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Priceless connections to Hawaii's ancient past were lost when cultural center burned

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So far in Maui, more than a hundred people are reported dead, and many hundreds are still unaccounted for after the fires. It's going to be a long time before we know the totality of what was lost in Lahaina. But we do know, as NPR's Jonaki Mehta reports, that priceless connections to the island's ancient past are now lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: The Na 'Aikane o Maui Cultural and Research Center was home to the vestiges of ancient Hawaii before European colonization.

KE'EAUMOKU KAPU: Old documents, maps, genealogy, books that were actually signed by our kings - our cultural center was the hub for a lot of our Native Hawaiian people longing for the past.

MEHTA: To Ke'eaumoku Kapu, the center meant even more than the rare, tangible treasures of his ancestry. It was also a place of gathering for his community.

KAPU: It was a place of worship, a place of traditional cultural protocols.

MEHTA: It was on the main thoroughfare in Lahaina, which was once the capital of the ancient Hawaiian Kingdom. Kapu was the center's steward.

KAPU: I'm the curator, president, the janitor - literally everything.

MEHTA: Two days after the fire, Kapu returned to the rubble to see what was left of Lahaina town.

KAPU: Oh, man, all my neighbors gone. Our churches, apartment building that flourished with generations of families, gone.

MEHTA: He went to the site of the cultural center with hopes of recovering some artifacts, but he found very little.

KAPU: Carving images made out of stone, you know, that made it - one of them - and stones that was given to me personally by different chiefs from the South Pacific, from New Zealand, from Tahiti, from Samoa. So a great loss.

MEHTA: Some of the rare books and documents preserved at the center weren't just history. They were instructive materials for Indigenous people fighting for ownership of the land and water that belonged to their ancestors. Kapu himself was involved in litigation that ended up at the state Supreme Court and won him the rights to hold onto the land that his family has owned since the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom. He brought that knowledge to other community members at the cultural center.

KAPU: That was a great advantage, to use the center to bring families in and teach them what I've done in order to help them get their lands back. And it's been working. All those documents are gone.

MEHTA: Kapu points his finger to his right temple.

KAPU: All I have is what I have in here. I just cried. It's like we got erased.

MEHTA: He tells me he hasn't had the time to process the loss. He's already been through three other fires on Maui before this one.

KAPU: I cannot sleep. Wake up - nightmares. Wake up thinking that everything is fine, only to wake up, it's not. But I guess that's the reason why I'm doing what I'm doing, because I got to stay busy.

MEHTA: What he's doing is working with Maui's Emergency Management Agency, running one of the distribution centers in Lahaina with several members of his family...

KAPU: OK, yeah. We got enough toilet paper, toiletries...

MEHTA: ...Getting food, supplies and water to those affected by the fire. Kapu says Indigenous people bring a unique understanding to this work.

KAPU: We know exactly what the general community is feeling now because we know about trauma. We know about being displaced.

MEHTA: Kapu is also serving as a liaison between the local government and Indigenous community. He's on an advisory council to the mayor as the county navigates the response to this fire.

KAPU: There's a lot of distrust right now. And our responsibility as advisories in the community is to alleviate that distrust because if we don't, it's going to be chaotic.

MEHTA: He plans to continue working with the government as the recovery and rebuilding process continues. He's wary of the potential for payouts for property that was lost and is encouraging community members to try and hold onto their land.

KAPU: What is it going to take to rebuild the capital of the Kingdom once again? What is it going to take? This is a legacy we're talking about. What is the payoff for losing that?

MEHTA: Just days after the fire, Kapu is trying to hold onto hope that Lahaina will be rebuilt with respect to its rich Hawaiian history.

KAPU: I think it can be done right, but we just got to get our leaders to the table.

MEHTA: Until then, Kapu says he will keep a watchful eye over the land beneath the cultural center's remains, the land of historic Lahaina town, the land of his ancestors.

In Maui, I'm Jonaki Mehta, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
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