Story By: Shannon
Photos By: PF Bentley
kukui branches bend at right
angles, making them look like so many human limbs reaching into the air. Kukui
symbolizes enlightenment, and this old grove is particularly hallowed. It’s the
legendary burial site of Lanikaula, a sixteenth-century kahuna nui (high
priest) said to be Moloka‘i’s most powerful sorcerer and prophet. There’s no
better place to inaugurate this year’s festival, given its theme: Kunakaula
iwi. Firm are the upright expert prophets of Moloka‘i.
Festival host and kumu
(teacher) Elsie Ryder lays down the rules. People are free to take pictures,
but not kukui nuts. “No nut stealing,” she says, half-jokingly. “You signed the
waiver, so the ranch is not liable if anything happens to you because you snuck
a nut.” The grove’s caretaker, Uncle Bobby Alcain, adds, “We’re here today to
give, not to take. Whenever you take something from a special place,” he says,
“it always comes with kuleana.” Responsibility.
Ryder taps her pahu (drum)
and the dances begin. First a young woman, Uakea Tafaoimalo, enacts the story
of two sea turtles: The female was famous for laying her eggs across the
channel on Lana‘i’s Polihua beach, but the male was ill-tempered and lost a
flipper to two human warriors. Both turtles transformed into small islands,
which can be seen just offshore. When Tafaoimalo sways and lifts her head, it’s
uncanny how much she resembles a turtle surfacing to breathe. Her dance is
followed by a kalo-planting hula. Two energetic men mime building a kalo lo‘i
(taro patch), striking tall percussive sticks in rhythmic unison. For the final
dance, they invite eight other men, including Uncle Bobby and kumu Ryder’s son,
to join them.
The ten men stand
stoically as Ryder describes what they’re about to perform. It’s a wanana
(prophecy) first uttered in 1819, when Queen Ka‘ahumanu converted to
Christianity and ended the ancient religion, the kapu system. She sent warriors
to shut down all of the heiau (temples) across the Islands. When her agents
came to Paku‘i Heiau—not far from where we’re gathered today—the resident
priests saw that they were outnumbered. A few hid the ki‘i (sacred images) in
caves, while the others made a brave show of defiance. They registered their
protest with this mock battle and chant.
“Ha‘ule ka lewa! Ha‘ule ka
lani!” The ten dancers shake their fists and bellow the words. “Ha‘ule,” means
to fall. The chant warns that when the Hawaiian gods fall, so will the people.
It foretells the Hawaiians’ separation from their land, language and
traditions. The dancers squat and hiss, their fingers clenched, their faces a
mix of ferocity and humility. But it’s the second half of the chant that
carries the real drama. It predicts a rising up, a “ho‘ala” of the commoners. The
farmers, those with dirty feet, will rise up and revive the culture and restore
the land. “Ho‘ala ka lepo popolo!” The dancers shout and stamp the earth.
“Now is the time when this
prophecy will be fulfilled,” says Ryder once the hula is finished. It takes me
a moment to absorb this astonishing, accurate statement. Here are regular local
guys—fathers, sons and brothers, farmers and fishermen—breathing life into a
noble and nearly lost history. How did priests two hundred years ago know this
would come to pass? Looking around, I’m not the only one with chicken skin.
The island of Moloka‘i is
sometimes referred to as Moloka‘i Pule O‘o, the place of powerful prayer, an
epithet that rings true on many levels. The rural isle claims not one but two
saints canonized for performing miracles—and Catholicism is hardly the dominant
spiritual path here. At least a dozen churches of different denominations line
the road leading from the island’s tiny airport into Kaunakakai. Beneath it all
run deep undercurrents of the ancient, indigenous religion. People tell stories
of kahuna nui, high priests who could see the future in a bowl of water and
command the weather. And hula, known worldwide as a fetching dance form, is
also a profound spiritual practice. It’s said to have been born here, on a
hilltop overlooking the Pacific.
