Mālama Pūpūkea-Waimea MLCD
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History & Culture

A Brief Ancient History of the Area

Waimea Valley

The Ha‘i ‘ōlelo (oral history) of Waimea, according to Hawaiian historian Sam Kamakau (who was from Waialua O‘ahu), begins with the high chief Kama Pua‘a. Kama Pua‘a, according to traditional history, was given a gift from the Kahuna Nui (high priest) Kahiki‘ula. This took place sometime in the eleventh century. The gift was all the lands that begin with the word Wai. The word Waimea means “sacred water.” Prior to the eleventh century, little is know about the Kānaka (people) who lived in the ahupua‘a, of Waimea. The valley may have been settled as early as 400 A.D.
Waimea and Pūpūkea were given to the Papa Kahuna (priestly class) in perpetuity. Since the eleventh century, the Kahuna Nui (high priests) ruled over the valley.

Kamehameha took the island of O‘ahu in 1795, and he gave Waimea Valley to his Kahuna Nui, whose name was Hewahewa. He was the last Kahuna to preside over the temples (Heiau) in the valley. Hewahewa died in 1837 and is buried in Waimea Valley. Waimea Valley, known as the “valley of the priests,” was originally part of the larger moku (district) of Ko‘olauloa, but was added to the district of Waialua in the 1800s.

The valley is surrounded by three major Hieau. Pu‘u o Mahuka, located on the pu‘u (buff) called Keanaloa, was built by Kaopulupulu, the Kahuna Nui who lived in the valley in the 1700s. Located on the Haleiwa side of the outer entrance to the valley, Kūpopolo Heiau was also built under the direction of the Kahuna Nui Kaopulupulu. Another sacred site, located on the water’s edge at the southwestern side of Waimea Bay, is called Ke Ahu Hapu‘u. This temple is dedicated to the shark god Kaneaukai. Pu‘o o Mahuka and Kupopolo are human sacrificial temples, and Kaneaukai is a fishing shrine or temple.

Captain Cook’s ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, landed in Waimea Bay in 1779. The ships anchored in the bay after Cook was killed in Kealakekua. Looking for water, the crew members were the first white men to set foot on the island of O‘ahu.

Waimea was a large settlement, though the actual number of inhabitants is unknown. With an almost constant water source and abundant fishing grounds, in addition to cultivation of traditional foods, Waimea was a classic example of the Polynesian managing natural resources.

Waimea Bay became the sandalwood capital during the 1800s. Huge cargo ships would anchor offshore to load sandalwood. By the 1830s, sandalwood was beginning to disappear. The sandalwood trade soon came to grinding to a halt.

In 1898, a deluge of water in the form a huge flood drove the inhabitants from Waimea Valley. Most of them moved to the beach area and eventually moved away due to the flooding.

Kalua-Māua (Three Tables)

Kalua-Māua, also known as Three Tables due to the table-like reef outcropping, was an important area in ancient times for the gathering of water. Underwater freshwater springs bubble up from the ocean floor within the small cove area. Waimea Valley has several freshwater spring areas called puna wai, but water flow is not extensive. Since Hawai‘i has no lakes or constant running rivers, it is entirely dependant upon rainfall for water. Ancient inhabitants here may have utilized the area for salt collection and fishing.

Pūpūkea (Sharks Cove)

In the Hawaiian language, Pūpūkea means “white shell.” The ahupua‘a of Pūpūkea, in ancient times, was not settled likely due to a lack of water and good planting soil in the upper area of the district. Fishing, however, was probably conducted, along with salt manufacturing.

The most popular features of the area are the large boulders that can be seen on the small peninsula called Kulalua. These huge boulders are said to have been a local family that were turned to stone by the goddess Pele. Tradition states that while Pele was traveling by Pūpūkea on her way to the Big Island to find a home for her fires, she noticed a group of people watching her from the shore. Upset at this development, she turned them into stone for being niele (nosey).

NĀ MO‘OLELO KAHIKO…Ancient Traditions


The daughter of Papa the honua (earth) and Wakea the sky father. O‘ahu also means to cover, wrap, or clothe.


