Story by Liza Simon
Art by Aaron Kawai‘ae‘a
What’s in a name? In the rich oral culture of Native Hawaiians, everything. “Strip yourself of all your possessions, and your name still carries the essence of your ancestors,” says Walter Kawai‘ae‘a, who inspired his family to write a new children’s book that speaks volumes about the value in a name.
The origins of the book trace to Grandpa Walter’s childhood. He grew up hearing his elders share mo‘olelo, or stories, of their ancestral ties to Kamehameha I, the king who united the Islands. Later, in the 1970s, Walter hunkered down in the Hawai‘i State Archives and was exhilarated to discover that he was directly descended from the courageous protector of Kamehameha I: Chief Nae‘ole. Two centuries ago, Nae‘ole heard that rival factions were out to murder the newborn king. He acted swiftly, rescuing the royal babe and running miles across treacherous Hawai‘i Island terrain with the infant in his arms. Eventually he reached sanctuary in the domain of his sister, who reared Kamehameha in seclusion until he was old enough to rule.
Nae‘ole’s heroic run is enshrined in his name, which translates as “without shortness of breath.” Walter loved telling his children about their intrepid ancestor, and his son Aaron, an up-and-coming artist, dreamt of illustrating Nae‘ole’s journey in a book. But, he recalls wondering, “Where would I find a writer? I wasn’t good in school. I was a rascal.”
Nonetheless Aaron vowed to honor Nae‘ole when his first son was born. When the baby came, Aaron’s family consulted a cultural mentor who divined from a dream that the infant would be known as Kekauleleanae‘ole, “the flight of Nae‘ole.”
“I used to rock Kekauleleanae‘ole in my arms and tell him the story of his name over and over,” recalls Grandpa Walter. The boy took ownership of the name as he grew, always moving swiftly to help others. And his teachers recognized his writing skills as early as second grade. Soon father and son were collaborating as artist and author on a book about Nae‘ole. Their project got a boost when one of Kekauleleanae‘ole’s teachers brought it to the attention of Kamehameha Publishing, and now Kohala Kuamo‘o: Nae‘ole’s Race to Save a King has just been released. At a meeting with the publisher, Kekauleleanae‘ole was asked for names of people he’d like mentioned in the book’s dedication. In the tradition of his namesake, he cut to the chase. “I want to say that this book is for all kids my age,” he replied. “If they look into the meaning of their names, they will want to write books about their discoveries, too.”