After devastating wildfires, Maui pushes to honor its past

Two months after a devastating wildfire, there is no clearer symbol to the outside world of Lahaina’s storied history and its rebirth than the 150-year-old banyan tree now in the center of town. , new, green leaves will sprout.

An image of the tree adorns T-shirts and coffee mugs with “Lahaina Strong” logos for sale by online merchants. When President Biden visited Maui after the fire, he pointed to the tree as a symbol of hope and resilience.

“I believe this is a powerful, very powerful, symbol of what we can and must do to overcome this crisis,” the president said.

However, the history of Lahaina – and the history of its most famous tree – is complex, intertwined with the painful loss of land and sovereignty to Native Hawaiians.

For many of those descendants, the banyan tree is a remnant of colonialism, planted by the son of missionaries who helped overthrow the Hawaiian kingdom, paving the way for annexation by the United States five years later and eventual statehood.

“There’s a growing sense that Native Hawaiians are really sick and tired of hearing stories about the banyan tree,” said Adam Keawe Manalo-Camp, an author and researcher specializing in Native Hawaiian history.

The fire that swept across West Maui on Aug. 8 claimed 98 lives, more than any U.S. wildfire in more than a century. Along with that, the human population lost a lot of history, including family traditions, old land records, etc. The flag, which was lowered after the Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown in 1898, and the entire museum help tell the city’s centuries-old story, beginning with the Polynesian sailors who first settled the islands.

Now, as conversations about rebuilding Lahaina take shape, native Hawaiians who fear their city will become a glitzy tourist destination like Honolulu’s Waikiki are demanding that their place in the city’s history be at the forefront of future Lahaina.

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“It’s going to be a challenge to go forward in that way and remember it appropriately,” said Kalapana Kollers, an expert on Native Hawaiian culture who works for the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. Has a banyan tree.

But before rebuilding can begin and a complete history can be made, the precious pieces of Lahaina’s history that survived the fire must be rescued from the ash landscape.

So far, authorities have not allowed people back into the city to recover historical artifacts, and that has archaeologists like Kimberly Fluke, the foundation’s deputy director, worried that time is running out. He reviewed satellite images and took a guided tour through the city that allowed him to see the ruins. From what she sees, pieces of Lahaina’s history are waiting to be salvaged.

She saw ash and rubble from China, jade fu dog figurines and fragments of plantation-era ceramics and metalware, symbols of the time when Chinese laborers came to Maui to work in the sugar cane fields.

Mrs. Fluke’s research into how some objects survive the fire has given hope that other objects will return to museum shelves: scrimshaw dominoes left behind by 19th-century sailors whose whaling ships docked in Lahaina Harbor, and native objects made from volcanic rock, such as lie-pounders and fishing gear. .

But it could be weeks before authorities allow experts to search for artifacts. As people trickle back into inspecting their possessions, she worries that some items may be inadvertently damaged and other items stolen by thieves interested in history.

Although many items are recovered, the repositories for them must be recreated, in some cases from scratch. All but one of the 14 historic buildings, the museums where the foundations were maintained, were either destroyed, or heavily damaged. The Wo-Hing Museum, set up by Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century, remains a pile of ashes. Gone are the wooden gatehouses and cell blocks of the old Lahaina Jail, built in the 1850s to deal with rowdy sailors on shore leave. The Master’s Reading Room, a resting place for officers on whaling ships, was destroyed, only its stone wall still standing.

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“It’s huge,” said Theo Morrison, director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. “I can’t even wrap my head around it.”

The Smithsonian Institution has offered to provide boxes and storage boxes for salvaged materials and materials for cleaning tents, as well as personal protective equipment for rescue workers.

It’s a role the Smithsonian often plays in an age of climate-change-related natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, said Katelyn Averitt of the Smithsonian’s Cultural Recovery Initiative, which was established after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

He said there was growing concern that Ms Fluke’s artefacts could not be recovered, but said this was common in the early stages following a disaster.

“Frustrations can really build and accumulate because you know the value and importance of these sites and the things that are there, and you feel them so deeply,” he said.

For Native Hawaiians, the destruction of the Na’aikanae o Maui Cultural and Research Center is one of the losses of a center for Hawaiian history and a venue for seminars on contemporary issues such as water rights. “Old documents. Maps. Genealogy. Books actually signed by our kings,” said Kiyamoku Kapu, who oversees the center. told NPR.

While the talk is about the future and how to shape the rebuilding of Lahaina, many believe the fire will be a catalyst to elevate Native Hawaiian history, often overshadowed by stories of missionaries and sugar plantations.

A royal headquarters surrounded by a lagoon when Lahaina was a verdant wetland — once called the “Venice of the Pacific” — Moku’ula is today buried beneath a baseball field, but invisible to all but archaeologists. Who is plumbing it?

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After the fire, there is a push back To rescue Moku’ula. And there are New calls A Berlin museum returned a statue of the Hawaiian deity Kihawahine taken from Moku’ula, a German microbiologist who conducted leprosy research on the island in the 1880s.

“Mokuela is the beginning,” said Archie Kalepa, who traces his ancestry back nine generations in Lahaina and is working with search teams as a cultural curator. “So you have to show respect and honor to the startup in order for us to move forward.”

Mr. Kaleba appreciates Banyan Tree’s existence as a cherished gathering place in the city, but believes it has obscured indigenous history.

“The banyan tree is part of Lahaina, but it’s not part of the original history of Lahaina,” he said.

A fire destroyed the home of one of his great-grandmothers, where all of the family’s documented genealogy and old photographs were stored.

“The only thing we have now is each other,” he said.

That and memories:

“Going down the front street and smelling different smells like flowers, fruit, dirt. It was a unique smell that you can only smell in this place. You could walk down the street with your eyes closed and you’d know where you were if you lived here.

“That’s how well we know this place. It’s gone.”

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