Heritage park shows how life used to be lived on the Ewa plain

Honolulu Star Advertiser - October 3, 2016
Jayna Omaye

At the Kalaeloa Heritage Park, there is a story about almost everything.

From the ancient coral structures to the ti plants, there are features that paint a picture of the subsistence lifestyle of people who inhabited the Ewa plain more than 600 years ago.

Much of the land at the sprawling 77-acre park, nestled between two runways at the Kalaeloa Airport and about a mile mauka of White Plains Beach, is covered in kiawe trees and other vegetation. The ground is packed with dirt and mulch, and logs and upright stones mark trails of historic sites.

As planes roared overhead and roosters crowed near a large structure, Shad Kane, a volunteer docent, wiped the sweat off of his head — he had been working on the park grounds and politely excused himself for a quick change of clothes prior to beginning a one-hour tour.

He returned in a colorful blue aloha shirt and jeans to lead a tour group around 6 acres of the park that was cleared of vegetation and now open to the public. Kane recounted that several large white rocks placed in a circle surrounding a small grassy area tell the story of villagers huddled together listening to their elders lead prayers. He pointed out how a sinkhole in the ground where a large ti plant sprouts shows how residents cleverly tapped into the aquifer. Remnants of a small coral house surrounded by a wall, he said, paint a story of the families that lived in the area.

“Most people don’t think of Ewa as a cultural landscape. Most people think of it as sugar, pineapple and military bases,” said Kane, 71. “I want the heritage park to be something meaningful.”

The Kalaeloa Heritage Park opened in 2011 and is managed by the nonprofit Kalaeloa Heritage and Legacy Foundation. Home to nearly 200 identified cultural and historic features, several unique to the Ewa plain, the park depicts what life was like from the 1400s to 1800 and educates visitors about cultural structures and traditional moolelo, or stories, according to the 2014 final environmental assessment.

Several of the structures were built Tahitian-style, using upright stones. Kane estimated that the parkland and the surrounding area were inhabited by about 5,000 people. The park’s cultural sites constitute some of the most complex and extensive settlements recorded on the Ewa plain.

Other features at the park include a crypt built by volunteers that holds ancient bones of 28 people found on the property. An ancient trail marked with upright stones, called the Kualakai Trail — Kane’s favorite spot — was said to have connected the Ewa area to the nearby Kualakai Salt Flat, serving as a means for migrants to build relationships during their travels. The salt was used to preserve food.

“It’s huge for the students and adults to learn about the history,” said state Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei- Makakilo), who has visited the park several times. “We live in the fastest growing district in the state. To have that (park) out there, we make sure that we don’t forget our culture, time and place. It’s just a cultural treasure.”

A conceptual plan includes building a cultural center that would feature meeting and workshop rooms, an education center, a theater and stage. The 16,300-square-foot center is estimated to cost about $5.1 million. Projects outlined in the conceptual plan, drafted in 2014, are slated for three phrases over 10 years.

The 39-page conceptual plan focuses on developing 5 acres of the property. Kane, a foundation board member, said the nonprofit plans to consult with an archaeological firm before moving forward with work on the rest of the property. The foundation hopes to generate much of the planning and construction funding for the cultural center and other long-term projects through grants, he said. Once built, certain facilities, including meeting rooms and the theater, are anticipated to generate additional revenue, as are workshop classes and entrance fees.

Other long-term projects included in the plan, with an estimated price tag of $9.5 million, are building a caretaker-security cottage, a greenhouse and a maintenance shed.

Kawika Burgess, a foundation board member and former board president, said the group has started putting the plan into action but is working harder to generate more community interest and engagement in the park. He said clearing the hot, humid area of vegetation has been one of the most challenging parts of maintaining the park, which is open when groups request tours at no charge. Most of the work is done by hand.

Other challenges include a lack of on-site infrastructure, such as water, electricity and parking.

“The big vision is exciting … having a cultural center where we can celebrate the Hawaiian culture, where we can share the histories, the stories, the traditions of not only Kalaeloa … but the greater history and culture of our ancestors, as well as the military history,” Burgess said.

When Barbers Point Naval Air Station closed in 1999, nearly 4,000 acres was transferred to federal, state and city agencies. Archaeological research had identified cultural and historic sites prior to the base’s closing.

The property is within the recreational and cultural zone identified in the Kalaeloa Master Plan, which called for a heritage park.

The park’s 77 acres in 2010 was conveyed by the Navy to the Hawaii Community Development Authority, the agency overseeing redevelopment in Kalaeloa. The foundation was formed that year to focus on planning for the heritage park. The HCDA issued a right-of-entry in 2011 to the nonprofit with the intent to eventually establish a long-term lease.

The foundation, with the help of a consultant and state funding, drafted a final environmental assessment outlining plans for the park’s development. The HCDA agreed to lease the land in December to the foundation for 40 years with an option to extend for 20 years. The nonprofit relies on volunteers and donations to maintain the park. An estimated 80 to 100 people, mainly students and community groups during the school year, visit the park each month.

“The time and effort the community has put toward the park is impressive,” said Garett Kamemoto, HCDA spokesman. He added that the agency agreed to the lease due to the foundation’s goals of protecting the area’s resources and educating the community about Native Hawaiian practices and traditions.

Kane, a longtime Makakilo resident and author of the 2011 book, “Cultural Kapolei,” said he is excited for the future of the park’s growth.

“As I get older I suddenly realize how important our children become,” he said. “The Heritage Park for me serves as that manner in which we can make certain that future generations of children will know who we were and who our ancestors were.”

For more information visit khlfoundation.org.