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Preserving Culture Amidst Progress In Kona

A local man's quest to share what he has

For over seven decades, Uncle Reggie Lee has called the Kona Coast of the Big Island home. Born in 1950 in Kailua-Kona, Uncle Reggie comes from a family whose roots in the region stretch back generations. Both, his mother's and father's ancestors, held prominent positions in local communities, with his grandfather serving as a respected lawyer and judge in Kailua-Kona town for many years.

Uncle Reggie has some fun memories from his early years on the island. When he was a boy, Old Kona Airport was located very close to town. “Our family was very religious. We never missed church on Sundays, no matter what," he recalls. "I can still picture being in Mokuaikaua church and the pastor having to stop during service because a plane was coming in for landing. The beautiful chimes that rang at 6 p.m. reminded kids what time it was, the kickball/softball games with friends, diving for fish or catching fish off of the seawall, canoe paddling during the season.” Uncle Reggie recalls with a smile. “We didn’t eat beef until I was like 11 or 12 years old. Our food was all these little goats running around. Even donkeys. They were one of our favorite foods.”

The Hawaiian culture, mainly the locations of important cultural sites, trials, and proper names of areas within the ahupua’a were very important to Mom (Tutu). Elizabeth Maluihi Ako Lee. “That was what my mom was all about,” Reggie says, “to share what we have because once it goes away, it goes away.” A master Lauhala weaver – she was named a Living Treasure by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for her weaving – Maluihi made perpetuating Hawaiian cultural traditions a top priority. Her mother tongue was Hawaiian, and she spoke it even when it was outlawed in her early years. This upbringing rooted Uncle Reggie strongly in his Hawaiian identity and instilled in him the responsibility to carry on sharing his culture, as his mother had taught.

After graduating from Konawaena High School, Uncle Reggie embarked on a career in law enforcement with the Hawai’i Police Department, and 25 years with the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). He reflects fondly on his time serving the community, saying, "God really blessed me through it all." On any given day, Uncle Reggie might be scuba diving in the clear Kona waters working on a mooring, up in the air in a helicopter over the volcano, or working in rugged upland forests doing drug eradication. “You'd see all the beauty of this country," he reminisces. 

Experiencing Hawai’i's magnificence firsthand reinforced Uncle Reggie's deep connection to the land and inspired his lifelong dedication to cultural stewardship and environmental protection. In 2008, upon retiring from the DLNR, he accepted a new role advising the developers of Kohanaiki Shores on cultural matters. "My mom always said we must share our kuleana (responsibility), what we have, or shame on us. So I make sure the partners we work with understand Hawaiian perspectives," Uncle Reggie explains.

But Uncle Reggie’s commitment to preserving the cultural heritage is about more than just a job. It’s about home. His family lineage is deeply tied to the land and waters of the Kohanaiki ahupuaʻa. Ahupuaʻa are traditional Hawaiian land divisions that generally run from the mountain to the sea, allowing communities to sustain themselves using resources from different elevations. Ahupuaʻa like Kohanaiki provided all that early Hawaiians needed to thrive, with appointed ali’i caretakers, ensuring sustainable management of resources for future generations. Uncle Reggie sees his cultural advising role as part of a stewardship of land that has run in his family for generations.

For Uncle Reggie, land represents sacred gifts from akua and ancestors to be stewarded for future generations. "When you die, you can’t take it with you," he notes. This perspective guides his ongoing work with groups like the ‘Ohana O Kohanaiki Foundation to protect cultural sites, fishponds, native flora and fauna across the region. As a member for 15 years, working alongside artist Gary Eoff, an outstanding local artist from Kona, has developed a relationship on how to care for the māla (garden), loko wai (ponds) kō kākou ka paka (taking of the park), and lāʻau (plants).

Through their partnership, Kohanaiki Shores donated over 100 acres of coastal land to establish a community park. They funded improvements like restrooms, access roads, and educational signage about the natural and cultural history of the area. This popular local “Pine Trees” surf spot has become a staple for local families. For ‘ohana, the correct name for “Pine Trees” is Puhili. "I can never repay them (Kohanaiki) financially, but I'm so grateful for what they've done," says Uncle Reggie. Developing the park space respectfully and including local input, allows for both public access and perpetuation of cultural practices to continue at this sacred site.

Uncle Reggie fondly recalls his childhood exploring the vast open spaces that now host modern developments. While change is inevitable, he believes cultural knowledge can still be shared. "Kids today don't have the time we did to learn outside. But we must teach them our ways," he insists.

Despite immense changes to our coastline, Uncle Reggie believes there is an opportunity for newcomers to truly experience the Hawaiian culture that is still alive here. Through ongoing cultural education projects, advising developers, and bringing diverse communities together, Uncle Reggie serves as an intercessor helping all people understand and perpetuate the ways of life rooted in this sacred ‘āina for centuries. The value of his contribution and that of others like him is hard to measure. Without influencers like these, the most precious parts of our culture and the lessons of history begin to slip away. 

Uncle Reggie’s life serves as a radiant example to the rest of us. Change is always happening, it is right and good to embrace it. But we have to honor and preserve the legacy handed to us. If we only look back, we won’t offer future generations the help of standing on our shoulders. If we merely look forward, we stand to miss the blessing of generations of experience, culture, history, and most of all lessons learned. For those blessed to live on this amazing coastline, we can follow Uncle Reggie’s example by stewarding our kuleana, honoring those who have gone before, and giving our best to those who will follow. We can be the ones who bring out our treasures, old and new, for those who will come after.

This is our home. How will we steward it, and what will be passed to the next generation? Our land is filled with a rich tapestry of Hawaiian culture and history. It’s our responsibility to understand all that our land has to offer and to bring it to the next generation.

Now in his seventh decade calling Kailua-Kona home, Uncle Reggie remains dedicated to his mother’s vision. "As long as I’m still living, I’ll keep perpetuating our culture and making sure it has a home," he says. By embracing responsible progress while preserving cultural knowledge and sites, he ensures the rich heritage woven into the fabric of the Kona coast will continue for generations to come.

“Home is Kona, man. I just love Kona. When I go, I want to throw my ashes in Kona.”

"I can never repay them (Kohanaiki) financially, but I'm so grateful for what they've done."

"My mom always said we must share our kuleana (responsibility), what we have ..."