Story by Samson Reiny
Photos by Dana Edmunds
On an early Wednesday evening in April, on a grassy field fronting a tucked-away beach in Kahului, Maui, a mock melee is taking place. The wind howls, the sky is blanketed with dark clouds. A group of boys launches into sprints down the field, each cocking a five-foot-long ihe (spear) above his shoulder. A snapped release and the ihe fly through the air. Most cut clean, heading straight for another group of boys standing still— the defenders. Some catch the spears, others block them and a few jolt skittishly back. There are casualties: One boy gets socked in the stomach, another in the arm, another in the groin. Thankfully the spears are all padded at the tip.
Earlier the boys performed exercises to improve their spear-wielding skills. Along with the makua—their older male instructors — they held spears in each of their hands while shuffling left and right. They worked their calves and thighs, did pushups. “This is your lifeblood,” Kyle Nakanelua, the ‘olohe (head trainer), shouted to the thirty-five boys during the exercises. He critiqued their form and pushed them to work harder. Muscular, with piercing eyes, a buzzed haircut and kakau (tattoos) all over his body, 54-year-old Nakanelua looks and acts every bit the part of a Hawaiian drill sergeant. “It’s got to hurt,” he reminded them, “or it don’t work.”
There’s good reason for his martial intensity. Come August the boys will need to be proficient at defending against the ihe. That’s when they’ll undergo an ancient rite of passage called kali‘i—when a young chief would repel a barrage of spears as a measure of his courage and ability. For their kali‘i the boys need only to catch a single ihe—but it will be unpadded. To snatch the spear, in Nakanelua’s eyes, means a person is willing to face the challenges of life head-on.
Their upcoming trial by ihe is just one of several rites of passage these haumana (students) will take part in as protégés of the Kali‘i Project, a three-year program in which middle and high school-age boys— all of Hawaiian ancestry—learn native customs, practices and by extension ways of thinking and feeling from their elders. The goal is to steer all of these boys into adulthood with the confidence of knowing what it means to be a Hawaiian man.