Issue 7.5: October/November 2004

The Long Walk Home

story by Sally-Jo Keala-o-Anuenue Bowman
photos by Monte Costa

 Kapono Souza, near west
Oahu's Makua Valley during
his annual walk around the island.

Three a.m. Kailua, Oahu in mid-November 2003. Winter rains began two weeks ago.

Kapono Aluli Souza sets out in the stormy dark from Ulupo heiau on the second leg of his annual huakai, or voyage, that will snake around the entire island of Oahu. His journey is modeled on the ancient annual observance of Makahiki, the Hawaiian new year and season of peace, a time long gone when chiefs and priests representing Lono made four-month walking circuits of their islands.

This night, as Kapono walks, he carries an eighteen-foot staff topped with a carved stone image of the ancient god Lono. White banners, symbol of Lono, hang from the cross piece.

A man appears from nowhere and starts walking beside him.

"He was a practitioner of lua, the Hawaiian martial art," remembers Kapono months later. "At Waimanalo, the strong Kona winds blew out our camp, but he stayed. He found a piece of turtle shell there, and that was his hookupu, his offering, to Lono. Then he disappeared. I never knew his name."

For Kapono, such occurrences—less and less unusual—are pieces in the puzzle as he seeks his true purpose in life and a solid identity as a Hawaiian. Makahiki is the frame he is using to put the pieces together.

As a child, Kapono knew little of Makahiki, and in that he was like most people in the Islands: It had been too many generations since anyone had celebrated the season for it to be known. Instead, in the huge family of Kapono’s maternal tutu, or grandmother, famed Hawaiian composer Irmgard Farden Aluli, the emphasis was on music. Yet Kapono never learned to play an instrument, and he grew up marked by asthma, a sickly child unable to play sports. When he couldn’t breathe—at times he thought he was dying—his tutu would calm him with lomilomi, the Hawaiian healing art of massage.

Tamara Moan offers a hookupu
during closing ceremonies at Mokapu.

"There was this feeling that came from her," he says. "It was aloha! That’s what helped me, her healing touch. My grandma’s kuleana, responsibility you are born with, was to perpetuate aloha through music. She spoke to me, even scolded me, about my kuleana."

Even as a youngster, Kapono knew his kuleana lay in the healing arts, and when he graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1991, he became a lomilomi practitioner. But his mind and heart continued questing. When he studied the works of 19th-century Hawaiian historians, he read about Makahiki.

"Hey!" he thought. "We have Chinese New Year. We have Western New Year. But this is Hawaii! Why don’t we have Hawaiian New Year? It’s a whole season!"

He first took action in 2001 when he was twenty-eight.

"I was raised Hawaiian, and yet I knew something was missing," he says. "I needed to find a way to reconnect with what’s important. Our ancestors had a period of time specifically for peace, a four-month time for harvest, celebration, competition, sharing, checking the conditions of the aina, the land and the nation. Lono is a symbol representing food, harmony and sustenance. The social classes equalized in harmony. I’m thinking: Why was this so successful before? Why are we not doing it today? How can we find the best of then and apply it now?’ To discover the answer, you have to do it. There is no book."

So he put his lomilomi practice on hold and set off around Oahu, alone, wearing only a malo and kamaa (loincloth and sandals). He carried a Lono poo —a stone head carved by artist Imaikalani Kalahele—in his backpack, along with his cell phone. His neighbor, a distributor for a seed company, gave him outdated packets of seeds. He planted them in wet spots along the way, imagining watermelons and tomatoes sprouting in the wake of Lono, god of agriculture.

"I needed a walkabout to start to understand," he says. "At first, in the course of walking, I sort of went through withdrawal.’ My body was sore and my mind full of clashing thoughts. But after the first moon, my mind began to quiet and my thoughts became clearer."

Not knowing the original trail around the island, he walked 137 miles, choosing his route by coupling maps and historical/archeological references with his own intuition, walking beaches and roads, highway shoulders and sometimes even drainage ditches. People stared, pointed, honked. He camped, stopping at about fifteen of Oahu’s fifty-some ahupuaa (traditional land divisions) and at a few historical sites, organizing Makahiki games at receptive schools, occasionally giving talks about the season, planting seeds.

