Rebuilding Our Past

Melehina Groves


Billy Fields

Billy Fields, at an opening ceremony welcoming his crew to Kamehameha Schools Kapālama.

Fields Crew

From left to right: John Hokama, Ray Genegabuas, Shayne Wong-Yuen, William Ka‘eo III, Lance Ho‘okano, and Billy Fields. Behind them is the large kahua recently completed at Keanakamanō.


Shane Wong-Yuen(left) and Ray Genegabuas begin work on what will become the perimeter wall, pictured below. "They're all numbered!" laughed Ray when explaining how they choose where to place the stones.


The finished perimeter wall.


Keanakamanō before restoration work began.


Photos: Courtesy of Michael Young
The same area upon completion of the large kahua at Keanakamanō.


Ua ho‘onoho niho ‘ia, ho‘oku‘u ka hana.
Only when all the stones are stacked properly, then the work is done.

When I began to consider what I will take with me after meeting and working with Billy Fields and the small, tightly-knit crew of Native Hawaiians apprenticing under him, this ‘ōlelo no‘eau seemed especially appropriate: Ua ho‘onoho niho ‘ia, ho‘oku‘u ka hana. Fields is a master in the art of traditional Hawaiian drystack masonry, or uhau humu pōhaku -- the "skillful setting of stones in tapered formations that use weight and gravity to lock into place," as defined by the non-profit group Hui Ho‘oniho.

"My men and I have basically dedicated our lives to restoring our ancient sites, so they’re not forgotten," shared Fields, owner of Fields Masonry, a company based out of Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawai‘i. "I tell people that my commercial projects support my cultural habits," he laughed.

The work that brought Fields to Kamehameha Schools involved the restoration of the front gate area of the Kapālama Campus, an area known as Keanakamanō (literally, "the shark cave"). The structures built by Fields’ crew need no concrete or mortar to secure them, but rather rely on centuries-old techniques perfected by Native Hawaiian stone setters: the skill of the mason and the interlocking weight of the pōhaku themselves make additional reinforcement unnecessary.

"This is gravity keeping your wall in place, and the integrity of the mason locking in the stones," Fields explained. They begin with the niho -- or foundation stones -- which are set about six inches into the ground and form the solid base of the entire structure. The kūkulu -- two exteriors of the wall -- are built upwards from this secure foundation, using large pōhaku locked into place resembling pieces of an intricate puzzle. Finally, hakahaka -- smaller pōhaku -- are wedged between the larger pōhaku of the kūkulu to further solidify the structure. The entire formation is tapered from top to bottom -- for example, one of the walls built at Keanakamanō measures three feet at its base and eighteen inches on its top. Each inter-locking pōhaku supports those around it and becomes an integral piece of the structure, utilizing weight and gravity to withstand the onslaught of time and the elements.

"The unique thing about Hawaiian masonry is you can see the craftsmanship in the walls that are still standing," explained Fields. "The heiau that weren’t destroyed during the overthrow of the kapu system or by animals -- including those on two legs -- these structures are five, six, seven hundred years old and older!" What he and his men do today is a blend of this ancient technique and modern technology, partly out of necessity, partly because they have the ability to do so.

"If our ancestors had had these machines, they would have used them. Plus, today, we don’t have the large workforce that we had in ancient times. What you see going on here is done by four, five guys!"

Even after several days of watching the crew work, I still can’t quite grasp how normal, uneven pōhaku, like the kind you find in your backyard -- with no flat surfaces to speak of -- can be arranged one after another, carefully placed to form the straight, smooth face of the kūkulu.  When constructing their walls, the men read the "faces" of the pōhaku they’re working with, which indicates how best to position them -- where I see a pile of ordinary, unrelated rocks, they envision the completed wall.

One day I asked how they can tell which stone to use next. "They’re all numbered," laughed Ray Genegabuas. "We just count!" When it comes to their hana, humility is a trait that all of these men share. "We’re just the worker bee guys," said Fields, who seems less comfortable in a formal interview than he is operating a crane, manipulating boulders inch by inch until they settle into place.

"Sometimes, with the larger ones, like that corner stone, you’ll see them work one pōhaku for 15 minutes," shared Cultural Specialist Kēhau Abad, "just to get it set exactly right. They won’t stop until they’re completely sure that is how that pōhaku is supposed to be."

With this unerring attention to detail and a strong awareness of the urgency of their work, Fields has been a pivotal force in the restoration of several of our most sacred sites. The physical preservation and revitalization of these sites further enables us to preserve our intellectual history -- our mo‘olelo -- so many of which are tied to the types of sites Fields works to restore. One such restoration included the terraces and ‘ahu for the heiau Kauluapa‘oa. Kauluapa‘oa heiau is located at the foot of Kē‘ē cliff, near Hā‘ena on Kaua‘i, close to what is probably the last of the ancient pā hula, Keahualaka. It is up the very pathway near Kauluapa‘oa that Pele, in spirit form, is said to have followed the sound of drumming -- "ke kani mai a kekahi mau pahu pa‘i-lima maoli, oia hoi, ka pahu kaeke" -- from Kea‘au in Puna, Hawai‘i, until finally coming face to face with Lohi‘auipo, "ka u‘i o Kaua‘i," at the pā hula, Keahualaka, in Hā‘ena. Bedecked in fragrant lei, Pele was of incomparable beauty:

