Thirty years ago Hoaka Delos Reyes’ son came home from school with a seemingly simple request. The fourth-grader had been learning to pound poi, the staple food of ancient Hawai‘i, and asked his father to make him a stone poi pounder. No problem, dad said. After all, Hoaka had worked with rock most of his life, having built houses and hotels from the concrete slab up. But the boy’s request came with a special challenge: He wanted a poi pounder made the traditional way, without modern tools.
Hoaka was stumped. His Native Hawaiian mother had taught him to weave and fish in the old ways, but not to carve. Once fundamental to daily life in Hawai‘i, the practice of stone-on-stone carving was all but abandoned after Western ships arrived here in the late 1700s. Imported metal tools had rendered the sacred adze quarries and the masters who used them obsolete. Hoaka asked local kūpuna (elders) if they remembered how Hawaiians shaped stone in days past. No one did. With each dead end, Hoaka’s curiosity deepened.
“The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to know,” he says. “Stone is the foundation of everything. Without stone you can’t have buildings, you can’t have roads.” He recognized that his ancestors’ reliance on stones, or pōhaku, was even more fundamental. “We have a saying in Hawaiian: He ola pōhaku, he make pōhaku. Stone gives life, stone takes life.” Hoaka explains: “Stone gives life by cooking our food in the imu [underground oven], building shelters for us, making medicines with mortar and pestle, and carving our canoes. Stones and minerals heal us from the inside out. Stone takes life in war, whether with a sling stone, club or spear.”
Hoaka consulted old texts and extended his search for ‘ike (knowledge) beyond his home island of Maui. Finally a neighbor called with a lead: A Japanese-Hawaiian carpenter on O‘ahu knew how to carve the old way. Hoaka sent a friend to the man’s house in Hale‘iwa to inquire whether he would accept Hoaka as a student. The man said no. Hoaka sent his friend to ask again. This time the old man scowled and said, “What don’t you understand? No is no.” And he got into his car and drove away. Hoaka let it rest. But after months of failing to find anyone else to teach him, he implored his friend to try a third time. Reluctantly, the friend went. The old man spied him in the driveway. “You again? You must really love your friend fo’ take all this verbal abuse, yeah? OK. Give him my number.”
Thus began Hoaka’s fifteen-year mentorship with George Fujinaga and his journey toward becoming a master kālai pōhaku (stone carver). Today he is one of the few living practitioners of this ancient Hawaiian art.
In 1989 Hoaka spent a week with George learning the basics. “I had to go out and look for stones and research what kind of tools were made,” says Hoaka. Hawai‘i’s young volcanic landscape is composed almost entirely of a single material: basalt, which ranges from light and porous to dense and fine-grained. Hoaka learned to use the harder rock to make tools—adzes, chisels, axes and anvils—which he then used to fashion stone implements—the poi pounder for his son, plus fishing weights, oil lamps, game boards and weapons.
George was a tough teacher but willing to share secrets, such as where to look for material and when. Certain valleys and streams yield better-quality stones. Storms and flash floods turn up hidden treasures. “I even had to learn what time of day to chip,” says Hoaka. “The morning has the nicest sun, it shows all the clarity.”
Stonework requires physical strength and humility in equal measure. “When you are hard,” says Hoaka, “the stone will make you soft, it will resist and humble you. When you are soft, it will shape and mold you.” Rock is an unforgiving medium; mistakes are permanent. If Hoaka tapped too aggressively, the entire piece shattered. He learned to carefully observe the grain and color of each pōhaku and listen to the sound it made as he chipped away. “The stone started to shape me, not the other way around,” he says. What began to emerge was a gifted artist, someone capable of telling stories in stone.
Hoaka challenged himself with increasingly larger pieces, graduating from pestles to statues of Hawaiian gods, from three-pound stones to thirty-pounders, three hundred-pounders and even three thousand-pounders. He bribed his construction buddies with beer and pūpū to retrieve boulders with their tractors and excavators. One behemoth was so big it tipped his friend’s tractor over. After depositing it into Hoaka’s yard, his friend shook his head and said, “You will never finish this in your lifetime.” Hoaka worried that might prove true. “For a year and a half, I didn’t put a dent in it,” he laughs. “My stone tools just made dust.” He asked George for per-mission to use a hammer and metal chisel, but even these failed; his wrists gave out faster than the stone. Finally, he resorted to power tools.
