Moku’ula [Book Review]

By Nancy Becker

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The story of Moku`ula, the long buried but not forgotten Hawaiian sacred center, is told in a new book, Moku`ula, Maui’s Sacred Island, by P. Christiaan Klieger. The book is published by the Bishop Museum Press as part of its Legacy of Excellence series celebrating Native Hawaiian culture.

This slim, 124-page book, chronicles the story of a sacred place, the lizard goddess who inhabited the site, and the Hawaiian royalty who claimed the sacred center as their enclave. The book also explains Moku`ula’s role in Hawaiian history, its importance to Hawaiian people, both past and present, and its significance to historic preservation. The story of the island begins with the gods and goddesses of Hawaiian origin myths and the sacred mo’o or lizard goddess, Kihawahine, who persists to this day as a “cute, wide-eyed gecko.”

P. Christiaan Klieger is an anthropologist and ethnohistorian who helped direct the archaeological research on the site. We know Moku`ula’s history is in good hands from the first page when the author sensitively explains the multilayered meaning of the Hawaiian word, Moku`ula. “A moku is a division of land, an island, something that is separate or cut. `Ula is one of those complex Hawaiian words possessing manifold meanings, elaborate connotations, and poetic possibilities. `Ula may simply refer to the color red, the redness of the volcanic soils of the islands; or it may signify sacred and royal, red being the royal color, the color of life and fire. `Ula may also mean ghost or spirit.” Klieger goes on to say that the word embodies all of these meanings.

Klieger digs deep into historical sources and the book is filled with first-hand descriptions of the island, of the royal family and their residence and burial place which were built on the island. His careful research makes history come alive. An example is this description of the building of the royal tomb on Moku`ula, “The whole district, men, women, and children, to the number of some thousands, have been engaged this week in carrying stones from the old heiau [Wailehua heiau at Makila], or idolatrous temple…”

A great deal of time is spent describing Hawaiian royal lineage and this could be difficult for some casual readers, but it is necessary to show the extent of Kihawahine’s ability to bestow and enhance the mana or power of the royal line. Kihawahine bound royalty to the sacred island.

Of interest to students of sacred sites is the sacred geography that is explained in this book. Klieger again shows his understanding of Hawaiian sensibilities. Moku`ula is a sacred center, located on Maui, which is the center of the Hawaiian island chain. He also relates the site to other significant landscape features, streams, mountains, and sacred forests. We learn, in addition, the concentric layout that comprises sociopolitical relationships and geography. The king at Moku`ula is in the center, encircled by government and the court then surrounded by chiefs and extended family. The outer rings are comprised of traders and Lahaina commoners and then the whole of the Hawaiian islands.

Moku`ula’s story unfolds, set against the high drama of the era when Christianity was introduced by New England missionaries, the kingdom was dominated by foreign powers, the economy was becoming monitized, land was being commodified, and introduced diseases took their toll on Native Hawaiians. The details of political intrigue emerge through careful scholarship with the aim of telling the true story of Hawaiian tradition before history was purged by missionaries and missionary trained scholars. Klieger makes the point that knowing historical truth is key to the identity of Hawaiians today.

The book follows Moku`ula through the centuries to its present day state buried under a baseball field and parking lot. We also learn about the site’s fascinating rediscovery through archaeology in an appendix that is included. A reader unfamiliar with Hawaiian terms might have benefited from the addition of a more detailed glossary.

The tale of Moku`ula is compelling and a great testament to the memory of this sacred place and the determination of Native Hawaiians to recover their past. Klieger’s Moku`ula makes a fine contribution to this process.

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