The Kahuna of Mo‘okini

For more than forty years, Leimomi Lum has cared for one of Hawai‘i's most sacred places
Story by Allan Seiden. Photos by Valerie Kim.

It is a comfortably cool late November morning in 2018, the morning of the fortieth celebration of Children's Day at Mo‘okini Heiau. Mo‘okini is one of Hawai‘i's most powerful and historic temples, and its setting is spectacular: In the foreground today are grassy fields yellowed by sun and wind, and behind them the whitecapped waters of the ‘Alenuihāhā channel stretch to Maui and Haleakalā's rising summit. A strong wind blows, sending the clouds racing.

When the children arrive a light rain falls and a rainbow forms over the heiau. As the young ones disembark from the small fleet of yellow school buses that have brought them from all parts of Hawai‘i Island, they are greeted by Lorna Kapualiko Lim’s powerfully delivered chants of welcome. Then they head across the lawn surrounding the heiau to be welcomed by its kahuna nui, or high priestess, Leimomi o Kamehae Kuamo’o Mo‘okini Lum. Bowing their heads and closing their eyes, they listen as Leimomi recites, in Hawaiian, a soulful prayer of blessing and aloha.

Leimomi is 92 years old but there is nothing frail about her: She carries the same powerful spiritual energy that defines the heiau she has cared for since 1977. It was that year that she succeeded her father, Dewey Oliver Kli’ikuiowaipiele Kuamo’o Mo‘okini, as the steward of Mo‘okini. When she accepted the kuleana, or responsibility, of caring for the heiau, she rededicated the temple, which centuries earlier had been a site of human sacrifice, to the children of the world. “Each kahuna nui has to establish their own identity and way of serving,” Leimomi says in a tone both proud and humble. “I dedicated my service to our keiki and to the future they represent.”

The keiki who have come for Children’s Day today enter the temple through a narrow passage that was once reserved for kāhuna (priests) and ali’i (chiefs). They place ho’okupu, or offerings, of flower lei on the heiau’s scalloped altar. Next they hear from a member of the Mo‘okini ‘ohana who tells them of the heiau’s history. Then a drummer with a sacred temple pahu (drum) offers a hands-on lesson in Hawaiian drumming. The children circle through each of the twelve learning centers set up on the heiau lawn, and at each they see how the past informs the present, from the knowledge of celestial navigation that brought the Hawaiians to the Islands to the ways they lived in harmony with nature.

“There is much today that our keiki are missing,” Leimomi says as she awaits the next group of fourth-graders. “They are vulnerable at this age. Many have lost that intimate knowledge of nature that was part of life here in Hawai‘i. The Hawaiians had a sensitivity to the wholeness of the world. They saw the connection between the physical world and the spiritual realm. This wisdom is part of our heritage.” 

The roots of the Mo‘okini family in Hawai‘i go back to the year 480, when Leimomi’s ancestor Kuamo’o Mo‘okini is said to have reached the island of Hawai‘i after an epic sea voyage from the Samoan island of Savai’i. The connection remains alive to this day. In 1980 Leimomi went to Savai’i to visit the Mo‘okini family’s ancestral temple; she was welcomed back by Sāmoa’s King Malietoa Tanumafili II and other dignitaries. It was a fascinating reminder of her heritage that strengthened her bond to the Kohala lands on Hawai‘i Island that have been home to her family for longer than fifteen centuries. The history of this land is long: 2019 marks the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Kohala’s leading son, King Kamehameha. Saturday, May 11, has been set as a day of celebration at the heiau.

A National Historic Landmark in the northwest of Hawai‘i Island, Mo‘okini heiau is where Kamehameha I was taken for his birth rites. Leimomi’s family have resided in the area and been stewards of the site for centuries.

“This is Kamehameha’s country,” Leimomi states, proud of a history that intimately links her family with Kamehameha. “These were his ancestral lands.” It was to Mo‘okini heiau that the newborn Kamehameha was taken for his birth rites, circa 1750. The ceremony was performed by Leimomi’s ancestor, also named Kuamo’o Mo‘okini. 