The 2016 Ka Hula Piko
festival marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event, which celebrates
hula’s sacred origins. It is also the tenth anniversary of the passing of its
founder, John Ka‘imikaua, who was by all accounts a remarkable human being. The
story of how he came by his ‘ike (knowledge) reads like a page out of Native
Hawaiian historian David Malo’s Hawaiian Antiquities. It goes like this:
In 1972 Ka‘imikaua was 14
years old. He lived in ‘Aiea, on O‘ahu, where his grandparents encouraged him
to cultivate a Hawaiian garden. One day he noticed a rare variety of ti plant
growing in someone’s yard. He asked the owner, a 92-year-old Hawaiian woman,
for a cutting. This was the sign she’d been waiting for. “Are you interested in
learning the old ways?” She asked the boy. “Very much so,” he replied. Her name
was Kawahinekapuheleikapokane, “the sacred woman traveling on the night of the
god Kane.” No last name. She was, she said, descended from Moloka‘i’s high
priests and had been praying for someone to pass her knowledge onto.
Young Ka‘imikaua was
already six feet tall and more than three hundred pounds, but even he looked up
to his teacher, who stood six-foot-four. Kawahine (for short) had white hair,
dark skin, piercing eyes. She could dance with feminine grace or masculine
ferocity and alter her voice to mimic the ocean or the wind. Over three years
she shared an inheritance of hula knowledge from Moloka‘i dating back to 900
CE. Ka‘imikaua memorized 156 chants, many of them more than a thousand lines
This exchange was all the
more remarkable considering its context. In the early 1970s, indigenous
Hawaiian culture was at its lowest ebb. There were few native speakers. The
Merrie Monarch hula competition was in its infancy; men didn’t yet compete. The
voyaging canoe replica Hokule‘a had yet to sail and spark a renaissance of
Polynesian navigation. Kawahine belonged to a vanishing world. She was born
kapu, sacred or untouchable, and she lived according to the old laws. She never
married. She told Ka‘imikaua that when she died she would take the kapu with
her, and everything she taught him would be noa, free. Two years after she
passed, her devout student opened his own school, Halau Hula o Kukuna‘okala, at
the age of 19.
I learned all this from a
documentary produced by the Native Hawaiian nonprofit Alu Like in 1985 and
screened the first night of the festival. It’s now day two, and I’m riding in a
car with Pualani and Janelle Ka‘imikaua, John’s mother and sister. Back in 1977
Pualani learned from a newspaper article that her teenage son had become a
kumu. She was appalled. Pualani’s grandfather had been one of the last kahuna
nui; as caretaker for Leleiwi fishpond on Hawai‘i Island, it was said that he
could summon ﬁsh and control the elements. He could curse people to death. But
Pualani herself is Mormon, and she felt wary of the old-time religion. “It was
not what I wanted my children to be involved in,” she says. “I refused to
support John.” Pualani was of the generation of Hawaiians who had been denied
their heritage. Her parents spoke the native language but didn’t teach her. She
didn’t use her Hawaiian name in school. She fought with her son over his
preoccupation with arcane Hawaiian rites for a year. But one night, she says,
“My father came to me in a dream. He said I needed to help John and support
So she went with him to
Moloka‘i. Ka‘imikaua showed his mother all of the places that Kawahine had
revealed to him. Using the chants as maps, he began uncovering forgotten sacred
sites. He found Lani-kaula’s kukui grove, the aged trees all but buried in cane
grass. He explored the seemingly empty expanses of Moloka‘i Ranch with its
owner, Phil Spalding. When a pueo, a Hawaiian owl, swooped down to hover by their
car, they followed it. It led them to Pu‘unana, the hilltop where it’s said the
Hawaiian deities Kapo and Laka danced the first hula steps.
Ka‘imikaua brought his
students here. They built an altar, or lele, and a large raised platform, or pa,
to serve as a hula stage. That’s where we’re headed now. As we bound over the
rocky landscape in four-wheel drive, I do the math. To learn 156 chants over
three years, Ka‘imikaua would’ve had to memorize one per week. Without a break.
While attending high school. How is this possible? John’s sister, Janelle
shrugs. “If it’s something that you love, you remember it.”
Love is the operative word
here. Ka‘imikaua’s deep love of hula and ancient tradition radiated from him.
His first haumana (students) were young Hawaiians like himself, who were
captivated by his encyclopedic knowledge and his passionate commitment to
bringing it to life. They practiced in Farrington High School’s gym on O‘ahu.
He didn’t charge a fee, but he was selective about whom he allowed to join the
halau (school). Four decades later, three of his original haumana now lead
Halau Hula o Kukuna‘okala in his stead: Elsie Ryder, Sulu Tafaoimalo and Mel
Enos. Their deep affection for their former kumu is evident in everything they
do. Ka‘imikaua may have left his body at age forty-seven in 2006, but his
spirit is very much alive at Ka Hula Piko.
