A Mythical Place Becomes Reality
Posted By Scott Kikiloi
Photography by Jim Watt
September 23, 2002
under layers of deteriorated concrete buildings, broken
runways, and abandoned vehicles on Midway Atoll, as a traditional
Hawaiian place, is an entity many believe as mythical. Its
name is Kuaiheilani and it is real. The history of
its name and location is a complicated one, as it stretches
back to the beginning of Hawaii's traditions and lore.
Described in the legend of Aukelenuiaiku, the origin
of this name can be traced to an ancient homeland of the
Hawaiian people, located somewhere in central Polynesia
(Ka Mo`olelo o Aukelenuiaiku in Fornander Vol IV:
33-111; Ke Aloha Aina 1893-1894). This name has also
been recorded in ko`ihonua, or geneaological chant
as an island name in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Bishop
Museum Archives #HI. H.107, folder 2). It is not uncommon
for ancestral place names to be appropriated affectionately
to newly discovered lands, and this may be the case here.
The Legend of Aukelenuiaiku may be an indirect link
to how this place name was given to an island in our chain,
as Aukelenuiaiku represents a voyaging tradition
that makes its way through the Northwest region of our archipelago.
more modern times, the name Kuaihelani has become
labeled as mythical to many people who read Hawaiian literature.
The immediate problem here is that traditional knowledge
of a place like this often gets lost, as primary Hawaiian
language sources and history become fabricated into secondary
English literature and fables. This island however is not
a myth. According to historical sources, this island was
used by Native Hawaiians even in the late 1800's as a sailing
point for seasonal trips to this area of the archipelago.
Noted authority and ethnologist Theodore Kelsey writes,
"Back in 1879 and 1880 these old men used navigation
gourds for trips to Kuaihelani, which they told me
included Nihoa, Necker, and the islets beyond
men might be gone on their trips for six months at a time
through May to August was the special sailing season."
(Johnson and Mahelona 1975).
spent five days on Midway
Atoll and the island is a skeleton and a reminder of
the battle that took place there in World War II. Out of
all the islands so far in the Northwestern Hawaiian chain
this land has puzzled me the most. The landscape has been
modified so heavily that it is hard to recognize its natural
beauty. Ironwood covers the most of the island in thick
groves, dredging of the channel in its reefs has been used
as fill to lift the island to a higher elevation. Seawalls
cut off much of the natural shoreline and abandoned buildings
accentuate the present lack of human presence. It's here
that we said goodbye to many of our dear friends who had
been with us for the first half of the trip, Na`alehu Anthony,
Nainoa Thompson, Ann Hudgins, and Cindy Rehkemper who return
to Honolulu to spread our message of kuleana and
stewardship. The rest of us continue on, through the transition
period to finish up the remainder of the expedition.
the third day at Midway we were chaperoned by Tim Bodeen,
the Refuge Manager (Midway is a National Wildlife Refuge
as well as the National War Memorial to the Battle of Midway
and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and
got to visit the other two islets that make up the atoll.
They are named Spit Island, and Eastern Island. Spit island
is very small and has one unique feature in an small pu`uone
type, interior pond that has a number of `aholehole,
large `ama`ama, and kupipi. The ocean water
in the pond barely reaches three and a half feet in depth.
In between these islets are coral reefs and strong channels
that carry the ocean in and out of the atoll's interior.
Eastern Island is much larger, and is taken over by sea
birds and the invasive weed verbesina. The sea walls on
this islet has been taken down and the natural shoreline
is littered with `aholehole. I have never seen so
many fish in my life in one area.
The story of Kuaihelani is no longer mythical
it is real, and it is one of hope for our people. The infrastructure
on Sand island could allow for field schools and educational
outreach programs for our children. A collaborative effort
between different agencies and programs could to make this
island the center of restoration efforts in this half of