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Vol. 15, no. 6
Dec. 2012 / Jan. 2013


Signs & Wonders 

Story By Anthony Aalto

Photos By Elyse Butler & Matt Mallams 


Mika Kumukauoha Lee
glances to the east, as if he could see clear across the churning seventy-five-mile Ka‘ie‘ie Waho channel that separates O‘ahu from the Garden Isle. “They didn’t know about the moonbow,” he says with a laugh. “It wasn’t just the storms, the treacherous currents or the cholera epidemic on O‘ahu that helped Kaua‘i preserve its independence throughout the eighteenth century, long after Kamehameha the Great had unified the rest of the Hawaiian Islands under his control; it was also because the king’s warriors had no idea how to look for the lunar rainbow that could have guided them. Without that knowledge, they never would have made it.”


Lee is a kahuna, a papa kilo hoku to be precise—a Native Hawaiian astronomer, astrologer and seer—quite possibly the last of his kind. He’s a direct descendant of King Kamehameha III and, he casually adds, the twentieth great-grandson of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes. While Lee can recount ancient myths filled with rainbow symbolism, which attest to the power of the phenomenon in Hawaiian life long before some marketing genius nicknamed the Islands the Rainbow State, it is the practical applications of rainbows that fascinate him, including what he believes is their ability to predict storms, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes— as well as their use as a navigational tool.


In 1990 Lee sat down to draw a portrait of his mentor, Auntie Alice Holokai, a renowned Hawaiian cultural practitioner who was then 85 years old. While he drew, she jotted down the navigational lore she had learned as a young girl from “old man David Kali of Ni‘ihau.” According to Auntie Alice, paddlers had to put to sea at Poka‘i Bay on O‘ahu’s Wai‘anae Coast in the month of October to take advantage of favorable currents and tides that would help draw them across the channel. “The three-quarter moon, the star and the [lunar] rainbow will be their guidance; remember God will show the rainbow at Nawiliwili Harbor about 4 a.m.,” she wrote.


Together with her account, she drew a picture of the moon, the constellation of stars Hawaiians call Hoku‘amo‘amo and a moonbow. “Imagine after doing that frightening trip through mountainous seas, how they must have felt to see the lunar rainbow, to paddle under its arc to shore,” says Lee as we sit over burgers and Tom Collinses at the clubhouse of the Prince Golf Course in ‘Ewa, not far from the one hanau, the birthplace, where many of his royal ancestors are buried. “You see, rainbows aren’t just beautiful, they are powerful signifiers of energy both physical and spiritual.”


Nainoa Thompson, the navigator who has guided the Polynesian sailing canoe Hokule‘a across the Pacific without use of modern instruments, is politely skeptical that rainbows can be reliably predicted, but he acknowledges that they can be used in navigation. “The peak of the arc of a rainbow is always opposite of the compass heading of the sun, so it can be used for telling direction at sea,” he notes. “The lower the arc of the rainbow, the higher the sun. Lunar rainbows are more complex and rare—they require ideal conditions. This is not very helpful or useful because it is so rare, but it is one of the hundreds of observations that a navigator might make during a day and does speak to a relation with ship of nature and light.”


Lee points out that the guarantee of the presence of a rainbow requires faith: “This is a spiritual journey, not a recon trip in the Western curiosity vein.” It’s a point stressed by Auntie Alice: “The leader of the group that has in mind to travel to Kaua‘i by canoe must know to pray and ask God to help them to paddle their canoe. … [The paddlers] must stay in prayer a month or more.”