The call came in June 2013. Greg Solatorio had worked a late shift at his restaurant job and when he got home after midnight, he found his wife was still awake.
They had been discussing for a while the fact that he would have to leave Oahu one day and return to Halawa, the remote East Molokai valley where he had been raised.
“That night in June, my wife said, ‘I talked to your dad earlier today; it’s time for you to go,’” Solatorio said.
Later that month, he was back in Halawa, walking in the footsteps of his father, Anakala Pilipo Solatorio, a kupuna (elder) respected for his knowledge about the history of Halawa and his efforts to preserve and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture there.
The father had passed the torch to his youngest son.
“In our culture, we say, ‘Nana i ke kumu,’ which means ‘Go to the source,’” Solatorio said. “That is how I learned — from my dad, who is the last person born and raised in Halawa in the traditional way and who is still living there.”
Around 650 A.D., Halawa was one of the first areas in Hawaii to be settled by Polynesian voyagers. Members of the Solatorio family have lived in the valley for many generations.
Six days a week, Solatorio invites visitors to Halawa to learn about the “real Hawaii.” They touch adzes, poi-pounding boards, ulu maika (bowling) stones and other artifacts that have been in his family for centuries. On a hike to 250-foot Mo‘oula Falls, they see ancient taro terraces, irrigation ditches and an agricultural heiau (place of worship). And they hear stories about Molokai and Halawa, as they were told to Solatorio by his father and other elders.
Here are a few of those stories, in Solatorio’s own words.
The correct spelling
“Molo means ‘to twist or turn.’ Kai means ‘ocean.’ Ka‘i, with the okina or glottal stop, means ‘leader.’ When you put them together, what makes more sense — Moloka‘i, the twisting leader, or Molokai, the twisting ocean waters?
“The late Harriet Ne — a historian, hula master and one of my father’s teachers — said it should be ‘Molokai,’ referring to the waterspouts often seen off the island. Old maps show spelling variations, including Molokai, Morotoi and Molotoi, but they all have three syllables, not four as there would be when you say those words with an okina.”
“The flower of the kukui, candlenut tree, is Molokai’s official flower. The Hawaiians made candles with oily kukui nuts by lining them up on the midrib of a coconut leaf. The first nut was set on fire and burned for 3 to 5 minutes. Its oil dripped to the next nut, which caught on fire and burned for another 3 to 5 minutes and so on.
“That is why kukui means ‘light.’ That’s the physical light, but the kukui also has spiritual symbolism. When I take kukui nuts and string them into a lei, I have a ring of light. When I wear my kukui lei, it reminds me that I should be kind, courteous, loving, friendly and polite to everyone at all times.
“Many people today think of the kukui lei as just a trinket or souvenir. To Hawaiians, it is sacred. When you’re wearing a kukui lei, you’re wearing a ring of light, and you should display that ‘light’ or goodness.”
The 1946 tsunami
“In 1946, there was a town with bridges, taro fields, a church, harbor, school, general store, post office and poi factory in Halawa. Everything changed on April 1 that year, when the tsunami hit.
“My dad was 6-1/2 years old at the time. People in the valley had gotten phone calls the day before, saying a tsunami was going to come to the valley around 7 the next morning, but no one knew what to expect.
“As the women were walking to the ocean that morning to weave mats and ‘talk story,’ they noticed something unusual: The water was starting to recede and get higher. They turned around, ran to the church and started ringing the bell and screaming, ‘Kai e‘e, kai e‘e!’, ‘Ocean rising, ocean rising!’
“The men in the taro fields heard the bell and the women screaming. They told the teenagers to release the animals from the pens, so they wouldn’t drown. Everyone went to the top of the hill, where Mile Marker 27 is now, and watched the 111.6-foot wall of water come 1.7 miles into the valley. After it was over, the town was pretty much gone, but, amazingly, no one died.”
“Visitors are always surprised to find out were no trees in Halawa Valley before the tsunami. They think Hawaii had rainforests from the mountains to the sea from the beginning, but ancient Hawaii was actually a barren place.
“The hike to Mo‘oula Falls goes through a forest of mango, cherry, lilikoi, pine, avocado, orange, eucalyptus, monkeypod, mountain apple and Java plum — things the farmers in Halawa had been growing. The trees are so tall and dense now, it’s hard to imagine they are just 70-something years old — younger than my dad.”
The kuleana (responsibility)
“Today, there are only about a dozen people living in Halawa. My family is the only family that’s fishing, farming, hunting and living the subsistence lifestyle of our ancestors. I came to take my place in the valley, to continue those traditions and teach others about them, because that is what I’ve been training for my whole life.
“Without me, my dad is the last cultural practitioner in Halawa. When he passes, I will be the last until someone else in my family agrees to make it their kuleana. I didn’t have to do it; I wanted to do it. But you don’t know how big the shoes are until you try to fill them.”
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.