A Family's Kuleana

Caring for the bones at the Royal Mausoleum is a responsibility passed down through generations.

Bill Maioho with his son, Kai, on the grounds of the royal cemetery.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

Bill Kaiheekai Maioho continues a 191-year-old family tradition of caring for the bones of 24 generations of Kamehamehas as kahu, or caretaker, of the Royal Mausoleum. Maioho’s family watches over the royal iwi, or bones, and assists in mausoleum chapel services. He makes sure that visitors are respectful as they enter a place that “exudes mana [spiritual power].”

It’s a responsibility that his family undertook during the reign of Kamehameha the Great and has been involved with ever since. Maioho is a direct descendent of the brothers who hid Kamehameha’s iwi in 1819—remains that have never been uncovered to this day.

Maioho recalls his family’s moolelo, or story, which has been passed down through generations: “Kamehameha actually planned his burial and was part of the discussion of where he would be buried,” Maioho explains. Robbers had looted the burial place of his father, Keoua Nui. Although Keoua’s iwi were not taken, Kamehameha turned over the responsibility of caring for his own iwi to his most trusted chiefs, Hoapili and Hoolulu, who were brothers.

Maioho believes Kamehameha’s iwi were buried underwater off the Big Island, a theory he bases on the name that Hoapili gave to his newborn son, Kaiheekai. It was a general practice for Hawaiians to name children after an important event of the time. Kaiheekai literally means water, octopus, water. Maioho says, “like a hee receding into a cave, the brothers hid the iwi in an underwater coral cave.”

Maioho officially began his caretaking duties in 1994, taking over from his mother, who had held the position for 28 years. Gov. John Waihee oversaw the ceremony. “It’s a semi-appointed position,” he says, one that will be passed on to his own son, now in his 30s, when the time comes. “He knows one day that this will be his kuleana, too.”


Did you know?

The two men shown on the royal seal were two of Kamehameha’s high chiefs, Kameeiamoku, on the right, and his twin brother, Kamanawa, on the left. Hoolulu was Kameeiamoku’s son, and a direct ancestor of Maioho’s.