in 1959.
“No such thing as a real, truly authentic Hawaiian village of ancient type exists anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands today,” Kekahuna wrote in a report on file at the Hawai‘i State Archives. It took a half-a-century but today, the 104-page master plan for Kāneiolouma follows much of Kekahuna’s vision to create a “genuine Hawaiian village” to serve educational, cultural and tourism needs while preserving and perpetuating ancient Hawaiian culture and history.
One step of that plan includes native plants and Rowe points out the recently planted native koa, kou, noni and kukui trees.
“In the past, people looked down on our culture,” Rowe said. “But today, many come to Hawai‘i to see the culture. They don’t come to see a concrete building. They want to feel the mana.”
The site is not open to the public during restoration, a process that, according to the master plan, will be completed in the next five years. However, a viewing platform with interpretive signage currently allows people a look into the complex and witness the restoration, as well as the return of native water birds, the koloa (duck), nēnē (goose), ‘alae ‘ula (moorhen), ae‘o (stilt) and pueo (owl). Future plans include a cultural center and ongoing cultural activities.
For more information and to contribute to the restoration efforts, visit www.kaneiolouma.org.