Now he uses a mix of old and new technology. He creates both traditional implements and modern representations of ancient myths. His backyard is a sculpture garden populated by gods and goddesses rising skyward between the citrus trees. It took three years, but Hoaka transformed that tractor-tipping boulder into a deep, majestic bowl. Glittering beneath a bread-fruit tree, the three-ton vessel has the quality of a sorcerer’s pool—something in which to glimpse the future or past. A sleek larger-than-life stone lizard with black eyes guards it from above. She is Kihawahine, the most powerful of all the Hawaiian mo‘o, or lizard deities. Nearby sits the goddess Hi‘iaka, with waves of hair etched in gray. Two lithe lizards perch on either side of her, one with a row of ivory shark’s teeth imbedded in its fearsome open mouth.
These interpretations of Hawaiian legend caught the attention of local gallery owners, who now seek out Hoaka’s work for exhibitions. His larger sculptures command tens of thousands of dollars—not bad for someone whose high school art teacher told him he’d never be an artist. One of his poi pounders decorates US Senator Brian Schatz’s office, and another sits in the White House.
In 2012 Hoaka entered the Schaefer International Gallery’s Portrait Challenge. “All of the artists had to write a story about someone who impacted their life,” says Hoaka. He chose retired fire captain Kyle Nakanelua. “He has given of himself to so many. He was my model for ‘Ka ‘Ulu,’ the story about breadfruit.” According to the story, a Hawaiian man sacrificed himself for his family during a famine; the first ‘ulu (breadfruit) tree sprouted from his grave. So Kyle sat in the shade of an ‘ulu tree while Hoaka sketched his likeness onto the rough surface of the stone. The session resulted in a dramatic portrait: a stylized face erupting from the lacy crown of a tree. The details—the man’s facial tattoo, the breadfruits’ heft and textured skin—are astonishing. “I could see it in my mind, and I could see it in the stone,” says Hoaka.
Kyle and Hoaka met around fifteen years ago when the carver joined Hale Mua. Kyle founded the club, which immerses Hawaiian men in indigenous practices and cultivates leadership skills. As part of Hale Mua, Hoaka learned protocols, chants and fighting skills. He mentored younger men. He received the traditional hand-tapped tattoo that runs down the left side of his face. The tattooist prayed for six months before deciding on the design, which speaks to Hoaka’s lineage and kuleana (responsibility) as a master carver.
“Hoaka talks to stones,” says Kyle. “But that’s not the amazing thing. They talk back! He has to call for the stone, ask for volunteers among the stones that exist. Once a stone appears, he negotiates with it. In the process, the stone tells him where it wants to go. Listening to stones … that’s the unseen ability he has.”
As the alaka‘i (leader) of Hale Mua, Kyle gave Hoaka a special title: Mo‘o Kā‘alā, the stone-biting lizard. It’s fitting, since mo‘o are clearly some of Hoaka’s favorite subjects. But it’s also a historic title with deep meaning, Kyle says. “‘Kā’ is to strike. ‘‘Alā’ is the smooth black basalt.‘Mo‘o’ can also mean priest.” Hoaka is a priest of stones, and this title acknowledges that the stones he works with chisel and grinder aren’t mere pebbles. They are the hardest volcano-birthed boulders, the ebony basalt coveted by the chiefs of old.
Hoaka’s mentor George often told him about a particular quality of stone that he had never been able to find: extremely dense, hard and shiny. “For months and months I go looking,” says Hoaka, “on the coastline, in streams—and I found it. It was a blessing.” Eager to share his discovery with his teacher, he flew to O‘ahu, sat down at the picnic table in George’s garage and pulled the dark stone out of a bag. “He looks at it and he starts crying,” says Hoaka.“He calls his wife and says, ‘Look, look! He found the stone. The stone has revealed itself to him.’ And he looks at me, crying, and says, ‘From this day forward I no longer can teach you.’” Hoaka argued, told his teacher not to say such things and promised to come and chip stones outside of his house.
Not long after, Hoaka received a 2 a.m. phone call. George’s wife. Her husband was gone. “Before he passed, he told me to tell you that he had been waiting for you all his life,” she said. “Now he can go to sleep, knowing that you will carry on the work.”
During his apprenticeship with George, Hoaka learned something about his own genealogy. At a family dinner he caught his aunties looking at him and clucking. “Finally someone is assuming the kuleana,” they said. “What kuleana?” He asked. They reminded him that his great-great-grandmother’s name was Mauna Kea. “It’s that holy mountain that the stones come from. There’s an adze quarry there called Keanakāko‘i. Those are our ancestral lands. That’s where you’re from.”
