Keaunui (and more)

Dates unknown (keep a diary, ppl!!) 

DJ Name: Keepin’ Up With Keaunui

Earlier this week, we observed the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. During the morning of December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese planes swarmed the skies over the U.S. naval base and claimed the lives of 2,400 service members and civilians. Nearly 20 battleships and over 300 airplanes were destroyed. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the mic the next day and declared December 7 as a date which will live in infamy and asked Congress to declare war on Japan, thus leading to the U.S. joining the global fight against fascism. (Tidbit: Historic Shufflette and House Rep from Montana, Jeannette Rankin, was the ~only~ member of Congress who voted “Nay” to the declaration of war against Japan because she said peace, love, and votes for women).

But this isn’t your typical Pearl Harbor history lesson. Nor is the Japanese attack the first of its kind in the harbor. Hawaii wasn’t even a U.S. state in 1941. If we rewind well before the attack, the arrival of U.S. fleets, the colonization of the Hawaiian Islands by westerners and Moana staring at the edge of the water, we meet Keaunui. No, not Keanu. This isn’t Hollywood, it’s Hawaii. 

Keaunui was the High Chief of Ewa, Wai’anae and Waialua and he is credited with creating Wai Momi, which translates to “water of pearl” AKA today’s Pearl Harbor. But you probably guessed that because you’re so smart. What you may not know is that Pearl Harbor, additionally known as Pu’uloa which means “long hill,” was home to the ancient Hawaiin shark goddess Ka’ahupahau and her brother, Kahi’uka. And together, the shark siblings protected swimmers and islanders from becoming sharkbait (Hoo ha ha). They also herded fish into the nets of fishermen rather than eat them themselves because fish were friends, not food. 

So buckle up because we’ve got a Hawaiian roller coaster ride of a Historic Shuffle this week.  Shuffle up this fin-tastic playlist as you learn about ancient guardian shark gods, Chief Keaunui and the community surrounding Pearl Harbor before it was bombed:

Not much is known about Chief Keaunui, mostly because Wikipedia hadn’t yet been invented at the time of his birth. We do know that Keaunui was the son of High Chieftess Nu’akea, who was born on Oahu and was named after the goddess of lactation. Google Docs tried to autofill that sentence to “goddess of wisdom” but nope, not this time, Google Docs. We’ve got a goddess of creamy, viscous, non-oat, non-almond liquid product in our midst, thank you very much. Nu’akea was the granddaughter of Chief Maweke, who famously had a deep knowledge of black magic, and lived in the 11th century. So, armed with this knowledge, it’s safe to say that Chief Keaunui lived a looong time ago, probably nearly 1,000 years ago.

We’d like to say that Keaunui spent his early years splashing around at the beach, diving amidst the waves for shells until he was one day approached to choose either a blue pill or a red pill – oops, that’s Keanu again, our bad. But, anyway, we don’t know much about the chief’s youth or any part of his life except that he was part of the Nanaulu line and he married a woman named Wehelani and they had at least three known children.

Keaunui’s main contribution to Hawaiian history as we Americans understand it is that he’s credited with widening and deepening a channel near the Puʻuloa saltworks, which was called Pearl River, and made it accessible and navigable for travelers. That channel that Keaunui crafted has evolved over time and we now know it as Pearl Harbor, the site of all the infamy hubbub. But before Americans became interested in Pearl Harbor AKA Pu’uloa AKA Wai Momi as prime real estate for a naval base and a full-on state, the native Hawaiians were busy worshiping sharks in those pearly waters because Pu’uloa’s Keepers kept Keaunui’s harbor safe from the wild and dangerous sharks of the sea known as manō i‘a. So let’s take a brief interlude from Keaunui and talk about ancient Hawaiian guardian sharks. Rawr.  

Ka’ahupahau and Kahi’uka weren’t always sharks. According to one of many ancient Hawaiian lores, Ka’ahupahau and Kahi’uka were once children who went out to play on a sunny day and probably said, “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me. And no one knows how far it goes…..but maybe we should.” When the sun began to set, their parents began to fret because their daughter and son didn’t return home for dinner. With help from their neighbors, the parents set out on a search through the jungle and along the seashore. All that was found was Ka’ahupahau’s flower crown floating over the waves under the moonlit sky. 

