It’s hard to believe that Hawaii is part of the United States. It maintains a culture that is far different from any other in the states. And a wonderful National Park in Kona on the Big Island, known as Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park or “Place of Refuge,” preserves and explains the Hawaiian culture in the typical wonderfully interesting way that U.S. National Parks do best.
Before Captain Cook brought Western culture to the Hawaiian Islands, and until the mid-nineteenth century, the Hawaiian Islands were ruled by a king and its society was highly structured. Even today, unless you come from the lineage of the King, you are not considered a true Hawaiian. Even if you were born and have lived in Hawaii your entire life, you may be considered “a local,” but you never achieve the status of a Hawaiian.
The Hawaiian people aren’t sure, but they probably descend from seagoing Polynesians centuries ago. There was strife among Hawaiians until the Islands were united under the rule of King Kamehameha by force in 1810.
Unless you were royalty, you could not look at the king or have your shadow cross his path. This was but one of many “kapus,” or taboos, the violation of which led to the only form of punishment they had…death. If you knew someone who violated a kapu, you were also obligated to kill the violator. Thus an entire community became responsible for enforcing the kapus. If your daughter looked at the king and as a father you knew it, you were obligated to kill your daughter. If as the father you did not do this, you were just as guilty as the daughter and were to be killed. A simple and effective societal system was thus enforced.
There was one way to escape death: get to a pu’uhonua o honaunau, or place of refuge. About a dozen such places were scattered among the Hawaiian Islands. To get to one it was required that you to arrive by sea while being pursued by those who you wronged and those who knew about your wrong, all trying to carry out their obligation to kill you.
If you did arrive at a place of refuge, priests would give you a second chance and immediately release you back to your community.
When missionaries converted the Hawaiian Islands to Christianity, they destroyed all places of refuge except for one that remains today as the National Park.
Here you can find the place where the monarch and his family would stay under the care of his staff. Next to the royal grounds, surrounded by a 500-year old wall made of lava stones without mortar—a wall that has survived even tsunamis while other nearby buildings were destroyed or moved hundreds of yards by rushing waters—is the part of the place of refuge where the priests stayed. Some of the stones in the wall are massive, and it is still not understood how they were moved.
The Hawaiian culture would not bury the dead, but instead their bones would be kept. At the National Park, the former burial place for the bones of royalty still exists and is considered sacred by natives. Only royalty got this treatment. The bones of others were placed in an unknown place. Interesting fact: We don’t know where Captain Cook’s bones are. On his second visit to Hawaii, he was killed by Hawaiians who placed his bones in a place that still remains a secret.
The National Park remains a place of spirituality in its beauty and peacefulness, a place not to miss among the other joys of a visit to the Big Island of Hawaii.