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Ancient Place of Refuge in Hawaii

Hala tree growing out of lava

An interesting national historical park on the Big Island of Hawaii is one that's not easy to pronounce. I found it to be a place so relaxing that it makes you want to stay longer.


Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park provides a sense of peace, calm, and comfort to residents and park visitors. Historically, it was a place of refuge for ancient Hawaiians who had broken a sacred law, found themselves on the losing side of a war, or were in other extraordinary circumstances, all of which required a death sentence.


They could get a second chance at life if they made it to the place of refuge before they were caught – and if the kahuna pule, the Hawaiian priest, absolved them. Some people managed to reach the site. Others didn't, and they paid with their lives. Those who reached the place of refuge couldn't just walk away and resume their old behaviors. They had to examine their lives, decide how they were going to change their ways, and demonstrate that they truly had turned over a new leaf.


There used to be several places of refuge in Hawaii, but they are all gone now except for the one at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. It is located off of Highway 160 on the South Kona Coast along the lava flats at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.


There are many trees, including palms, in the national historical park. One of the trees we saw was a hala tree, which grew out of lava. Its durable hala leaves were plaited into canoe sails, mats and baskets. The leaves also were used for thatching roofs. It produced large fruit, which was eaten fresh. Parts of the fruit were sometimes made into small brushes for decorating barkcloth with plant dyes.


A volunteer at the park gave a talk in the auditorium about what the place of refuge means to her and her people. She said it gave people a chance to reevaluate their lives, to make better choices, to dedicate themselves to a healthy purpose. At the end of her talk, she used her beautiful contralto voice to sing a song in Hawaiian about the place of refuge. Though I couldn't understand the words, it was clear that the song held deep meaning for her.


When I think about Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, I remember its peacefulness, its calming effect. If I ever get a chance to return to the Big Island of Hawaii, I would like to spend more time there, soaking in the healing atmosphere of the place and of its trees.


To learn more about the park, visit this website: Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov).

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