Sacred water (reddish water). Wai, water. Mea, sacred, red from ochre.


One of the flat outcroppings is named after a woman who was known as Kaluamāua. They are called Three Tables today. Tradition says that whenever you saw Kaluamāua “floating” (the exposed table-like reef tops) you would find fresh water bubbling up from the ocean bed there. In times of drought, water was retrieved by diving for it and collecting it in gourds.


A stone used as an octopus lure. The name Pūpūkea also means “white shell.”

The title “Sharks Cove” has a more recent history. There are two common theories on how the area got this name. One theory states that fishermen claimed that they caught sharks whenever they fished in the cove. The other theory is associated with the old railroad that used to go around the island at the turn of the century. Supposedly, when the train used to stop off near the cove to dump cattle into the water (it is unknown why), the carcasses would attract sharks to the area.


One of the most important ancestral gods on the North Shore is Kāne Aukai. Kāne Aukai is an Aumakua or ancestral god. Located on the southern point of Waimea Bay is an ancient Heiau (temple). The name of this temple is Ke Ahu O Hapu‘u (also the name of the bluff). The hapu’u is a type of sea bass. The tradition of Kāne Aukai begins in the distant past.

Once there lived two Kahuna who were also lawai’a or fishermen. One raised awa and the other grew ‘uala or sweet potatoes. One day they both went fishing in the bay and, after many tries, they came up empty. Time after time, they dropped their ‘upena (net) but didn’t catch no i’a (fish). Ready to call it a day, on the last try they pulled in their net and found a pohaku (stone) and one fish. They threw back the fish and also the stone, which was the size of a human head. Later that night, they both had a moe-uhane (dream). The next morning, one of them said, “Last night I had dream.” The other man said, “I too had a dream. I dreamed that the stone said he was cold and asked me to pull him out of the ocean.” To their surprise, they had dreamed the same dream.

The next day, they went fishing and retrieved the stone. They began to build a Heiau in honor of the sacred pohaku. In the dream the stone said that his body was in Waialua. They retrieved the wooden body from Waialua (it was a large piece of drift wood in the form of a human body) and united it with the stone head. As a reward for their building the temple in his honor, Kane Aukai brought an abundance of fish to the Waimea district. For many years, Waimea was famous for its multitude of fish species. The temple is still standing and is visited to this day by local fishermen, who leave offerings before fishing.


Located on the bluff toward the cliff is a large Heiau called Kūpopolo. The kahuna nui Kaopulupulu was the kahuna who built this temple (1700s). The ali’i nui of that time was a cruel chief called Kahahana. The chief directed the kahuna nui Kaopulupulu to construct the temple in order to detect war from Kauai. The term Kūpopolo means to see with the eyes closed. Kaopulupulu was a great prophet and oracle, but the Kahuna was unable to “see” a sign of war because the Heiau was too low on the horizon. The famous Kahuna decided to build a new temple called Pu‘u o Mahuka. This temple was built high on the cliff know as Keanaloa. Pu‘o o Mahuka is the largest war temple used for human sacrifice still standing today above Waimea Valley.


Waimea is a famous place for surfing (he‘enalu), but one of the most common forms of water sports was known as Wai Pu‘uone. When the river (muliwai) was blocked by sand bars, the ancient Hawaiians rode the waves on their boards up the sand dunes and into the river mouth. Depending on how high the dunes were, it could prove to be a hair-raising event.


In 1782 Kahekili, the high chief of Maui, conquered O‘ahu and disposed of the cruel chief known as Kahahana. From this time on, the kanaka (people) of the valley of Waimea were mandated to pick a “picul” a day per person or suffer the wrath of the konohiki (chief of the valley who oversaw the high chief’s kanawai or laws). A picul was 138 pounds of ‘iliahi or sandalwood. This kanawai or law was imposed on men, women, and able children. The once-peaceful beach head became a busy staging area for the sandalwood sold at high prices to foreign markets around the world.

By 1836 all of the sandalwood was gone. The once-bustling harbor of Waimea was abandoned. And the sandalwood trade era came to an abrupt end, bringing peace to the remaining kanaka.

