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Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau at 50: Attending the Hawaiian 
Cultural Festival at the National Historical Park

Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, which held its annual Cultural Festival in late June, is celebrating its 50th anniversary all year. Photo by Claire Walter.

The Polynesian voyagers who crossed the Pacific landed first on the Big Island of  Hawai'i. Their settlements spread up the west coast, where they thrived on the bounty of the sea and the rich volcanic soil of the uplands, reaching a peak population estimated at about a million.

Today their traditions are honored at Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The park's annual Cultural Festival, held this year on June 24-26, was also the 50th edition. 

National Park Service interpreter Eric Andersen calls it "the biggest and most important cultural festival" -- not just on the Big Island, but in all of Hawaii. While the festival has come and gone, festivities and special programs marking the park's 50th anniversary are slated to continue through December 31, which means half-a-year of periodic cultural enrichment beyond the Park Service's normal interpretive offerings.

This year's Cultural Festival was something of a renaissance, too, as the park completed the cleanup from the tsunami that rolled across the Pacific from Japan. It hit the Big Island's southwest shore during the morning of March 11, depositing marine debris and causing the park to be closed for a time.

But long before it was a park, this landscape was an important community for the Hawaiians.

An Important Ahupua'a

The ancient Hawaiians developed a system of land division in which each community occupied an ahupua'a that stretched from the sea to the mountains. Until King Kamehaha II, son of the uniter of all the Hawaiian islands under one monarchy, abolished the system, native Hawaiians lived in such places.

A traditional hula dance is performed during the park's annual Cultural Festival. Photo by Claire Walter.

The ali’I (royal chiefs) occupied an area known as “the Royal Grounds” and administered the Hōnaunau jurisdiction.

Adjacent to the village and the Royal Grounds was the pu'uhonua, or “The Place of Refuge.” The only way to reach the pu'uhonua, a temple complex on a peninsula with water on three sides, was by swimming across a bay known as “the shark's den.”

The kahuna (priest) who presided there was required to provide sanctuary and absolve the miscreant of any and all wrong-doing.

As the old ways were abandoned, old lava rock walls crumbled, thatched structures disappeared, fish ponds filled in, and traditional Polynesian practices were replaced by Christian ones.

Today the historical park preserves these areas and shows something of Hawaiian life as it was, with rebuilt or faithfully reconstructed features of the ahupua'a, and cultural programs that bring the past to life for visitors. Structures include a half-size temple, a tall wooden offering platform, and thatched, open-ended A-frames that served other functions. A half-mile marked cultural trail winds through the sites.

50th Annual Cultural Festival

As it has every year for half-a-century, the Cultural Festival brings the site to life and takes visitors back to old Hawai'i as it was up to the 1800s. The festival attracts several thousand native Hawaiians and occasionally mainland-based cultural practioners in traditional dress for whom Hawaiian practices truly resonate, even if their own heritage is elsewhere.

Traditional weaving demonstrations are offered during the Cultural Festival. Photo by Claire Walter.

From the opening ceremony on Friday morning to the closing ceremony on Sunday afternoon the festival attracts locals from the Big Island, people from other islands, and visitors from the mainland and abroad who come for the dance, the music, the chants, the games, the food samples, and to learn about (and perhaps try) the skills of making useful objects from wood, lava rock, leaves, and plant fibers. Call it cultural entertainment.

The Royal Grounds, once reserved for the ali'i, is the site of demonstrations of such skills as gourd carving, coconut leaf weaving, bark cloth fabric making, house thatching, Hawaiian games, and more.

Family activities abound with no bouncy castle in sight.

Among the most popular events is the hukilau, an ancient form of communal fishing -- and it takes a village to fish this way.

Part of the group takes a fiber net into the chest-deep water at the entrance to Keonone'ele Cove and beat the water with ti leaves to drive the fish into the net. Others on shore pull the net, tug-of-war fashion. While other songs and chants are authentic to the core, spirited hukilau participants break into a pop song from the '50s:

Oh, we're going to the hukilau, A huki, a huki, a hukilau.

Everybody loves a hukilau, Where the laulau is the kaukau at the big luau.

We throw our nets out into the seas, And all the ama ama come a swimmin' to me.

Oh we're goin' to a hukilau, A huki, huki, huki, hukilau.

What a wonderful day for fishin' The old Hawaiian way.

During the Cultural Festival a traditional hukilau, or communal fishing, demonstration was offered. Photo by Claire Walter.

In the old days the fish would be caught (that being the purpose of fishing), but since this is a national park, the net is lifted and no fish are harmed.

On each of the festival's three days, more than 1,000 people desend on the park, but on the other 362 days of the year, it is a quiet, contemplative place where visitors not only see how the anicent Hawaiians lived, but feel their spirit. 



I went to this  festival and was shocked to see  that it is no longer a step back in time.....
The park service has failed in there festival to let people relived the time before the 1800's.   chairs, modern tools, modern dance.
its no longer what it was 30 years ago....shame! I thought that is want there
purpose was.

Sara of the sea

The 50th anniversary cultural festival was incredible! We attended the final day, Sunday, and stayed most of the day and even hiked part of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, which runs through Puuhonua o Honaunau. I've never tasted better Hawaiian food, especially the poi and ulu, mmm! The weaving demos and hula were no ka oi (the best)! To top off the day, we helped pull in the hukilau net, then freed the fish. It felt like being part of a large 'ohana and I can't wait to come back next year! Mahalo to everyone who helped make it happen!

welina mai e na maoli 'oiwi a o malihini,

I have been attending the cultural festival for many years, and being a decendant and a cultural practitioner, I have to say Mahalo Nui to the National Park Service, especially to the Staff of Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, whom many are direct lineal descendants of the area, for taking on the responsibilities of stewarding the land, and to maintain the Hale O Keawe, a precious place for the bones of mines and many other's ancestors. Also, for their dedicated service to bringing the Hawaiian community and many practitioners from the surrounding area, in celebrating the NPS Stewardship of this Pu'uhonua. This Pu'uhonua is the only one that has been saved and perpetuated throughout the entire Island Chain. So, I would like to comment, that despite the Celebrations effort of portraying ancient Hawaii, I still commend NPS for its outstanding efforts to preserve and perpetuate the landscape and its features that my ancestors have placed on such a sacred space, and allow us Kama'aina O Honaunau ma, Ho'okena ma, Napo'opo'o ma, a me Miloli'i ma to come and practice our cultural lifestyle and behaviors in this modern day..... e ola mau no Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, a ua noa, a ua noa, a ua noa! Eo Lononuiakea!!!

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