Sharing sacred culture and history on Molokai

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Greg Solatorio blows a conch to announce the arrival of visitors to his family’s land in the Halawa Valley on Molokai.
Greg Solatorio blows a conch to announce the arrival of visitors to his family’s land in the Halawa Valley on Molokai. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan
After I placed my small gift on the altar, I turned to perform the traditional greeting with Anakala Pilipo Solatorio. We were meant to touch noses, but I didn't angle my lean properly and offered far too much of my sweaty brow and not enough nose.


"I need your nose," Solatorio firmly, but warmly, scolded me. "Otherwise, the gate is over there."

I made a second attempt, this time making nose-to-nose contact. We both breathed in, and I was officially welcomed on his land. You share breath from the nose as a greeting, as opposed to the mouth, because that is the purest form of breath.

"The mouth can be used to say bad, mean things, and the breath can be tainted," he explained.

His land is in the Halawa Valley on Molokai's eastern tip, near the site of the earliest signs of human settlement found to date on the Hawaiian Islands: a fire pit carbon-dated to 650. Solatorio, who lived through a tsunami that hit the valley on April 1, 1946, helped lead the archaeologists to the site of the fire pit when they came to study the valley. Solatorio now hosts visitors on his property for cultural tours that highlight the language, food, customs and traditions of some of the earliest inhabitants of the island.

Solatorio and his family are the last descendants in the area of that original Hawaiian colony. They have made it their mission to preserve the traditional Hawaiian customs, language and ways of life and teach them to the next generation. His son Greg now leads the tours and is taking over more and more of the duties.

Before our group of journalists, sponsored by the Molokai Visitors Bureau, could enter the property to greet Anakala, Greg announced our visit with several blows from a conch shell. Only when we heard a conch blow in return from Anakala were we allowed to enter. Next we presented Anakala with hookupu, small gifts reflecting our hometowns, as a gesture of gratitude for welcoming us on his property. The gifts are traditionally wrapped in tea leaves, and if tour participants show up without a gift, the Solatorios have a mock one that is used for demonstrations. The mission behind the family's venture is to educate.

"Culture is sacred, not secret," is one of Greg Solatorio's mantras that he repeated several times during the tour. The Solatorios are very clear that they believe many visitors to the Hawaiian Islands get partial or even incorrect lessons on history and culture. They want to demystify the customs and make sure people come away with a better understanding of Hawaii's history and people.

Greg Solatorio at the Mooula Falls, where weary hikers can take a dip.
Greg Solatorio at the Mooula Falls, where weary hikers can take a dip. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan

Before embarking on our hike, the Solatorios went over some of the history of the valley, including what life was like in the early Hawaiian colony, the devastating tsunami of 1946 and the subsequent population growth in the area.

By living their own lives as close to the traditional Hawaiian manner as possible, including how they manage their land, grow crops, dress and greet each other, the Solatorios help to preserve the culture and aid in its modern renewal.

"There is a difference between learning culture versus living culture," Greg Solatorio said, arguing that Hawaiian language and culture classes in schools can only do so much.

We wound through the forest guided by a barefoot Greg, who kept a running narration of stories about the first Hawaiians, identifications of plants and trees and language lessons. For example, the word "haole" is today used to mean "outsider," and is specifically used as a derogatory term for Caucasians. But the word's original Hawaiian meaning was simply "foreigner," according to Greg, and has no deeper meaning related to one's appearance.

"If I went to your home, your city, then I'd be a haole there," he said.

The hike was moderate, about three and a half miles roundtrip, but did involve two river crossings that left some hikers with wet feet. Along the way we sampled strawberry guavas, spotted axis deer, took in the cheesy smell of the noni fruit and hiked past breadfruit trees. There is a heiau, or temple, tucked into an overgrown area of the jungle where Greg allows visitors to roam and take pictures, something typically forbidden at heiaus found on the islands.

"A lot of people don't really understand the history, meaning and purpose behind the heiaus, so they just say they're forbidden or you have to be invited and keep people away," Greg said.

The hike into the jungle ends at Mooula Falls, a series of waterfalls ending in a 300-foot cascade pouring into a pool that is perfect for swimming. The water is chilly but refreshing after the muggy hike. We took a dip, had a snack and then Greg led us back down the path to his home.

Proceeds from the cultural hike to the falls and other programming help support the Solatorios' educational mission, including hosting school groups to show them taro-farming techniques and the traditional way of pounding poi.

The Halawa Valley Falls Cultural Hike costs $60 for adults and $35 for children. The cost for the cultural presentation without the hike is $40 for adults and $20 for children. For more information, visit http://halawavalleymolokai.com.

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