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Ulupō Heiau State Historic Site
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It’s 1750. Kailua is the political seat of power for the district of Ko’olaupoko and a favored place of the Oʻahu chiefs for its abundance of fish and good canoe landings. The houses of the ali’i (chiefs), their families, and their attendants surround Kailua Bay. Behind the sand beach is the large, fertile expanse of Kawai Nui which has been converted to a fishpond surrounded by an agricultural fieldsystem. Kawai Nui is a large, 400 acre fishpond with an abundance of mullet, awa, and o’opu. Ka’elepulu and Nu’upia fishponds are nearby. The maka’ainana (commoners) provide support for this chiefly residence. Farmers grow kalo (taro) in the irrigated lo’i (fields) along the streams from Maunawili and along the edges of the fishponds. Crops of dryland kalo, banana, sweet potato, and sugarcane mark the fringes of the marsh. The fishermen harvest fish from the fishponds and the sea. The kahuna (priests) oversee the religious ceremonies and rites at several heiau around Kawai Nui. There is Ulupō Heiau on the east with Pahukini Heiau and Holomakani Heiau on the west side.
Hauwahine, the mo’o or guardian spirit, protects the people of Kawai Nui and assures an abundance of fish. The legendary association of Ulupō Heiau with the menehune suggests the antiquity of this site. The massiveness and quantity of rock carried many miles hint at its cultural importance. Tradition records Kualoa, more than 10 miles away, as one source of these stones.
It is likely that the function of this heiau changed over time. It probably began as a mapele or agricultural heiau with ceremonies and rites conducted to insure the fertility of the crops grown in Kawai Nui. In later times, it may have become a heiau luakini dedicated to success in war with structures erected atop this massive stone platform, including an altar, an oracle tower or anu’u, thatched hale, and notches in the terraces to hold the ki’i or wooden images. The spring off the corner of the heiau was another important feature related to the ceremonial traditions of the site.
Ulupō Heiau measures 140 by 180 feet with walls up to 30 feet in height. The construction of this massive terraced platform required a large work force under the direction of a powerful ali’i. Several Oʻahu chiefs lived at Kailua and probably participated in ceremonies at Ulupō Heiau, including Kakuhihewa in the 1400s and Kuali’i in the late 1600s. Kuali’i fought many battles and he may have rededicated Ulupō Heiau as a heiau luakini. Maui chief Kahekili came to Oʻahu in the 1780s and lived in Kailua after defeating Oʻahu high chief Kahahana for control of the island. Kamehameha I worked at Kawai Nui fishpond and is said to have eaten the edible mud (lepo ai ia) of Kawai Nui when there was a shortage of kalo. But by 1795 when Kamehameha I conquered Oʻahu, it is believed that Ulupō Heiau was already abandoned.
Ulupō Heiau was transferred from the Territorial Board of Agriculture and Forestry to Territorial Parks in 1954. In the early 1960s, through a joint effort of State Parks and Kaneohe Ranch, the stone walkway was placed atop the heiau and the stone paving was laid around the springs. The bronze plaque was installed in 1962 by the Commission on Historical Sites. Ulupō Heiau is listed on the National and Hawaii Registers of Historic Places. At Ulupō Heiau, State Parks seeks to promote preservation of the heiau and heighten public awareness about the cultural history of Kawai Nui.