For centuries, enterprising Hawaiians traveled by foot up to the frigid, wind-bitten summit of Mauna Kea. They carried food and water to sustain themselves for many days while they worked their magic: turning raw rock into precious tools. Keanakāko‘i spreads over seven miles between 8,600 and 13,000 feet in elevation. It’s one of the largest, highest adze quarries in the world. Scattered across the treeless, barren landscape are the remains of workshops where kālai pōhaku labored, accumulating tons of flake at their feet. Small openings reveal caves where the bygone carvers slept at night, sheltered from the harsh, high-altitude weather.
Hoaka visited Keanakāko‘i once to shoot photos with his friend Shane Tegarden. At first, security guards at the summit told them they couldn’t go to the quarry. “But there was a Hawaiian man there, an old, old man. He looked at me and said, ‘What you goin’ to do?’ I said, ‘Make my prayers for my family. I need to go there to honor them.’ After Hoaka revealed his family name, Mauna Kea, the man volunteered to personally escort him.
It was an emotional visit for Hoaka, who chanted and prayed at Lake Waiau before continuing to the quarry. The mounds and mounds of flake, left behind by untold generations of carvers, moved both men to tears. “It was unreal, a special moment in time.” For the photo session, Hoaka wore a malo (loincloth) and kīhei (cape) made of dried ti leaves, similar to what his ancestors might have worn. He was chilled to the bone. He and Shane shot photos until nightfall and picked their way back to the car in the dark. “I stubbed my toe on this stone,” Hoaka remembers. “I pull it out and it’s an adze, hand-chipped. I told Shane, ‘Look what my family has given me.’”
Hoaka’s home is filled with artifacts: old and new poi pounders, salt bowls, sling stones, octopus lures, net sinkers and anchor stones. His most cherished possessions are the ko‘i, or adzes. He has dozens, ranging in size from two to twelve inches long. Some are hefty axe blades, others slight tools for deft work. Several are polished smooth as glass—red, gray and black wedges with knifelike edges.
“The ko‘i is the physical manifestation of our ancient ancestors,” he says, showing off one of his largest. “You see how well made? Feel that edge. All this polish is from years of working with the oils from the trees. Precious.” It has a timeless quality; it could have been carved yesterday or two thousand years ago. “This one is from Kaho‘olawe.” He holds up a sleek, light red slab. “Almost like obsidian. The red is iron oxide, so it’s a hard, hard stone.”
At 69 Hoaka still hefts hundred-pound rocks into his house and spends hours hammering away at the sheer slabs. He wrestles rocks from sunup to sundown, begrudging the winter for depriving him of extra daylight hours. He hosts workshops to teach anyone interested how to carve the ancient way. The sound of tapping fills the air, rock clacking against rock, as students and stones talk to one another.
He recently taught a group of Maui doctors. He explained that they would be making something small but meaningful: stone lamps. “Hawaiian midwives didn’t have electric lights; they had a stone lamp filled with kukui nut oil,” he told them. “When the child in the womb came out, the first thing the child saw was light. Out of the darkness and into the light: Life begins.”
Lately Hoaka has been ruminating on an ambitious project, the culmination of his life’s work. He plans to create sixteen symbolic ko‘i, two from each of the main Hawaiian Islands. This requires access to historic quarries—not easy to get. Government agencies regard quarries as archaeological sites rather than living cultural resources. Hoaka wants to see that shift. Hula practitioners, canoe carvers and fishermen all have legal access to the raw materials needed for their traditions; he seeks the same for stone carvers. Plus, he feels an ancestral responsibility for Mauna Kea and the other quarry sites.
“We are the caretakers of this mauna [mountain], this sacred place that’s been in our family,” he says. “I am connected to all of the quarries and all of the mountains of stone throughout, from above and below. I am the navigator of stones, the priest of many places from heiau to fishponds, from taro patches to the king’s trails, the path-ways with the white stones placed so you can see your way at night.”
After shaping the sixteen adzes, Hoaka wants to use them to fell a tree—something that hasn’t been done for a century or longer. “I’m not getting younger,” he says.“If I’m able to do that, to make the tradition live again, that will be my last project.” He smiles, imagining the musical thwack of a ko‘i echoing through the forest. “It will awaken the forest, awaken the senses. It is the past coming alive.” HH