In February, Kuaihelani Learning Center for Hawaiian Studies was home to a 20 by 40 foot map of O‘ahu. Though large, its enormous format wasn’t the only unique aspect of the map. It featured Hawaiian place names and was designed using hundreds of maps from the 1800s and 1900s.
Author and historian Tom Penna created the map to teach viewers the story of Oʻahu through place names and natural features. Each location presents its own story based on its physical and spiritual qualities as well as the events that occurred there. Collectively, each of these stories form a larger picture of the island.
During an evening Q&A session, Penna revealed that the inspiration for creating the map came from his desire “to learn the land.” He got his hands on all the research he could find and learned how much the Western concepts of land division varied with the ancient Hawaiian’s.
“They looked at things so differently,” he explained. The kupuna didn’t see the lines that we are so used to seeing on a map, rather they looked for natural features to connect areas. This concept challenged his previous understanding.
Penna turned the audience’s attention to the middle of the island, to Kūkaniloko Birth Site, one of the most important ancient cultural sites on the island of Oʻahu, located in Wahiawa. This is the piko, or belly button, of the island from which the rest of the island radiates. “The interior of the island was an observatory,” said Penna, who is planning to write a book on his discoveries and over 1,200 hours of research.
The map also provided a rich learning experience for students. Guided by Director of Hawaiian Studies Malia Ane '72, junior school students were taken on a walkabout over the island, starting with its geologic makeup.
As a group of students held hands around Waianae and extended out into the ocean, Ane told them that they represented one of the island’s shield volcanoes and described how a giant landslide created the west coast as we know it today. On the Windward side, with the Ko‘olau range, it was the same idea.
“Look at how big our island used to be. Hopefully this visual is very helpful for you to understand,” said Ane. She then asked the class what was considered rich during the times of the ancient Hawaiians. “Fresh water,” a student answered.
Pointing around her on the map she said, “Notice how much fresh water is out here. You can see all streams coming from the shields. Look at all the blue that comes down to ocean. The mountains stop the clouds, it rains and the streams lead to fishponds.” She walked the length where moisture-laden clouds travel from the ocean up and over the Waianae ridge.
Students discovered the term “loko iʻa” in conjunction with the end of streams. The term stands for fishpond, and students were quick to discover the numerous ones found in what is now Pearl Harbor. “There were 20 fishponds there,” Ane explained.
The class also observed the abundance of water around Mānoa and Punahou, both named on the map. “The lesson today is that our island is so rich,” said Ane.
She ended class by asking the group, “How was the learning for today?”
“Good!” said one student. “Fun!” said another.