Kauai place names, like Lawai, are rich with history

Editor’s note: Stories of Kauai is a column submitted by the Kauai Historical Society that will be published every other Saturday in The Garden Island.

Place names are keystones for history. They mark areas where the people of old lived, farmed, and fished, and areas where the people of today strive to interpret times gone by and far away.

The place name Lawai lacks a definition. The lexicographers Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini describe Lawai as a village, land division, gulch, and stream of the Koloa district of Kauai. Wichman expands the background of the name by telling us that there was once a fishing shrine on the east shore of Lawai Bay and in the shrine’s ruins there was a smooth bowl carved on the rock shoreline resembling the mouth of a fish and that priests would prepare ‘awa and pour it into the bowl as an offering to the shark god Ku-haimoana.

Near the shrine is Lawai Bay and the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Within the garden a tall hill protrudes from the sand at Lawai Beach. This hill is a puu kilo ia, a fish spotters hill. North of the puu kilo ai are the remains of a walled fishpond, further in the valley were irrigated taro lo’i and Lawai Bay itself was a sea-fishery. These features led to the conclusion that the Lawai place name may be a corruption from the word lawai’a, defined as: a fisherman; a fishing technique; to fish, or to catch fish.

Perhaps the best known place in the Lawai ahupua’a is Spouting Horn. To the people of old, this feature was known as Puhi. This is a lava tube in a rock shelf bordering the sea.

When waves surge through the tube they force water and air through the tube to erupt as a geyser on the shoreline, producing a resounding roar. The Puhi geyser often projects a stream of water twenty or more feet into the air.

Kauai legend tells of the mo’o named Kai-kapu (forbidden ocean) who lived on the shore at Lawai and that Kai-kapu had a bad temper and a ferocious appetite.

It is said that Kai-kapu would hide behind a nearby point of land and await fishermen coming into his domain. Upon seeing a fisherman, Kai-kapu would roar loudly and swim furiously toward the offender and devour the trespasser.

The boy Liko thought to please his parents in catching hinalea (wrasse) for dinner. As Liko fished the Lawai shoreline, Kai-kapu came rushing toward him. Liko immediately took shelter in the lava tube and passing through it onto the dry shoreline.

Kai-kapu, swimming in pursuit, forgot how large he was and became stuck in the tube. The roaring that one hears today is from Kai-kapu stuck, frustrated, and angry in the confines of the lava tube.

The pursuit of trivia is a driver of history. Lawai has more history than its place name. The ahupua’a also contains a pair of railroad tunnels, a forbidden heiau, a royal residence, a hidden water system, and much more.

The Kauai Historical Society seeks to assist the public and its members in preserving the history and heritage of Kauai.


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