The Friday morning
ho‘okupu (offering) ceremony is invitation-only. In the past, before
Ka‘imikaua’s death, as many as eight hundred people would attend this event,
which started at 3 a.m. Native American tribes came from Canada and Maori clans
from Aotearoa (New Zealand). In the predawn darkness, hula pilgrims would
gather en masse, carrying torches in a procession that wound its way up to the
summit. It was so quiet that people could hear the tide lapping on the shore
below and axis deer barking in the distance. Silhouetted dancers summoned the
How magical that must have
been. But today is no disappointment: The view from Pu‘unana is magnificent. Moloka‘i’s
jeweled coastline shimmers, a multi-colored mosaic of fringing reefs and
fishponds. From this vantage, it’s easy to see why Ryder calls Moloka‘i the
piko (navel) of the archipelago. The neighboring islands of Lana‘i, Maui and
even little Molokini ﬂoat on the frosted horizon. There’s a stillness to this
landscape that seems impossible given how exposed it is. The wind leans in
close, like a relative whispering in my ear.
The assemblage of local
and visiting halau is impressive. The Hula o Kukuna‘okala dancers wear
hand-stamped kihei (capes) and stiff kukui leaves woven into crowns. Other
groups wear kupe‘e (sea snail) shells and thick, fringed garlands of palapalai
fern. Before proceeding up to the pa, everyone forms a circle to pule (pray).
Dancers of all ages and sizes are represented, from toddlers and willowy
preteens to kupuna (elders) and boys in their malo (loincloths). The girls tie
one another’s braids back with strips of ti leaf. In the sea of dark hair (and
a few gray hairs), the redheads and blondes stand out, representing the
diversity of modern Native Hawaiians.
After a prayer announcing
our intentions and asking for blessing, we pass through a gate. Cameras and
shoes stay behind. This is consecrated ground, the spot where hula came to
life. Some pause at a large pohaku, a stone camouflaged with orange and green
lichen. A man asks his daughter, “Do you see the woman’s face?” Ka‘imikaua
found this boulder with discernible human features; it’s said to be a
manifestation of Kapo.
describe Kapo as the elder sister of Pele, the volcano goddess. She reportedly
could change shape at will and had a detachable vagina that she once threw as a
decoy to help Pele escape the amorous attention of Kamapua‘a, the pig god. She
is said to have entered into a tree in the poisonwood grove here on Moloka‘i.
Some say she gave birth to Laka. Others say she and Laka are different aspects
of the same goddess. According to Ka‘imikaua, Kapo and Laka were living,
breathing women, two sisters who were deified over time. Around one thousand
years ago, Kapo taught her younger sister to dance hula here at Pu‘unana. Laka
excelled at the art and traveled from island to island, sharing it with the
Hawaiian people. Kapo grew jealous of her sister’s fame and turned to sorcery.
To this day, she’s credited with obstructing hula students—but she’s still
treated with considerable respect.
We’re here today to honor
her and the entire lineage of hula teachers. Slowly everyone settles into the
shade of a tent facing the stone platform. We sit in silence for a long time.
No one fidgets—not even the small keiki squeezed in beside their parents.
Finally, Liko Hoe blows a conch shell and begins to chant. He was among the
dancers who performed the kalo-planting hula on the festival’s first day. He
and his two brothers studied under Ka‘imikaua, and his family has been coming
to Ka Hula Piko since it started. Today he chants with a melodic high pitch,
almost keening. This style of vocalization is meant to praise and uplift the
land. Two young girls dressed in green pa‘u (skirts) with waist-long hair
ascend onto the pa. With their backs to the crowd, they dance to the sonorous
beat of Ryder’s drum.
One by one, each halau is
invited up to the lele. They present gifts appropriate for the hula deities:
spiky hala pepe branches, sprigs of ‘olapa with berries, fragrant maile lei and
bundles wrapped in ti. Then they offer their dance. The choreographies are
intimate and pious, far less ﬂashy than what you’d see in public lu‘au or
competitions. The dancers converse with departed ancestors and future children,
each movement an expression of devotion.