"Ua kahiko iho la nohoi ua Pele nei iaia iho a ohu i ka lehua, ka maile, ka palai ame na lipo opiopio apau o ka wao. He ui hoi kau! A me keia mau luhiehu o ka wao lipolipo, e uhi paa ana maluna o ua Aliiwahine nei o ka Lua, hele aku la ia no kahi ana i ike aku ai i ke anaina kanaka nui e muia mai ana, a o kahi nohoi ia o na pahu e kani mai ana a pela me na leo hula. Iaia i hele aku ai, ua hele pu aku la no ke ala o na lau lipolipo i ohu iho iluna ona a holo mapu onaona aku la i na ihu o ko Haena mau kini, main a lii a i na makaainana." (Poepoe, Joseph, "Ka Moolelo Kaao o HiiakaikapolioPele," Kū‘oko‘a Home Rula)

‘Ōlapa have danced on this very pā once shared by Pele and Lohi‘au for hundreds of years, and, through restoration and care, they may be able to visit for hundreds more. Unfortunately, on a recent trip to Kē‘ē, our attempts to see the walls Fields and his men had restored were unsuccessful -- they were overgrown with introduced trees and vines. This situation alludes to another goal of Fields’ journeys -- wherever they go, they try to involve community members and teach them how to upkeep areas he and his men restore.

"The good thing about what we do, nobody else does it. The bad thing about what we do... nobody else does it! When we go into the Hawaiian communities and do workshops and things, especially around burial sites, somebody has to mālama that site when we leave, because we can’t catch them all," Fields shared.

In addition to Kauluapa‘oa, Fields has worked to restore several other ancient sites, including Kāne‘ākī, a large agricultural heiau located in Mākaha Valley, Wai‘anae, O‘ahu; a series of fishponds along the southeastern coast of Moloka‘i; Pihana heiau at Paukūkalo, Wailuku, Maui, which is said by some to have been built by menehune using stones from Paukūkalo beach; and the wall surrounding Hulihe‘e Palace in Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawa‘i.

It was the restoration at Hulihe‘e Palace that marked the beginning of Fields’ work with ancient sites. In 1989, historian Nathan Nāpōkā and the Daughters of Hawai‘i contacted him to refurbish the deteriorating walls around the palace, and other invitations seemed to follow naturally from there. Eventually, Fields said, he "gained the authority to take these ancient structures apart" -- dismantling the structures allowed him to learn how they had been put together, enabling him to better restore sites that had fallen into disrepair.

Intrigued by the craftsmanship of ancient formations, Fields would often take the time to sit and simply study the pōhaku -- how they were set, how the walls were constructed, how they had withstood the elements. "Even though I was terrible in school," confessed Fields, "I was good at learning the Hawaiian way, just by observing. I could see the ways the walls were constructed. A lot of the knowledge I have about uhau humu pōhaku comes from having the interest and taking the time to figure out the locking technique."

Fields does not take this type of work lightly. Extensive research is done on any site they are preparing to restore -- they examine chants and genealogies tied to the area, study oral histories, and most of all are careful what mindset they bring to the site. "Don’t bring that kaumaha around here, leave it at the gate," I’ve heard Fields instruct his men. Cooperation is everything here. By virtue of his line of work and expertise, Fields has also developed a close working relationship with Hui Mālama i nā Kūpuna o Hawai‘i Nei, a group dedicated to the proper treatment and care of Native Hawaiian cultural resources and ancestral remains. Although reinternment is a heavy kuleana, Fields sees the necessity in what they do.

"I feel honored to be asked to do this. Basically, we tell the kūpuna, ‘You stay there, and we stay here. We’re gonna mālama you, take care of you, but please don’t follow us home," explained Fields. Although Fields estimates he has helped to reinter over 5,000 kūpuna over the years, some of the most accessible sites include reburial platforms near Kawaiaha‘o Church cemetery in downtown Honolulu and one located at Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Mānoa.

"Aunty Pua Kanaka‘ole is one of our kumu and helps us a lot with protocol and things like that. She always tells us, ‘It’s in your genes as a Hawaiian, whether you know it or not, it’s gonna come out.’"

Fields draws upon many sources in the work he does -- while doing a workshop some time ago, he was approached by ‘Anakala Eddie Ka‘anānā of Miloli‘i. ‘Anakala explained how in the old days, masons would ensure that the tops of their walls were flat and straight by aligning them with the horizon. If the horizon was not visible, they would take a piece of bamboo that had been cut in half, put water in it, and lay it atop the wall to make sure it was level. These kinds of interactions Fields does not forget.

"All of these sites are special, they all have their own story," Fields reflected. "I’m just fortunate, I’m on one wild rollercoaster ride!" 

Although I still struggle with the mechanics of what they do -- despite numerous, at least half-serious invitations to just "jump in" and try it -- the cultural import of the work Fields and his men do is obvious. Over time, as Fields observed, walls will fall a little lower, then a little lower, until soon there is only the memory, someone’s recollection that "something used to be there."

 "We have to restore these sites, mālama them -- not only mālama them, but make them living sites, places where Hawaiians can come to learn the language, genealogy, arts. With modern day technology and building, we’re not gonna stop that, but we cannot forget that this is our past."