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Maintaining borrowed land

With 40 years left on the lease, Kahana residents recount their experiences in the Valley they call home

Apr 22, 2021


By Georgia Clair Johnson-King and Samantha-Jo Sexton

Tucked away on the Northern side of O’ahu under dense Ko’olau mountains lies Kahana Valley. This solitary state-owned valley is one of the only intact ahupua’a on the island of O’ahu.

An ahupua'a is a subdivision of land in a traditional Hawaiian socioeconomic, geologic and climatic system that runs from the mountains to the sea. Ahupua’a are usually separated into three sections-mountains (mauka), plains (kula), and the sea (makai). The Hawaiians had a cultural system of balance, and those living in each section would share resources with each other.

Kahana is one of the most physically and functionally intact ahupuaʻa, and the only state-owned and managed ahupuaʻa on the island.

According to historians, in 1848 the Ahupua’a o Kahana was granted to Analea (Annie) Keohokalole by the Great Mahele, with 178.2 acres also being awarded to Hawaiians known as “maka‘āinana."

Keohokalole sold a portion of her land in 1857 to a Chinese merchant before selling the rest of her land in 1874 to a land hui. Land hui are groups of Hawaiians who have gathered to buy cultural land. Unfortunately due to the mortgage act of 1874 the land was gradually auctioned off and ended up being bought out by Mary Foster in 1901.

During this period of time, residents had been allowed to remain on the land; however, in 1939 the military began using the ahupua’a for jungle warfare training during World War II, which was the government’s first association with the land.

Military training structures can still be found on the mountain. These bunker-type structures are now overrun with vines, and remain untouched aside from the occasional curious hiker.

In 1960 a 9.5 magnitude earthquake struck southwest Chile, generating a tsunami that damaged the Huilua Fishpond.

In 1965  Hawai’i condemned the property for park purposes with a $5 million price, paid in five annual installments. The state released plans to develop a man-made lake, camping sites, and hotels in order to transform Kahana Valley.

This began the relationship difficulties between residents and the state. Shortly after the acquisition, the state released further plans to evict families regardless of ancestral ties to the land in order to establish Kahana Valley as a “world-famous” recreational park.

The residents, led by spokesperson Jose Gaceta, lobbied the Legislature and in 1970 the “living park concept” was developed by Gov. Burns Kahana’s task force. This living park concept allowed residents to continue to live in the park.

In 1987, the state passed Act 5, which meant DLNR issued 65-year leases to residents of the park on the condition that they participate in the Cultural Interpretive Program for a minimum of 25 hours a week instead of cash payment.

In 1993, 80-year-long residential leases were signed by 31 families, allowing them to continue living in Kahana.

According to an executive summary released by the state of Hawai’i in 2018: “State Parks should continue to work with Kahana families on important natural and cultural resource management programs, including the restoration of Huilua Fishpond, community‐based management of the ocean resources of Kahana Bay, restoration of loʻi and ʻauwai, and restoration of the free flow of Kahana Stream.”

There are currently six families still waiting for leases.


Kahana Valley is home to a bounty of trails aligned with indidenous species such as hala, lauaʻe, ki, noni and more. The trails are an introduction to their culture as the tenants in the valley maintain the trails as many are aligned with traditional sites.

Wildlife can be found on the trails such as native songbirds and feral pigs, which were introduced by original Polynesian colonizers and later interbred with European species.

The Nakoa Trail is a 4.5 mile loop throughout the back of the valley, signage is present and the trail is often lined with fruit species which are available to pick  such as mountain apples, lilikoi and guava. The Nakoa trail is full of interesting sites such as two unused WWII bunkers, two river crossing sites and multiple swimming holes.

These swimming holes closer to the entrance are populated with the waterfall climbing oʻopu (gobies), which is Hawaiʻis only freshwater fish.

Kapaʻeleʻele Koʻa and Keanani Kilo trail link up and follow the Western entrance of Kahana Valley and in the beginning follow the old path of the “Koʻolau Railway” which was responsible for moving sugar cane grown in Kahana to the Kahuku Sugar mill in the 1800ʻs.

Map of Kahana Trails provided by Kahana Cultural Center

Present on the trails are two historical sites, Koʻa: a shrine dedicated to fishing where historically offerings were placed underneath, and the other Kilo — a lookout for traditional ʻfish watchers’ used for weather prediction and guidance for fishermen on the water.

The Koʻa shrine is still accessible and is a rectangular arrangement of rocks and boulders that faces openly to the sea. Leaving stones wrapped in ti leaves is seen as an inappropriate offering from foreigners.

The Kilo site is at an elevation of 150 feet above sea level, and traditionally flags of kapa were used to signal to the fisherman waiting in Kahana Bay.

Akule fish were plentiful in Kahana and are recognisable by an iridescent reflection that the kilo iʻa (fish watcher) could spot and direct the fisherman to.

Over the years both sites have faced deterioration but can still be accessed today.


Kanaloa Gaceta, grandson of Kahana Bay advocate Jose Gaceta, spent most of his childhood growing up in the Valley. He began maintaining and operating the valley’s cultural center when he was 11 years old.

“They made a deal that we’d get 80 years of lease —we don’t pay rent here—as long as we provide at least 24 hours of cultural contribution a week. So this is mine!” Gaceta said opening the door to the museum he still maintains.

The door opens to a room crowded with cultural artifacts and informational posters. Ipu adorn one shelf; another is filled with different sizes of poi pounders. Everywhere you look there is a new intriguing artifact.

A miniature model of a traditional fishing system sits under a glass cabinet, and as Gaceta talks, hepasses me different Kapa design sticks to appraise.

At 21 years of age, Gaceta has been maintaining the museum and its history for 10 years. He currently lives with his step-mother, Corrine, and father, Lance, in the Valley.

