Originally Appearing in "Hawai'i Intrigue" (Abstract 4)
Text by David Goldberg // Images by Chris Kwock


The most contentious nodes of local culture are connected to material remains of Hawaiian culture, especially locations that are historically and spiritually significant to Hawaiian people but not officially “policed” or maintained. The summer home of King Kamehameha III, Kaniakapūpū (“The Singing Of The Land Shell”), is one such place.

Kaniakapūpū is an architectural “ruin” in Nuʻuanu Valley, “administered” by the Department of Land and Natural Resources. In addition to the house, built by Kamehameha III to escape the heat of the city, the site also has the remains of a pre-unification heiau. The Mahele, a government policy introducing private land ownership in Hawaiʻi, was likely planned here, and in 1847 Kaniakapūpū was the site for a luau that purportedly fed 10,000 people celebrating the fourth anniversary of the restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty by Great Britain. Today, the ʻAhahui Mālama Kaniakapūpū (a project of Ka Lei Maile Aliʻi Hawaiian Civic Club) is the site’s steward.

Kaniakapūpū also “exists” on the Internet, where one of the top search results for “king kamehameha summer home” leads to a local blog with a 2011 entry whose comments record an emotionally charged and essential debate over who has rights to visit the site.

Self-identified Hawaiians and locals define the spectrum of the discussion. Hawaiians claim exclusive access to the site regardless of its relationship to State law and administration, and locals temper an aggressive defense of individual freedom by encouraging culturally sensitive tourism. In between are invitations to take the ʻAhahui Mālama Kaniakapūpū’s guided tours, and claims that Christianity trumps any indigenous beliefs. Significantly, no one identifying as non-Hawaiian argues for Hawaiian exclusivity. Why?

From the local perspective, Kaniakapūpū’s physical deterioration opens it to outside interpretation, leading to people leaving offerings out of “respect,” or using the site for recreational pursuits. The fact remains that the site is actively maintained, spiritually and culturally whole, and is used by Hawaiians—just not according to the commercial or multicultural engagements locals are accustomed to.

The online discussion thread is now abandoned–a digital ruin of sorts–haunted by intense emotions that almost convinced me, hypocrite that I am, not to visit the site. The blog’s admin knows this, and prefaces the entry with a disclaimer that announces the risks of trespassing (arrest, falling boulders, drowning) and states that all images on the site are faked in Photoshop. This sarcastic attempt to appease “Angry Hawaiians” and assert “Locals Only” rights adds another (and newly digital) layer of cultural sediment to Kaniakapūpū.

People look at Hawaiʻi in different ways, with the majority basing their perspective on the political, economic, and social reality of malls, military bases and freeways. The majority treasures a “magical” site like Kaniakapūpū because it represents an escape from contemporary versions of the “civilizing” forces that confronted King Kamehameha III: traffic jams, housing crises, import dependency, and environmental degradation. Kaniakapūpū is an architectural expression of the cultural matrix of the Hawaiian monarchy and earlier indigenous traditions. It is seductive to outsiders because it can symbolize an integrated relationship between land, spirituality, and society.

As a physical site and philosophical object, Kaniakapūpū represents a concept that Hawaiians have always treasured and non-Hawaiians are slowly realizing they lack: maybe call it sovereignty, but understand it as a systematic means to replenish, strategize, and gain critical distance… Just don’t treat a process like a destination.