FOR CENTURIES, the sacred remains of more than two dozen ancient chiefs were placed at rest in Hale o Keawe, at Honaunau, Hawaii. The high chief Keawe had constructed the hale, or house, to serve as a tomb for the royal dead. Within the thatched structure, each bone bundle tied in bark cloth and each intricately woven sennit casket held a departed chief who had been deified. Only members of the highest-ranking bloodlines were entrusted with the care of these bones, or iwi. At Hale o Keawe, as at other places of royal interment, priests kept a constant vigil to protect the sanctity of their godly charges, whose presence, in turn, gave power and status to the temple precincts.
Sacred iwi were interred in other places as well. Some rested in concealed burial caves in inaccessible cliffs, such as those above Kaawaloa in Kona. For these iwi, proper interment demanded complete secrecy, sometimes even a keeper’s life, to protect knowledge of their final resting places.
During the rule of Kamehameha, the responsibility of caring for the iwi at Hale o Keawe and those hidden in the cliff caves of Kaawaloa fell upon the chief Keaweaheulu, one of Kamehameha’s four war generals and confidantes. Upon Keaweaheulu’s death, guardianship over the burial sites — along with his position in Kamehameha’s court and his landholdings in Kona — passed to his son Naihe.
To Naihe’s bloodline also belonged the responsibility over Kamehameha’s remains at his death. Kamehameha revoked this privilege in his last years. It was said that he was distressed over the widespread knowledge of the burial location of his father, Keoua, in the Kaawaloa cliffs — of which Naihe and his forebears were custodians. The site was so well-known that it was called Ka Pali Kapu o Keoua, “the sacred cliff of Keoua.” Kamehameha’s selection of another chief, Ulumaheihei Hoapili, to carry out this final duty may have indicated that he did not want his mortal remains kept at Kaawaloa or Honaunau. He desired a resting place that would never be found. With the exception of this matter, Kamehameha maintained absolute trust in his close companion, Naihe.
Naihe served the Kamehameha line well. His counsel was so highly esteemed that he was given the position of national orator in the courts of Kamehameha I, II and III. He lived in simple, native fashion in the shadow of the sacred burial cliffs at Kaawaloa, faithful in his duties to the iwi.
He was married to the high-ranking chiefess Kapiolani, daughter of the powerful Hilo chief Keawemauhili. Kapiolani’s liberal attitudes and colorful lifestyle were often at odds with Naihe’s adherence to traditional ways. He could not understand his wife’s opposition to the ancient custom of ai kapu, the fundamental rules governing all foods and eating practices. Neither could he comprehend her defiance of Pele at Kilauea by eating the forbidden ohelo berry reserved for the volcano goddess. But he loved and respected her and allowed her to follow her own conscience freely.
In December 1831, Naihe was approached by the strong-willed chiefess Kaahumanu to discuss the sacred bones in his keeping. A convert to Christianity, Kaahumanu intended to remove and destroy the iwi in Hale o Keawe at Honaunau. Distraught, Naihe and two other chiefs convinced her to allow them to reinter the sacred iwi of the 24 deified chiefs in the Kaawaloa cliffs. The remains were placed in two wooden caskets and hidden in Ka Pali Kapu o Keoua; soon after, Kaahumanu burned the last vestiges of the ancient religion at Hale o Keawe. Naihe died two years later, having fulfilled his responsibilities to the sacred iwi at Hale o Keawe and Kaawaloa.