Hidden in the Names

A tale of terrible sibling rivalry gave the name Kaiwiopele to this East Maui landmark, commemorating a supernatural battle between a sea goddess and her lava-loving sister.

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“I have not come across any traditional story or chant that uses that term,” says Holt. “Until we do, I won’t use it. People cannot say it’s an old name.” Reichel finds the name “a little bit dubious, since it’s not in the chants and old newspapers.” Pellegrino says in all his years of searching old maps and documents, Ashdown is the only source he’s ever seen for that name. He uses it, but makes it clear that the name may not be traditional. “I give Inez Ashdown the benefit of the doubt. She did speak to kūpuna [elders]” who were alive a century ago.

Pata, on the other hand, says two stories he’s heard could explain the name. Kahālāwai means “the meeting,” and one tale describes priests gathering at the sacred top of Pu‘u Kukui (“candlenut hill,” the highest point on West Maui) to consult with the gods. The other involves a conch shell, or pū, that was kept in a cave in Waikapū (“water of the conch”). Because the mountain slopes between Waikapū and ‘Īao Valley were riddled with caves, blowing the conch alerted chiefs living in ‘Īao to travel through underground passages for a gathering. Or did, until a supernatural dog named Puapualenalena grew infatuated with the pū, and stole it.

Rather than their dictionary meanings, Holt believes the importance of these names is that they connect people to their places. “Because we are an island people, our places are near, and we interact with them often. Traditionally, people stayed for generations in an area. If we know the traditional name for a place, we should use it. I think what’s happened is, we’ve lost traditional place names because of the post office,” which lumped what had been many small, specific places into a single large one.

Holt’s use of place names begins with her own address. Rather than simply saying that her home is in Wailuku, she describes where she lives as Kauahea,* in Paukūkalo (taro piece), in Wailuku. She also encourages her family to name their children “after the places that are important to us, so we never forget.”

*Here, too, translations vary. According to Holt, Kauahea has “two different meanings, ‘the misty rain,’ and ‘battle cry.’ Our family uses ‘battle cry,’ but others use ‘the misty rain.’ It’s all good.”


A new project is placing signs around the island to mark the traditional boundaries of Maui ahupua‘a, ancient land divisions within larger sections known as moku. Eventually, the County Office of Economic Development plans to install signs for all twelve moku on the island. The first sign was set up in October 2018, at the edge of Pūlehunui ahupua‘a in the moku of Kula. Each sign has a design based on the food resources gathered from the sea within the ahupua‘a, says project coordinator Vernon Kalanikau. Most ahupua‘a stretch mauka to makai (mountain to sea) and include shoreline, reefs and the ocean. So, while in recent times Kula is considered “Upcountry,” this sign project reminds us that the makai end, also known as Kīhei or South Maui, is “Kula Kai.”

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