The kahuna nui reminisces about her own past, talking with a smile about a happy childhood that began on April 29, 1926, in a small home on Weaver Lane, a now-vanished street once located near downtown Honolulu. The third child and first daughter of Dewey and Maliana Ane Mo‘okini, she was given four Hawaiian names to honor her sacred ancestry. Two other brothers would follow, leaving Leimomi as the only girl, trained by experience in a male-dominated home to be self-confident and assertive.

Leimomi was the first Mo‘okini to be born on O’ahu. The rest of the Mo‘okini clan still lived on or near the family’s lands several miles south of Hāwī on Hawai‘i Island. She remembers going to the heiau as a child, joining the Mo‘okini ‘ohana to clear the site of weeds, restore damaged walls and maintain it properly. At the time the heiau was vulnerable, surrounded by thousands of acres of sugar cane. That vulnerability would ultimately make Leimomi an activist, successfully seeking to protect the heiau and the nearby Kamehameha birth site from desecration and neglect. 

When Leimomi took over as kahuna nui of Mo‘okini heiau, she rededicated the temple
 to the children of the world. “Each kahuna nui has to establish their own identity and way of serving,” she says. “I dedicated my service to the keiki and to the future they represent.”

Initially she expected the past to be preserved by one of her four brothers. But that changed when she discovered that she, not one of the boys, had been chosen by her uncle and father to become the kahuna nui of the heiau. The news came without explanation, but with a certainty that made it impossible for Leimomi to refuse. “I never learned why they chose me,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh no, I can’t do this. I just can’t jump into something I know so little about, like this.’ I thought it would conflict with what I’d been taught at Sacred Hearts Convent and Academy. So I sat down with Uncle Heloke and my father and they discussed it with me.” 

That discussion resolved a dilemma that worried Leimomi by forging a link between the triumvirate of Hawaiian gods Kū, Kāne and Lono and the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “Their explanation provided a natural link between the two systems of belief,” she says. “From that point on, it never created a conflict for me.” It would take twenty-plus years of training by Uncle Heloke Kaneikawaihoolanaihauola Kekuhaupionamakuaeluaihala Kuamo’o Mo‘okini (who served as the heiau’s kahuna nui from 1930 to 1966) and her father (kahuna nui from 1966 to 1977) to prepare Leimomi for the responsibilities that came with the title. Genealogies and sacred chants had to be learned and the Hawaiian language mastered, all while Leimomi pursued other goals, including getting a degree in sociology at the University of Hawai‘i, class of 1950. 

That same year, at age 24, she became the first policewoman with the Honolulu Police Department, in which her father served as assistant police chief. For Leimomi, a career in law enforcement all started with guns. “Guns fascinated me,” she recalls. “I guess that was because I admired and loved my father and wanted to please him. I was something of a tomboy, and shooting provided me with a challenge that I thought would impress my father. I found out I was really good, winning recognition as a Master of Small Arms. That enhanced my self-confidence and taught me a lesson about pursuing your goals.” 

Leimomi was the first policewoman hired by the Honolulu Police Department. Here she is seen at the age of 24 with her father, HPD’s assistant police chief; in the background are her cousins, also policemen.

At HPD she served in the Juvenile Crime Prevention Division, using a tough-love approach with wayward youth. The experience opened the door to a lifelong commitment to the young, which became her calling as kahuna nui. She also put her energies into union activities at HPD, calling herself “the mother of SHOPO” (the State of Hawai‘i Organization of Police Officers), learning in the process how to deal effectively with powerful opponents.

Her successes were achieved with the help of her husband, Major General Alexis Lum. Leimomi lovingly recalls the fifty-nine years of marriage that ended with his passing in 2009 and the three children they raised together. “I could not have done it without him,” she says of all she accomplished. “It’s that simple. He was supportive and encouraged me and helped me effectively strategize.” Over the years, that meant connections forged through his role as Hawai‘i state adjutant general and sixteen years serving as military liaison and confidant to US Senator Daniel Inouye. Those positions opened the door to people in local, state and federal governments, paving the way for the heiau to be declared a registered National Historic Landmark in 1963, following a visit by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, a visit initiated and hosted by Leimomi. 

