Gods of War
The Luakini Heiau Kānoa in Puʻuʻeo
The luakini heiau known as Kānoa once stood along the western shores of Hilo Bay near the mouth of the Wailuku River. Stokes in Heiau of the Island of Hawaiʻi: A Historic Survey of Native Hawaiian Temple Sites says succinctly that it was located “at the eastern end of Kanoa Street, near the sea cliff.” And by the time of his visit in 1907, it was entirely destroyed.
The ahupuaʻa of Puʻuʻeo has only a small frontage on Hilo Bay, but it fans out the further ones goes inland until it is quite wide. It reaches the peak of Mauna Kea and covers a large portion of the eastern slopes of mountain. This expanse of land is also the watershed of the Wailuku River, the longest flowing fresh water source in the entire island chain. In other words, Puʻuʻeo and those that lived there, controlled substantial resources. Kānoa heiau was situated on the highest and most central location overlooking Hilo Bay with the Wailuku River and Mauna Kea at its back, a mighty combination of geological and sociopolitical factors. The printed record tells us that at least three island rulers sought to draw power, consult their war god, and make sacrifices at this heiau: Keakealaniwahine, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, and Liholiho.
Keakealaniwahine was the ruler of the entire island four generations before Kamehameha. No other chiefess was her equal, and she had the highest kapu. According to the prominent Hawaiian from the early 1800s John Papa ʻĪʻī in his book Fragment of Hawaiian History Keakealaniwahine was in charge of all the heiau on the island. He also notes that she was one of the rare women in the history of Hawaiʻi that offered human sacrifices at the luakini heiau. During her rule the heiau at Kānoa was the principal luakini for the district of Hilo.
A few generations later Kānoa heiau played a role in the latter years of the reign of Kalani‘ōpu‘u. The story of the end of the rule of Kalani‘ōpu‘u is told in different ways by different authors. There is one part of that telling that I would like to emphasize below, and that relates to the rebuilding of heiau by island rulers.
While Kalani‘ōpu‘u was still alive and ruling the island, a chief from the Puna district, Imakakoloa, rebelled against him. Imakakoloa (or Imakakaloa, as Fornander spells it in Ancient History of the Hawaiian People) refused to contribute to Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s extravagant demands for property. It was not uncommon for local chiefs to rebel against the island ruler in ancient Hawai‘i, and the remedy for that was almost always violent confrontation.
Kalani‘ōpu‘u started his campaign to suppress Imakakoloa by erecting the heiau Moa‘ula in Waipi‘o Valley, and then he headed to Hilo with his army. Fornander and Kamakau both report that he then “built” the heiau of Kanowa at Pu‘ueo, and after dedicating it, stayed across Hilo Bay behind where Suisan is now, at the place called ‘Ohele. But we know from ʻĪ‘ī that the heiau of Kānoa at Pu‘uʻeo was a prominent luakini heiau generations before Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s time, so Kalani‘ōpu‘u was not the first “builder” of this war temple.
Old luakini could be used by new rulers, and they often were. But to do so the new ʻai moku had to renew and refresh the place. As explained by David Malo on page 161 of Hawaiian Antiquities the internal structures, walls, fence, and idols may or may not be required to be replaced. Close observation of stone walls on currently standing heiau can reveal where upward and outward additions have been made to luakini over time. So when someone says that a particular chief “built” a heiau one must remember what Fornander points out on page 102 of Ancient History of the Hawaiian People that it is often the case that “he only rebuilt or repaired an ancient one on the same site.”
Approximately 35 years after the re-consecration of Kānoa heiau by Kalani‘ōpu‘u, Kamehameha notified his son Liholiho to be prepared to rule. In 1817 while Kamehameha was still alive and ruler, Liholiho made a clockwise circuit of the island as the heir apparent to the kingdom. The luakini heiau were the principal destinations on this journey according to ʻĪʻī on page 137. Only the highest of chiefs had the right to enter and engage at the luakini heiau, and Liholiho was making that clear to all of the local inhabitants as he passed through their districts. The place where he demonstrated this political might in Hilo was the Kānoa heiau.