By returning to a backcountry lifestyle at the now defunct Waihe’e Valley Country Club, on Maui, a group of friends reconnect with their ancestors to further understand who they are.
Legend and tradition grew up about the hills and valleys of Hawaii. The urge for deep-sea adventure decreased and interest narrowed to the coastal seas. Voyaging canoes ceased to sail out from the channel of Ke Ala-i-Kahiki (The Road-to-Tahiti) and trim their course for the Equator. The long sea voyages of the northern rovers had ended—Hawaii had become home.
– Te Rangi Hīroa, Vikings of the Sunrise, 1938
“We are trying in any way possible to get back to how our ancestors had lived and flourished,” Miki‘ala Pua‘a Freitas says one night in her rural valley home, the subtle sound of the river flowing in the background. In December 2018, she had moved from her farm into the valley where her father and kūpuna had lived and left behind a shack, lo‘i kalo, choke mosquitos, overgrown cane grass, and an ineffable peace. She jokingly calls it the Waihe‘e Valley Country Club, a place on Maui where friends of hers from throughout Hawai‘i gather to work, share, appreciate, learn, see, and value the world like those who understood this place better than anyone else. A sign from the defunct country club from which the name originated is nailed to the entrance of the shack.
Before arriving in Hawai‘i, Polynesians were largely defined by their oceanic courage and ingenuity. Their homes and cultures revolved around the ocean. The god of the ocean, Kanaloa, was one of the highest gods in the Polynesian pantheon, and canoes as well as paddles were dedicated to him.
But after long voyages from Henua Enata (Marquesas), Samoa, Tahiti, and Ra‘iātea, the settlers in the Hawaiian archipelago found something that made them dig into the valleys and turn their eyes, once drawn to the ocean-lined horizon, to that of mountain ranges.
The god of the land and forest, Kāne, and of peace and agriculture, Lono, grew in importance as the people’s roots grew deeper into this ‘āina. As a result, wa‘a moana (deep-sea ocean canoes) disappeared until the Hawaiian Renaissance inspired the construction of the Hōkūle‘a in 1975.
Below: Watch a video of a day in the life at Waihe’e Valley Country Club by Brendan George Ko.
The life-nourishing promise of Hawai‘i heavily influenced the ancestors who decided to stay here. They introduced kalo, ‘ulu, and ‘uala, which grew plentifully in the rich volcanic soils. Individual tribes transitioned into families within districts, and entire islands came to be ruled by powerful chiefs.
Nā maka‘āinana (the commoners) worked the land in exchange for free places to live and grow with the trees and change as the rivers slowly shaped the valleys.
This pace of life existed for so long that, even with European contact and the rapid change in Hawai‘i Nei that followed, it was kept deep in the memory of nā maka‘āinana. Through the surviving stories and practices and the persistence of genetic memory, the ways of old survived.
In the modern era, commoners were removed from their ancestral valleys from the results of The Great Māhele, and later by private development and the tourism industry. They worked the plantations, and then hotels, airports, and other Western occupations for monetary subsistence.
Many moved off-island to places throughout North America due to housing shortages and an ever-increasing cost of living. Buried were the ways of old, in which no money was exchanged and the word mahalo didn’t exist (for to receive is to have earned already, no need to say thanks).
Those who descended from Polynesian voyagers survived to see their way of life replaced by a system of capitalism and landownership completely foreign to these islands. Their population became the minority and their cultural identity was on the brink of extinction.
At Waihe‘e Valley Country Club, some of us are learning, and some of us are relearning, what is deeply ingrained in our DNA—that deep memory unbroken from the great change that has happened. Many of us simply drop by to work or bring things for family dinners, or simply to say hi to Freitas and her dog, Mo‘o, the permanent fixtures of the club.
One night, a friend of Freitas, a young fisherman named Mikey, came by with freshly caught fish and ‘opihi. We started a fire, drank some beers, and ate the fruits of the sea as the moon crept from makai to mauka. Holding an empty shell of an ‘opihi took Freitas back to her childhood, when she would find shells buried in the ground by previous generations.
“When I was a little kid, cleaning the yard or planting a tree, we were so inland that whenever I would find ‘opihi shells, whether it was my grandparent, or my great-grandparent, or great-great-great-grandparent, whoever it was, somebody was enjoying them in this exact spot and chucked it out. That always made me giggle,” she said as she threw the shell into the fire.
Now in her 30s, Freitas is returning to her roots after living abroad and working as a personal trainer. By returning to that kua‘āina (backcountry) lifestyle reminiscent of her kūpuna, she wants to further understand who she is. She wants to work with her hands in the very valleys they once worked.
Spirit of Ancestor
The spirit of those ancestors imbue their mana in the valley and look after her as she makes this journey. The signs of their presence are uncanny, as are the challenges they set forth to transform those who seek their ways of life and their perspectives. Those of us who come here from other occupations imagine maka‘āinana working the lo‘i kalo, cutting down the cane, and bathing in the cool rivers with a romance of a bygone era.
When we visit, we get muddy and shed some blood and sweat. But to live this life daily is far from romantic.
What made those seafaring people find home here? To look back to those ancient times is to realize our ancestors never needed anything from the outside world, and so they ceased to voyage beyond the horizon.
The fortunate few who still have land left to them can dig their roots in those backcountry lots and return to the ways of the old, acting as conduits to the past.
As Freitas gazes upon the ‘opihi shells among the glowing embers, she says, “I wanted to put them back into the ground, and maybe in 30, 40, 50, 80 years from now, someone will find them and say, ‘Oh, these are some nice-size ‘opihi, they were eating good!’”