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Valley Forge, Gettysburg and…Pu`ukohola Heiau?

April 5, 2013

What does Hawaii’s Pu`ukohola Heiau have to do with American history? (Photo by Pierre Lesage)

Chances are if you have ever had to study American history you have undoubtedly learned about the important events that occurred at places like Gettysburg and Valley Forge. The acts of such great American figures as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln helped turn the course of America’s story at pivotal points in the Nation’s history. But when you open up history books on American history, chances are you will not find any mention of a place called Pu`ukohola or of Kamehameha the Great. Yet, both the place and the man would drastically change Hawaii, and in so doing, America’s story and Hawaii’s story would be come intertwined.

Pu’ukohola Heiau was the last major temple to be built in the Hawaiian Islands. This sacred structure was built on the Big Island of Hawaii by Kamehameha the Great for the purpose of gaining the spiritual power (mana) to unify the warring islands into a kingdom. Although he ruled only 1/3 of his home island prior to constructing the temple in 1791, following the temple’s completion Kamehameha quickly overcame his rival chiefs. By 1795, Kamehameha had full control over all but one chiefdom. Finally in 1810, after two failed invasions, Kamehameha made peace with the chief of Kauai and Niihau. For the first time in the 1,500+ year history of the Hawaiian people, all of the islands were united under one ruler.

Mark Twain (in center) during his trip to Hawaii in the late 1800’s.

The Kingdom that Kamehameha started at Pu`ukohola Heiau lasted for the next century. During that time, more and more Americans came to the Islands for a variety of reasons. The whalers from New England came to Hawaii for profits, the American missionaries came seeking converts and folks like Mark Twain came seeking adventure and to marvel at the unsurpassed beauty of these tropical islands. Then in 1893, the last of Hawaii’s monarchs Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown in a coup that was backed by a small contingency of U.S. Marines who happened to be in Hawaii at the time (for which the United States Government apologized for a century later in 1993). Officially becoming a U.S. territory in 1900, Hawaii’s history would from that point to today be linked with the rest of the United States.

President Barack Obama and his guests applaud after signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office, October 5, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

This linking of history became clear when on the morning of December 7, 1941, the Nation’s history was forever changed with the attack on Hawaii. But the attack on Hawaii was not the only way in which Hawaii affected the Nation’s history during World War II. In fact, this month, President Obama signed legislation granting the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II. The 100th Infantry Battalion, which was later incorporated into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was made up of predominantly Nisei (second generation Americans of Japanese ancestry) members of the Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion.  The 442nd became the most decorated unit in United States military history for its size and length of service.

Since achieving Statehood in 1959, Hawaii has continued to play an increasingly important role in reshaping the ongoing story of the Nation. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected by the people of the United States as the first Hawaii-born person to hold the Nation’s highest office. And Hawaii’s story continues…each year millions of people from across the planet come to the Hawaiian Islands for business and pleasure.

“Keoua’s Arrival at Pu`ukohola Heiau” by artist and historian Herb Kane. (NPS Collections)

And just think, all of this movement in history began way back in 1791 when Kamehameha built Pu`ukohola Heiau. If Kamehameha had not succeeded in unifying Hawaii, it is very likely that America’s story would have been different. It is quite possible that other world powers such as Great Britain, France, Russia or even Japan might have incorporated all are some of the Islands into their growing empires (as they did with most of the other islands in the Pacific). By creating a unified and stable government over all the Islands, Kamehameha was able to ensure that Hawaii would survive in an often hostile political world.

Generations later, the islands of Hawaii still stand united. The influence of Hawaii upon the Nation and the world will undoubtedly grow in the years to come. Like Valley Forge and Gettysburg, Pu`ukohola Heiau has  played a significant role in changing the character of American history. For more information, be sure to check out the website of Pu`ukohola Heiau National Historic Site.

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