By Jeela Ongley
Shad Kane chants a prayer and places a lei at the large ahu, or stone altar, where the remains of 15 people are interred. Ti leaves planted at each of the four corners rustle in the wind while sleek-looking chickens bob and weave around the area. Small planes buzz overhead like droning insects on flight paths coming from Kalaeloa Airport. To the untrained eye, the area looks barren and useless; but this land is sown with secrets.
“What the people that lived here knew, that others did not, is that there is water here,” Kane explains of this land, formerly part of Barbers Point Naval Air Station and future home of the Kalaeloa Heritage Park. The site is a relatively undisturbed, 77-acre parcel with over 177 recorded home, heiau and other habitation sites. We find relief from the sun under a portable gazebo as Kane explains how this area came to be so culturally rich.
The topography of the area offers important context. Stretching along the coast from Pearl Harbor to Wai‘anae, the entire ‘Ewa Plain is an emerged coral reef. Eroded by rain and wind and covered with thin coatings of soil over tens of thousands of years, the land is uneven, tufted and full of crevices, or sinkholes. Also called karsts, these small caves pepper the plain and were important sources of fresh water as well as being agricultural and sacred sites for early inhabitants. For scientists they are time capsules, offering not just evidence of human activity, but rich troves of fossils, many from extinct birds, snails and plants.
It’s not hard to imagine the chickens that have followed us as large, flightless land geese, now extinct, grazing the area like goats before becoming easy prey for early settlers. Kane says there are at least five ancient house sites a stone’s throw away, only one of which has been reclaimed from the brush by volunteer labor. Asked about the most exciting finds in the area, he thinks for a minute.
“It’s not just the structures. It’s really much more than that. I learned … that the cultural history—and I don’t want to say Hawaiian, because there’s questions about that—it’s much older than one would suspect.”
The nearby structures, he explains, are unique in Hawai‘i because they are built entirely of coral in a style markedly different than the tight-fit Hawaiian rock wall construction style. Clustered around sinkholes used for water and agriculture, the ancient walls are built with upright stone slabs filled in with smaller rocks, Tahitian style. A striking feature of the area is a coral slab-paved trail that once ran from the ocean to Kapolei, a pathway Kane likens to the H1 freeway of the day. A nearby heiau, or temple, is characteristic of those found in the area, smaller than the chiefly heiau many people think of and partly underground, as evidenced by the rocky gash of a karst entrance within its walls. Upright stones, now toppled, once stood guard on either side of a raised mound looking into the sinkholes.
Kane’s introduction to the area deftly weaves together the work of modern scientists and scholars, 19th century map-makers and ancient Polynesian genealogies and lore. These sources provide tantalizing evidence that the people who lived for hundreds of years at Kalaeloa were not Hawaiian, but other Polynesian families who probably traveled regularly between Hawai‘i and their far-away homeland.
It’s an astounding synthesis of knowledge from one unassuming man, but Kane’s own story sheds some light. An avid horse-lover, he first explored surrounding areas on horseback, where he saw archeological remains without knowing much about them. He also came to know the area from different vantage, that of a 30-year Honolulu Police Department veteran.
“I was a detective for 10 years, so I was very accustomed to doing research. I transferred that interest from researching criminal activity to researching Hawaiian culture,” he explains. Kane became involved at Kalaeloa when he was invited by the Kapolei Civic Club—a club chartered to give the City of Kapolei a Hawaiian cultural presence—to represent them at a series of community redevelopment commission meetings held as the Barbers Point land was transferred to the state. Archaeologists, cultural experts and scientists shared their knowledge at these meetings, and Kane began making connections.
“I was able to take what I saw in the field on my horse and was able to bring that together with all this information that these people were ready and willing to share with me,” he says with gratitude. “I had access to everything.”
His insights into the area include the spiritual lore of former inhabitants. A practicing Catholic, Kane shares “chicken-skin” stories about the restless spirits Hawaiians believed inhabited the area in a sort of Earthly purgatory. He also has stories about unexplained incidents from when he worked at the Kapolei Police Station. Today he gets calls to attend to seemingly supernatural situations; sometimes he offers blessings, other times referrals to kahu or priests. But he turned down a ghost-hunting television crew looking for material. “It’s not something we need to fear, but it’s something that we need to embrace, because it’s part of our past.”
The vision for the future of the Kalaeloa Heritage Park is grand, including interpretive exhibits, cultural practitioners, native plant restoration and an onsite archeological project. They’ll need donations, grants, expertise and a small army of volunteers to help maintain the site. Now in his late 60s, Kane says matter-of-factly, “I probably won’t be around to see it, but there will be others. There is a lot more to be done.”
Anyone interested in learning more about visiting and volunteering can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (808) 429-7175.