This potent weekend of
hula communion wraps up with a big ho‘olaule‘a (party) on Saturday. Most of the
island attends—as well as many visitors. When Ka Hula Piko started in 1991, it
was a collaboration between Ka‘imikaua and the Moloka‘i Visitors Association.
From the beginning, the festival was meant to be a culturally and economically
rejuvenating force for Moloka‘i. The annual inﬂux of visitors gives residents
an opportunity to make some extra income. By 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, vendors
have set up on the wide lawn of the Kualapu‘u Recreational Center, selling
pareos, shell earrings, wood carvings, shave ice and my favorite: plates of
breadfruit, fried weke (goatﬁsh) and papio (trevally).
People relax in the shade
of a giant monkeypod tree. Visiting hula dancers take the stage, followed by
bands playing a mix of old Hawaiian ballads and reggae tunes. The list of
entertainers includes local stars: Grammy-nominated singer Raiatea Helm and Pomaika‘i
Lyman, the granddaughter of beloved falsetto singer Genoa Keawe. Lyman wears an
incredible crown made with tight clusters of hinahina, a silver succulent found
on Moloka‘i’s beach dunes. Meanwhile the Hula o Kukuna‘okala gang is
sequestered inside the community center, busy selling t-shirts and making fresh
kukui-leaf lei for their performance at the end of the day.
I sit with Mel Enos, who reflects
on his years with the halau. He was 15 when he met Ka‘imikaua. “My football
coach at ‘Aiea High School asked if I was interested in dancing ancient hula,”
he says. “I was influenced by what I had seen on TV, Robert Cazimero doing
ku‘i, the stamping step. It looked so powerful, so sharp.” So he gave it a try.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he laughs. He became one of
Ka‘imikaua’s primary students. During the 1980s, he traveled with the halau to
other islands, the Mainland and Aotearoa, performing and offering hula
workshops. “I just loved dancing, more than anything,” says Enos. “Because of
John’s storytelling ability, he could really draw people in. My job was to
portray his story. We were the picture that he painted with his words. We
brought that to life.”
When a hula practitioner
of this caliber talks about bringing things to life, it pays to listen. Enos
remembers an occasion in 1994, when the local news channel KHON wanted to ﬁlm
some dancers at Paku‘i Heiau. The ﬁlm crew had a fixed idea of where they
wanted to shoot. “I said, ‘No, we have to chant here, on the second tier,’”
says Enos. The crew insisted on the first site. “After five or six tries, our
voices were hoarse. But after they broke the cameras down we did the chant
again, where I wanted to.” The difference was dramatic, he says. He could hear
the voices of his ancestors joining in. “It wasn’t five of us, but five
thousand.” When Enos returned to the truck where Ka‘imikaua was waiting, he
didn’t have to explain. Ka‘imikaua, too, had heard the difference and knew what
Enos and the other halau
leaders rely on intuition when planning Ka Hula Piko each year. They pray for
the theme to reveal itself. Through these themes and their associated symbols,
they investigate esoteric aspects of hula philosophy. Posters from past years
are on display in the community center. After I peruse the collection, I wish I
could have attended every single year. Especially fascinating is the poster
depicting Pahukai, a little known kupua (demigod) who bears the head of a
stingray and legs of a man.
I spend part of the
afternoon making traditional Hawaiian musical instruments with Liko Hoe’s
father, Calvin Hoe. We sit at a picnic bench sanding hau (tree hibiscus)
branches down into smooth kala‘au, percussive sticks. Liko tells me how
fortunate he feels to have had one-on-one time with Ka‘imikaua. “John was
exceptional,” he says. “He carried a lot, but we can all carry a little bit. Part
of his legacy is connecting us to our kupuna. What they saw and felt was
important, they danced that. When we dance that today, the connection is made.
We need that … not just on Moloka‘i or in Hawai‘i, but throughout the world.
John’s vision was universal.”
He leaves to join Halau
Hula o Kukuna‘okala for the last performance of the day. The audience watches
reprisals of the turtle and kalo-building dances with rapt attention. A mother
and daughter perform a mesmerizing owl dance, and the entire halau dances a
final piece together. Afterward, in the spirit of the festival’s prophetic
theme, I ask Ryder what she sees for the future of the halau. “Our
responsibility is to continue on,” she says, “whether we have thirty, three
hundred or just one person. When John met Kawahine, it was just her. One person