After additional years of effort, owner-ship of the heiau and the Kamehameha birth site were transferred to the state of Hawai‘i, with the kahuna nui granted over-sight and control of access to both historic properties, which are now part of the larger Kohala Historical Sites State Monument. Leimomi is now working to preserve the sites from nearby development, assuring that a natural buffer maintains their historic and spritual integrity.

It was not only in the political realm that Leimomi was accomplishing change. Over the years she also became a friend and ally to icons of Hawaiian culture like’Iolani Luahine, Edith Kanaka’ole, Mary Kawena Pūku’i, Napua Stevens, Edith Brandt and Lorraine Cooke, all of whom were members of a group Leimomi lovingly calls “the Magnificent Matriarchs.” These venerable women all supported Leimomi’s efforts in Kohala as well as her work to open a school for girls on O’ahu. The Hawaii School for Girls had opened in rented quarters at Central Union Church when Leimomi heard that a mansion on the slopes of Diamond Head once owned by tycoon Walter Dillingham had been given to another school in Honolulu—Punahou. The mansion, called La Pietra, was, Leimomi recalls, “a beautiful home in a beautiful setting adjacent to the site where Papa’ena’ena, a luakini [sacrificial] heiau dedicated to Kū, once stood.”  

The women approached Punahou and succeeded in purchasing the property through the contributions of wealthy donors. In 1969 the school added La Pietra to its name and welcomed its first students, including Leimomi’s daughters Angela and Alexia. Over the years young women at La Pietra would encounter Leimomi as a formidable presence: a policewoman who was loving and respected but also stern and, to some, intimidating. 

Now, in the tenth decade of her life, age has softened Leimomi in many ways. Her message, which has only broadened since she reconciled her Catholic upbringing and her Hawaiian spiritual heritage, is truly ecumenical. Nurtured by her understanding of aloha, she finds common ground with all seeking spiritual meaning in their lives, acknowledged by the Torch of Liberty Award she received from the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League for her efforts to “promot[e] understanding between people of different cultures.” One example: When the founders of San Marga Hindu temple on Kaua’i reached out to Leimomi in 2007, the kahuna nui paid a visit to the site where the group hoped to build a temple. With soulful chants she asked the spirits at a nearby site that had once been home to a Mo‘okini family heiau to support their efforts. She recently visited the now largely completed temple, accompanied by a Buddhist monk friend.

Leimomi at the heiau’s altar with Buddhist dignitaries Venerable Nyanadharo (left), a meditation master visiting from France, and Venerable Frederic Cittaguno of the Sacred Falls International Meditation Center in Hau‘ula.

But being inclusive doesn’t mean that Leimomi shies from controversy. Even if she’s not the gun-toting policewoman of her younger days, she’s still feisty and assertive. She is often an iconoclast, and that can put her at odds with others. She is currently a vocal supporter of the Thirty-Meter Telescope that has been approved for construction on the summit of Mauna Kea. The project is being fought by a segment of the Hawaiian community that considers it a desecration of a sacred site. Momi disagrees. “I believe totally in getting the new telescope built on Mauna Kea,” she says. “Our ancestors studied the heavens. Now a new generation of Hawaiians can have the opportunity to advance what they discovered. A telescope that can accomplish this maintains the sacredness of the mountain. With this and in other ways, we need to be open to the future to carry us forward to the many tomorrows yet to come.”

As for her own future, Leimomi is happy to have found her successor at Mo‘okini in her granddaughter Lindsey Alexis Keli’ikulowaipielekawehionalani Kalkbrenner, who is now 35. “Keli’i lives in today’s world, but she also values her Hawaiian heritage,” says Leimomi. “She understands. She is prepared. Just as I was able to create a sense of purpose as kahuna nui, so will she.” HH