Mapping a traditional way of knowing: UH Hilo geography student maps the ahupua‘a of Puna

Budding cartographer Kaylyn Ells-Ho‘okano worked with her mentor Drew Kapp, a geographer at Hawai‘i Community College, to create a map showing details of the traditional land divisions in the district of Puna. The work honors the original names and ways of understanding the landscape.

By Leah SherwoodPhotos by Raiatea Arcuri.

Kaylyn Ells-Ho‘okano and Drew Kapp hold up a large copy of the map they created: blue ocean surrounds the south east tip of the island. Map is labeled "PUNA." Place names and other details on map are too small to read.
From left, Kaylyn Ells-Ho‘okano and Drew Kapp hold up the map they created. The map details of the ahupua‘a (traditional land divisions) that make up the moku (district) of Puna. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories, click to enlarge.

A geography student at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has co-created a map that details Hawai‘i Island’s Puna district in a way that’s never been done before. Kaylyn Ells-Ho‘okano, a senior at UH Hilo, is interning with Drew Kapp, a geography instructor at Hawai‘i Community College, to work on a map project amassing traditional details of the ahupua‘a (traditional land divisions) that make up the moku (district) of Puna. The work honors the original names and ways of understanding the area’s landscape (download map in JPEG and PDF).

The two cartographers presented their map last month at the annual meeting of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers in Flagstaff, Arizona. Ells-Ho‘okano received funding for her conference participation from the UH Hilo Department of Geography and Environmental Science with the help of Jonathan Price, professor of geography, Kerri Inglis, professor of history, and Michael Bitter, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Ells-Ho‘okano also received an indigenous student scholarship for travel expenses.

Kaylyn Ells-Ho‘okano
Kaylyn Ells-Ho‘okano. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

At the conference, the map garnered a lot of visitors and questions. “The color was made to engage people and catch their eye, and it did draw them in,” says Ells-Ho‘okano.

Kapp, who often works on projects with UH Hilo students, notes that mapmaking is both artistic and highly technical, but Ells-Ho‘okano quickly developed the required expertise.

“The cartographic piece is the art of the map, and that has to do with perspective, the language, fonts and colors that you choose and where you place the text and background imagery,” says Kapp. “We made an East arrow instead of a North arrow because the sun first rises at Kumukahi in Puna, and this shape of the East arrow reflects the rising sun, too. The map is in Hawaiian and English, and that makes it special.”

Kapp asked Ells-Ho‘okano to be an intern on the project because she is a geography major with a Hawaiian studies minor.

“She was looking to jump on an ongoing research project which I had been doing informally for a couple years,” explains Kapp. “She had the passion to not only deepen her knowledge of the district of Puna, which we both love, but also to outreach to the community about the importance of knowing your ahupua‘a and traditional names.”

The two first met when Ells-Ho‘okano enrolled in Kapp’s class, Geography of Hawai‘i, at Hawai‘i Community College. Previously, Kapp taught geography courses at UH Hilo from 1999 to 2017. “Although she was a UH Hilo student, she took my Hawai‘i CC class, which happens all the time, and is a nice way to bridge the two institutions,” explains Kapp.

Mapping the way to traditional understanding of the ahupua‘a

The mapping project has a personal component for Ells-Ho‘okano and Kapp: they both reside in Puna and want to give back and honor their community.

Ells-Ho‘okano, a graduate of Hilo High School who is Native Hawaiian and first generation in her family to attend college, says she hopes the new map will foster pride among the Puna community. “Doing this deepens my understanding of where I come from and being able to share this with my community is huge for me,” she says. “When I converse with people, I want to be able to tell them I am from this area and share my identification with the land that I call home.”

Kapp says he hopes the map will encourage residents to strengthen or forge ties with their ahupua‘a and to debunk some common myths about Puna. “Traditionally Puna was associated with Pele and volcanism, and being a cultural kīpuka where people would continue to practice traditional ways. But it is also a place that a lot of people associate with crime or drug abuse or poverty. We have these big sprawling subdivisions that most of us live in, which is how people identify; they will say they live in HPP [Hawaiian Paradise Park] or Fern Acres, for example.”

But Kapp points out that Puna has, in fact, a rich landscape and history. “We want residents to know which of these traditional land divisions they can affiliate themselves with and honor those original names and ways of understanding the landscape.”

Drew Kapp
Drew Kapp. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

Kapp says a simple Google search reveals dozens of inaccurate and flawed maps, with missing or misshapen ahupua‘a or incorrect names. He hopes the new map can address some of those inaccuracies. “Our map is not a definitive understanding because people have different points of view about the names and there are variations,” he explains. “But we are not just looking at archives. We have a direct experiential connection to the place and from what we know and our research, we chose these names because the meaning and spelling seemed appropriate.”

According to Kapp and Ells-Ho‘okano, Puna residents identify greatly with volcanic activity and its significance in that district. “During the Kīlauea eruption people responded to it in different ways, but we also recognize that if you are familiar with what the traditional place names tell you, then you would know to expect that kind of activity,” says Kapp. “The place names tell us what to expect and how to interact with those places and how to conduct ourselves. That’s why for us the place names are really significant.”

The cartographers emphasize that their map is a free resource for the public, especially valuable to community members, students, and educators. “I have a classmate who is using this map for his research, and I know that other educators are using it during trips with their elementary students,” says Ells-Ho‘okano.

Next phase

Kapp says their next phase of the project is building a web-based interactive map. “You can click on land division to find out about chants, or ‘ōlelo no‘eau (poetical sayings) or information about the different features, for example a particular place of refuge, ‘awa that grows in trees, or surf that only Pele could ride,” says Kapp. “In geography we are really interested in the multiplicity of meanings of a place. We want people to understand Puna in the deepest way possible.”

He also wants to work with others to compose a chant to help people remember the names of the ahupua‘a. “Part of the project is about having a connection to the landscape and knowing the names and knowing how to interact with the landscape,” says Kapp.

Ells-Ho‘okano says the next phase for her is to gather more information regarding each land division and to learn more about some of the missing boundaries. She will be combing through historical maps, stories, interviews, and oli (chants) to glean more about each ahupua‘a. “We want to give information on what each name means, what kinds of resources are gathered from a particular land area, and what kinds of historical stories describe what this place is all about.”


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo. 

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