HONOLULU (KHON2) — The structural foundations may be destroyed but the heart of Lahaina remains intact.

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Historians remember what Lahaina was before the Banyan Tree was planted, and what it became after the Banyan Tree.

The history goes back well before the 15th century.

Historians who have studied and written books of Lahaina said it was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom because it was the piko or center of the island chain.

Although it’s debated when the water from the streams started to be diverted (some say the water started being diverted as early as 1300 and was significantly depleted by the late 1800s), Moku‘ula was a royal island surrounded by water where the alii lived.

Moku‘ula encompassed the area from 505 Front St. to the Shigeish Wakida tennis courts, to Waiola Church.

“Kamehameha I had a royal residence there and Kamehameha II and III had their seat of government in Lahaina at Moku‘ula, and it’s where the first constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom was signed in 1840,” explained author and former Lahaina resident Dr. Sydney Iaukea, whose ancestors rest in Lahaina. “And the year before that there was a bill of rights signed at Moku‘ula and the first legislature met there as well.”

Iaukea hasn’t seen the devastation yet with her own eyes, but the former first Miss Lahaina, said many iwi kupuna are buried where Moku‘ula sits.

The once lush and green area had freshwater fishponds, Loko o Mokuhinia, named after one of King Piilani’s daughters, who lived near the pond’s edge. It remained a center for the royal family for decades. Kauikeaouli went into mourning when his sister Nahi’ena’ena died along with her child. Historians said Kauikeaouli buried them along with his mother at Moku‘ula .

In the late 1800s, the stream water had been diverted so much so that the water surrounding Moku‘ula became stagnant with mosquitoes. In the early 1900s, businessmen began dredging it, and ultimately placed a baseball field over the once royal land.

“The sugar plantation owners had baseball as one of their activities for workers so that’s why they had the baseball fields over Moku‘ula and then later in 1960s-70s they used Moku‘ula as a dumping site which was beyond disrespectful to the site itself, but like Waikiki they dredged and filled the space,” she added.

During a drive-thru of Front Street on Aug. 12, KHON2 News noticed green trees surrounding Moku‘ula, although Waiola Church was gone, and other nearby areas were destroyed too.

The once green, lush lands with ulu trees surrounding was gone by the plantation era which led to the look Lahaina was known for until recently.

The banyan tree was planted in April 1873, by William Own Smith, who was a sheriff in Lahaina at the time and then became a significant member of the Committee of Safety who led to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

“Lahaina was set up as a destination for resort tourism from the owners of Kaanapali who were a part of Pioneer Mill and the County of Maui,” Iaukea explained. “They were going to create Lahaina as a town to go visit, and so in order to do that, they had to fabricate history a little bit because there’s only two whaling structures in Lahaina and it’s primarily a plantation town.”

Iaukea goes on to explain that in the 1960s, “they were coming up with this idea of how to attract tourists, they went to the east coast of the United States, specifically Nantucket, and other areas, and put whaling things on plantation buildings.”

“So, a lot of the narrative that gained historic preservation status in 1962 was created in part as an attraction to the tourists,” she continued.  

“There’s all these designated sites that don’t really make up [Lahaina] town and what’s interesting about the narrative is as they were Americanizing the population without a treaty of annexation, they used the American influence of the whalers and missionaries and so it played with that interaction and that tension between whalers and missionaries is highlighted in the discourse.”

Dr. Sydney Iaukea, whose ancestors rest in Lahaina.

She said whaling was roughly two decades of Lahaina’s history, but the sugar plantation and laborers had a much longer history in Lahaina.

“Keeping in mind that history was skewed at the beginning so they didn’t really represent Lahaina completely accurately,” Iaukea said when asked about what history goes into the rebuild. “It was done under the guise of heritage tourism so I think if we want to do an accurate representation it would be along the lines of what does that place represent to the people meaning the kupuna and people there today.”

KHON2 News asked Can Lahaina be re-created with old Hawaii, pre-contact, and post-contact?

“I think there’s a way to do it with the historical narrative as authentic and as close to truth as possible and leaving space for the community and how they want to rebuild it today and I’ve seen Moku‘ula being talked about which is exciting and just freeing the waters and what they would like that and maybe it’s a different landscape, but at least it’s a landscape that’s real and not under the oppression of different industries that have tried to suffocate the narrative of the land and the people.”

Dr. Sydney Iaukea, whose ancestors rest in Lahaina.

She said if the government allows the people to rebuild by freeing the streams and allowing water to flow where it did centuries ago it would be a radical stance.

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“Because you’re departing from the narrative, we lived under for so long under the tourism industry and plantation eras,” she concluded.