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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015


The Caretakers (Page 3)

Such generosity got Pilipo elected honorary mayor of Kaunakakai in 1970. “I met with dignitaries and promoted Moloka‘i,” he says, pointing to the large wooden key to the city hanging from the wall. The position of unofficial mayor of Kaunakakai dates to the 1930s, when actor Warner Baxter, who played the Cisco Kid in the 1928 film In Old Arizona, got drunk at a lu‘au held in his honor when he visited Moloka‘i. Baxter was later memorialized in song as “the cockeyed mayor of Kaunakakai.” “Do you know it?” asks Pilipo. Father and son break into song: “He wore a malo and a coconut hat/One was for this and the other for that/All the people shouted as he went by/He was the cockeyed mayor of Kaunakakai!” While Pilipo’s mayoral days are long behind him, he remains an ambassador of Moloka‘i, a responsibility he’s ready to hand down.

“When people asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid, I always said, ‘My dad,’” Greg says. “I, too, cleaned the taro patches and started dancing hula at five.” Pilipo encouraged Greg to leave home, to experience life beyond Moloka‘i as he had, confident his son would return. “Even though I was away, I was still practicing my culture, still learning,” Greg says. For three years Greg lived in Los Angeles, working for Cirque du Soleil. He then moved to East O‘ahu, making pastries in a bakery and raising his three sons with his wife. “I have my traditional life here,” he says, “and I have my city life there.”

In June 2013 Pilipo called. “He talked to my wife and said, ‘It’s time for Greg to come home,’” he recalls. “The hardest part is being away from them,” says Greg, but it’s better for the children’s education and for his wife’s career in broadcast television that they remain on O‘ahu. Greg visits and calls as often as possible, which is no simple feat: He drives three miles up the winding road to a nene crossing sign over-looking the Pailolo Channel, the nearest spot to the valley where you can catch a cellphone signal. It’s dubbed “the nene phone booth.” 

It’s a heavy kuleana that like any true calling demands sacrifice, but it’s one that Greg is ready to make. “This is the life I prefer,” he says. “When I was little, Dad used to drag me to listen to the kupuna talk story. But now I get to share all of that with visitors. There is a bigger purpose for me in my future.” Then he heads out to the nene phone booth to check his messages for tomorrow’s hiking reservations and call his family. Pilipo stands to look at the grainy photographs of the valley and its waterfalls inside the hale. He looks at them often. “I did not understand the name Mo‘o‘ula,” he says, “until my grandfather. The story was passed on from his grandfather and those before him,” he says, wiping tears from his eyes. “The mo‘o died at the falls to become the goddess of the valley.”

Pilipo says he feels pride in sharing the correct name of the valley and the correct way to ask permission to swim there. “Life in this valley is beautiful,” he says. “If you come back, it was meant for you. You carry on the legacy.” HH