That was until a few fishermen came back from a day of catching, uh, fish and reported that they noticed two beautiful, tame sharks swimming around and leading fish into their nets. Apparently they even flashed a smile with their sharp pearly whites. They thought, “could these sharks be Ka’ahupahau and Kahi’uka reincarnated?” In response, a curious priest set out to sea in his canoe, found the two sharks and tossed them an offering. After saying his incantation, the priest declared that the two gentle sharks were in fact (!) the two missing children and moving forward they would be worshiped as gods

Aside from worshiping the sharks, ancient Hawaiians cleaned the barnacles off their sandpapery skin, used them as a food source and trained them to be rideable. Yes, as in how you may ride a dolphin in the Bahamas or wherever. Sharks were held in high reverence by Hawaiians because they were such fierce predators that they wouldn’t want their ancestors or family members to reincarnate as anything else. So Ka’ahupahau and Kahi’uka guarded the waters of Pearl Harbor because not all sharks were good sharks. There were the manō kānaka which were nice just like Ka’ahupahau and Kahi’uka and then there were manō i‘a which were wild man-eaters. Yikes! Don’t dip your toes in, kids!

Ka’ahupahau and Kahi’uka patrolled Pearl Harbor and faced off head to hammer-head in one of the fiercest shark battles against Mikololou, who brought his fellow man-eaters to attack islanders and made the waters unsafe to fish in. Ka’ahupahau shape shifted into a net, as one does in shark war, and ensnared the man eating sharks. The sibling sharks allegedly stayed in Pearl Harbor until more humans began to show up and build things like docks. Legend has it that when the U.S. Navy built a dock over Ka’ahupahau’s cave, it collapsed because she still inhabited the area. Though the dock collapsed, the Americans weren’t spooked by no sharks. So now, what were the humans up to above water? 

U.S. naval officers became more interested in Pearl Harbor as a port separate from Honolulu because it was wide and deep enough, thanks to Keaunui, to hold large ships. In 1887 (finally, an actual date!), the U.S. gained exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor AKA Wai Momi AKA Pu’uloa as a coaling and repair station. However they didn’t start using the area strategically until the Spanish-American War in 1898 produced a need for a military presence in the Pacific Ocean. 

So under President McKinley’s leadership, the U.S. annexed Hawaii in 1898 because it was a hot piece of land to use to fight the Spaniards. The U.S. military ousted Queen Lili’uokalani, despite lots of protests from natives living on the islands. After the war, American business boys opened up their pockets in Hawaii, setting up sugar and fruit plantations and dispossessing native Hawaiians in the process. But though Hawaii was gaining significance in mainstream American culture, there was little interest in defining the relationship and making things like statehood official. The business boys just wanted to hit it and quit it. So when the attacks on Pearl Harbor came in 1941, Hawaii still wasn’t even technically part of the U.S., it just had lots of U.S. military and business interests there, making it a sweet spot for striking. 

But after the Pearl Harbor bombing, a feeling of nationalism swept mainland America, and people started to be interested in making the Aloha State a… state. Ms. Hawaii was proving to be quite the strategic powerhouse during war, and with the Cold War not going away, Senate Majority Leader LBJ gave her the push she needed on the Congressional floor to push the statehood vote over the edge in her favor. So, in 1959, Hawaii finally became the 50th state to join the Union. 

Keaunui probably had little idea what was to come of his pearly waters when he crafted the channel that would lead to Pearl Harbor a whole millennium ago. These days, the state and federal government are the two biggest landowners in Hawaii, plus native Hawaiians must prove they are at least 50% Hawaiian by blood in order to lay claim to public lands that have been set aside for native Hawaiians who were pushed off the land when the white business boys arrived. And similarly to how native Hawaiians are losing their land, sharks are too. 

The creatures that were once so important to Hawaiians, helping them navigate waters and protect them from danger, are now endangered as they lose their habitats and are subjected to human activities. Though Hawaiians no longer pay homage to sharks in the same way as their ancestors did, the ancestral association still exists and maybe someday Ka’ahupahau and Kahi’uka will return to the deep waters of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps they will swim amidst the wreckage of battleships and remnants of soldiers, scare away settlers, and return the land to its rightful owners in their effort to once again protect the valuable channel created by Keaunui.

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