The Perseverance & History of West Maui: Why Lahaina Matters So Much

Posted by Mapuana Andrade on Thursday, September 14th, 2023 at 6:46pm

Amidst the unfolding tragedy that has befallen Lahaina we pause to reflect on the profound significance of this historic town. As we grapple with the immense loss and ongoing challenges faced by the residents, it becomes even more critical to understand why Lahaina matters so much, not only in the context of its rich history but also as a symbol of resilience and community spirit.

Lahaina’s Hawaiian History

Native Hawaiians have regarded Maui as their sacred place for centuries, and Lahaina is at the heart of this spiritual connection. It was here that the first capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom was established. Carmen Lindsey, chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, stated that "Lahaina holds some of the most historically significant cultural properties and highest-ranking sacred remains of our ancestors."

One of the central figures in Lahaina's history is Kihawahine, a woman who transformed into a mo'o goddess, a supernatural shapeshifting lizard in Hawaiian religion. Her primary residence was in a fishpond at Mokuʻula, a small island in Lahaina that was considered a "piko," or the center of traditional religious and political activities. Native Hawaiian royalty lived nearby to be in proximity to Kihawahine and her supernatural power. 

Lahaina's history is also closely intertwined with King Kamehameha, the legendary leader who unified the Hawaiian islands in 1810. He chose Lahaina as his royal residence to be near Kihawahine, the guardian spirit of his wife, Keōpūolani. This reverence for Kihawahine ensured that Kamehameha's lineage would continue to serve as leaders.

Following Kamehameha's rule, Lahaina became the capital of the newly unified Kingdom of Hawaii. This continued until 1845 when King Kamehameha III relocated the capital to Honolulu, Oahu.

Despite its rich history, Lahaina faced dramatic changes with the arrival of American colonization and capitalism in the 19th century. Sugarcane companies diverted water from the fishpond and freshwater springs at Mokuʻula for irrigation, leading to the drying up of the fishpond. Ultimately, the U.S. Territory of Hawaii filled what remained of the pond with soil in the early 20th century, turning it into a public park. Efforts have been ongoing to restore Mokuʻula in Lahaina and revitalize its history as a Native Hawaiian sacred place. However, the devastating Maui wildfire poses a significant setback to these restoration efforts.

Lahaina is a living testament to Hawaii's rich cultural heritage. Its history as a former whaling village, the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and a hub of international trade has left behind a tapestry of stories waiting to be discovered. From the historic Lahaina Banyan Court to the Baldwin Home Museum, every corner of this town breathes life into Hawaii's past.

The Small Yet Mighty Community

Throughout its history, Lahaina has evolved into a diverse and resilient community, a testament to its ability to adapt and thrive amidst colonization challenges. Initially inhabited by the Kanaka Maoli population, Lahaina's community later welcomed descendants of individuals who journeyed from China, Japan, the Philippines, and various other nations to toil on the plantations. This melding of cultures and backgrounds not only enriched the town but also nurtured the Hawaiian value of extending aloha to foreigners. Lahaina's strength lies in its history and the unity of its diverse inhabitants, each contributing to the vibrant mosaic that defines this remarkable town. Local residents, business owners, and cultural practitioners come together to create a unique blend of traditions and community.

Lahaina matters so much because it represents the soul of Maui and the Hawaiian way of life. Its cultural significance, natural beauty, and vibrant community make it a place worth rebuilding. Together, we can ensure that Lahaina continues to thrive as a symbol of island living at its finest.



Kākoʻo Maui Fund – Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement

Aloha United Way – Maui Fire Relief Fund

Maui County Firefighter Relief Fund

Maui Strong Fund

Maui Food Bank – Disaster Relief for Maui

Maui Humane Society

Kokku Fund

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