However deforestation caused erosion. Eventually a huge flood in 1894 drove most of the inhabitants of Waimea to the shore and eventually out of the valley for fear of more severe flooding. The flood destroyed most of the house sites and agricultural areas. As much as 12 feet of sediment was said to have been deposited, burying most of the near-shore agricultural terraces at the mouth of the river.


In 1929, C.W. Windstedt was given a contract to build Kamehameha Highway from Waimea Bay to Kahuku. He built a rock quarry in 1930 to produce gravel. The facility was abandoned in 1932. In April of 1953, the Catholic mission converted the buildings into St.Peter and Paul Church. The storage bin was converted into a church tower. It has become one of the most famous landmarks on the North Shore.


Leprosy called ma‘i pākē came to Hawaii at the turn of the century. The north valley of Waimea Valley was home to a leprosy colony for several years. Eventually all of the leprosy cases were banished to Kalaupapa on Molokai. This disease, like other diseases, was introduced to Hawaii by haole (foreigners). There were no diseases in ancient Hawaii, other than asthma and arthritis. Cancer was unknown to ancient Hawaii.


Animals (holoholona) were brought to the islands by our Hawaiian ancestors. The only two mammals where the hoary bat (ape‘a pe‘a) and the Hawaiian monk seal (‘ilio kai).
Hawaii has no snakes and had no mosquitoes (introduced from Panama in 1836).
Hawaii also had no flies, centipedes, scorpions, or roof or wharf rats. A small mouse called an ‘iole was brought accidentally by early voyaging canoes from lower Polynesia. The word Polynesia is Latin meaning “many islands.”


In the mid 1900s, sand was mined from Waimea kahakai (beach). The sand was used to make Waikiki Beach and other resort areas. This mining exposed a large rock to ocean water. Today this huge rock outcropping is the famous jumping rock at Waimea Bay that is used by thousands of people every year.


Waimea had several areas famous for fish-watching. On the Waialua side of the bay is a place used in ancient times to look for fish. Its name is Kalakoi. A person called a kilo i‘a or fish spotter sat on this rock and acted as a spotter for fishermen. Located on the Kahuku side of the bay is another famous rock used for fish sighting; this rock was called Kalaku. These fish-spotting areas are also known as Pu‘u kilo i‘a.


Fresh water (Wai hou) was the most important item in ancient Hawaii. Access to fresh water was allocated and shared. Because Hawaii nei has no natural lakes (except a small glacial lake on Mauna Kea), ancient Hawaiians depended entirely on rain for fresh water. In times of drought, water was collected in caves and puna wai or springs. Another way to collect water was to dive in the ocean and collect water from freshwater springs in gourds. Kalua Māua, more commonly called Three Tables today, was an area known for its freshwater springs bubbling up from the ocean floor.

Living close to the ‘apapa (reef) was a fisherman and his wife. One night the wife went fishing. Not being able to see her from their home, the man went looking on the reef for his wife. He found her in the form of stone floating on the reef. It is said that whenever this stone is found, there is fresh water in the ocean.

PELE’S FOLLOWERS (Nā ukali o Pele)

When the goddess Pele arrived here from Tahiti (some think Samoa since Pele is a Samoan name), she landed on Ni‘ihau first, then Kauai, and eventually found a place to keep her fires at Kīlauea. After digging on each island and reaching the seawater, she eventually found Hawaii, where she dug with her O‘o and did not reach water. Here she found a home for her fire. In Pana’ewa she planted her staff, and it became a tree.

On passing through the island of O‘ahu, Pele tried her staff (called Pāoa), at Leahi (known today as Diamond Head), Aliamanu (known today as Salt Lake), and Makapu‘u. While sailing through Pūpūkea, Pele came across a family watching her from the reef at Kalualoa. Angered at them being ni‘ele (nosey), she turned them into stone. For hundreds of years, these large upright boulders have stood as sentinels. During the 1960s, a huge winter wave knocked over the largest of these boulders. These large boulders are known as Nā ukali o Pele, the followers of Pele. Their names are Paka‘a, Kuapaka‘a, Hina Alualumoana, and the two young boys are known as O‘opuhalako‘a and Holoholoua.