“My grandfather was the spokesman for that community that helped the government reach that program,” Gaceta said, speaking of Kahana Bay activist Jose Gaceta. “We have forty years left on the lease, so it will probably be down handed to me.”

Gaceta personally walked me through the history of Kahana via story. He begins the tale with the arrival of Hawaiʻians to Kahana circa 1000 AD.

“There’s an old heiau, right up on the Kapa ʻele ʻele trail. It’s a traditional shrine to the Gods,” Gaceta said. The Kapa ʻele ʻele trail runs through the Western side of Kahana Bay runs to the Kapa ʻele ʻele koʻa fishing shrine.

Gaceta moves quickly through history, detailing the exchange of land between Chinese merchants and giving me an intimate insight into the Morman impact on the Hawaiian culture. He spoke of the “ʻawa rebellion” which occurred in Kahana in the 1870’s, according to Robert Stauffer.

Oʻahu was overrun with sugar cane plantations at the time, and Kahana Valley had a plantation that sold sugar to the local Kahuku Plantation and mill.

After missionary Frederick Mitchell became the president and plantation manager in 1873, he banned the production of ʻawa and the usage of the Hawaiian language.

“Taking away our ʻawa production and language may not sound like much but it was just one step closer to cultural destruction,” Gaceta said.

This led to the ʻawa rebellion with residents moving from plantations in Laʻie under Mitchell’s control to Kahana Valley. Once in Kahana, the kanaka maoli residents wrote to Brigham Young, who called Mitchell home.

Gaceta quickly flies through time, speaking briefly of the state’s usage of the valley for military warfare practice: “Thereʻs military bunkers still up on the trail,” and the tsunami of the 1940’s.

“In 1955-1960, that’s when you really had people start fighting for the land rights here,” Gaceta stated. This is about the time the plans went into development for the Kahana Valley resort.

It’s also the time Jose Gaceta advocated for the families of the park. “He was tall and well-spoken,” Gaceta says of his grandfather who moved into the valley in the ʻ60’s.

“Can you imagine if this place looked like Waikiki? Itʻd be disgusting! You couldn’t! Gaceta exclaimed, gesturing to a wall covered with an aerial view of Kahana Valley.

“Weʻre totally unsure what happens at the end of the lease,” he said.

Gaceta plans to continue living and working in AhupuaʻaʻO Kahana doing his part to educate others on the cultural significance and history of the valley and its residents.


Leiolani Buan Gaceta’s family has lived in Kahana Valley and surrounding Kaʻaʻawa for three generations. Her father was born and raised on a trout farm in Kahana Valley.

Buan Gaceta comes from a family of six: her mother, father, older brother, older sister and twin sister. Buan Gaceta moved to Waikiki when she was 18 to pursue another career but came back on weekends and eventually moved back.

She has seen many changes to her family property in the valley — houses built and demolished, land cleared, family members buried. This is more than property to her; itʻs a connection to culture.

Today, wild horses are not prevalent on O’ahu but as of 2018 can still be found on the Big Island in Waipio Valley. Buan Gaceta remembers a time when wild mustangs roamed Kahana Valley.

“We used to stand right here, and call them. You’d see horses running down the mountains to you,” Buan Gaceta said, standing beside the road of her property, looking into the valley.

“Me and my twin, weʻd get paid $10 per horse to break here,” she continued talking of the process of catching and training horses. With a life-time of experience in horsemanship it was natural Buan Gaceta eventually turned her family property into a ranch.

As the mustangs of Kahana became domesticated, eventually Buan Gaceta found herself as the caretaker of the last mustang who passed away in late 2020.

In the space where her childhood home used to stand, Buan Gaceta gives riding lessons for students. Her business Legacy Horsemanship educates students on her traditional Hawaiian knowledge.

Buan Gaceta currently has four horses that she uses for her business: Playboy, Tucker, Hekili and Thor.


Cody Kamehamehaloa Gaceta, 28,  recounted his childhood growing up in Kahana Valley. As he is still living in the valley, he has visibly noticed changes.

“You donʻt catch as much fish; there's so many people now,” he said. “We used to catch catfish across the street. My grandpa, Jose, all the kids, cousins — we’d go catfish and lay net in front of the fishpond. Lots more fish back then.”

Oʻahu is the most popular island for tourism, hosting around 10 million visitors in 2019, according to the Hawaiʻi Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism. The rise of tourism has impacted Kahana with more people coming to fish, hike and swim.

“In 2010 when people started posting about the Dam and Crouching Lion it started to get really popular,” Kamehamehaloa Gaceta, said referring to two local tourist spots.

These regular tourists are a stark contrast to the childhood Kamehamehaloa Gaceta remembered.

“When we were kids my dad would give us machetes to cut the trees. We were wild here in the country so we used to harass the tourists who asked for directions,” Kamehamehaloa Gaceta recounts laughing. “Weʻd jump on their cars and stuff.”

Kamehamehaloa Gaceta has gone from joking around with tourists to cleaning up their rubbish. The increase of people meant an increase of garbage.

“In the mountains you find wrappers and soda cans,” Kamehamehaloa Gaceta said. “Thereʻs nothing we can do about it except clean it up. It would be nice if people who came would respect the land.”

Kamehamehaloa Gaceta not only helps maintain the mountain trails but is actively working on restoring the Huilua fishpond walls at the base of Kahana Valley.

In 2015 the Department of Land and Natural Resources granted a permit for cultural practitioners and volunteers to begin restoring and maintaining the Hulia Fishpond.

Kamehamehaloa Gaceta is working with Friends Of Kahana, a volunteer-based community organization,  to restore the pond.

“Iʻd love to see more help from people,” Kamehamehaloa Gaceta said.

To become involved in restoring the fishpond visit the Friends of Kahana website.

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