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Ship Logs

Kuaihelani, A Mythical Place Becomes Reality
Midway Atoll
Posted By Scott Kikiloi
Photography by Jim Watt
September 23, 2002

Three Spinner Dolphins at Midway.Hidden 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 Hawai‘i'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.

In 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…the old 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).

Anti-aircraft gun on Eastern Island, Midway.We 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.

Kupipi, or Blackspot damselfish.On 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 the archipelago.

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Kekuewa "Scott" Kikiloi


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