When the Lihue-Kahanu-Paoa-Kea-Lono ohana (family) from the ahupuaa of Heeia on the windward side found out about Kapono’s walk, they invited him to join them in opening and closing Makahiki at Mokapu, on the stunning peninsula that most people know as the home of Hawaii’s largest Marine Corps base.

"He has a vision that is practical and crazy," says ohana spokesperson Donna Ann Kamehaihu Camvel. "He’s got energy, youth, vigor, charm. He’s so good with people, with children. When he conducts our games with kids, he brings out the competitive spirit, but flavored with respect and honor."

Childhood asthma long gone, Souza today is the picture of an athlete, a warrior of old, his body even resembling the muscular carved temple images of ancient times. He’s also charmingly eloquent—passionate convictions tumble from his mouth in the King’s English or in Pidgin, as the occasion requires.

"We cannot go completely back in time," Souza says. "But the challenges we have today are the same as those our ancestors faced: land, power, resources and the politics that go with those. We can use the principles of Makahiki now."

Makahiki prevailed in the Islands each winter for hundreds of years. Traditionally, it began when Makalii, or the constellation of the Pleiades, first appeared in the Eastern evening sky, anytime between mid-October and late November. During the huakai that followed, the Lono entourage, including champion athletes, called at each ahupuaa, where they conducted ceremonies and collected offerings of food, kapa, woven mats, feathers and other valuables. Then the officials released the kapu (the elaborate taboo system) of the god Ku, who prevailed during the other two-thirds of the year. With the lifting of the rules and protocols, chiefs and commoners could mingle freely, resting from work, exchanging news, feasting, dancing and enjoying exhibition boxing and other athletic competitions. Kapono likens the festival to an extended version of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.

Makahiki was in progress when Captain James Cook arrived in Kealakekua Bay on January 14, 1779. Some say the sails of the Resolution and Discovery so resembled the flying banners of Lono that the captain was mistaken for an incarnation of the god.

Students from Mokapu
Elementary School, with
their teacher Donna Camvel,
at the closing ceremonies.

Makahiki continued annually for another four decades. Then, Souza says, it stopped abruptly with the destruction of heiau following the death of Kamehameha I in 1819. His heir, Liholiho (Kamehameha II), was in his early twenties and no match for two exceedingly strong women: his mother, high chiefess Keopuolani, and the late Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Kaahumanu. The two women provoked the breaking of the kapu and abrogated the ancient gods. By the twentieth century, Makahiki celebrations were reduced to a few games, played as a curiosity by school children on a single day in November.

Since the Hawaiian Renaissance began in the 1970s, more and more Hawaiian groups have resurrected Makahiki—in various forms, because no one knows exactly how it was conducted. Some incorporate a short march into a weekend of ceremony and games. The Protect Kahoolawe Ohana has conducted Makahiki opening and closing ceremonies on Kahoolawe for some two decades, including a one-day, cross-island version of the huakai. Pa Kui A Lua, a cultural and educational group, has observed Makahiki in Punaluu on Oahu since 1997. Sometimes as many as 300 people come, including children from a number of schools.

"Originally, Makahiki was more of a sharing of resources with the alii, the ruling chiefs," say group founder and kupuna Richard Paglinawan. Games included foot races, fencing, several kinds of wrestling, boxing, throwing and sliding of darts and spears, oratory and the checkers-like game of strategy, konane. Because competitions showcased combat skills, strength and endurance, Paglinawan believes the alii also used Makahiki to recruit warriors.

"But when Kamehameha I united the Islands in 1795, there was no more need for standing armies," he says. "The games became exercises. Ku disappeared. Then, in 1819, the kapu system went belly-up and Makahiki fell into disuse. I’m glad it’s coming back in a new form. It develops pride and deals with rootedness. It raises people from the intellectual level to that of practitioner. You can get in touch for real."

Kapono agrees with Paglinawan . "Makahiki is a season when there is no pilikia, no trouble. No hewahewa, no errors," he says. "It’s noa, freedom from protocol, freedom of information. It’s time to kukakuka, talk to each other. Makahiki made the alii approachable to the makaainana, the commoners. Mingling brought more understanding. If today’s politicians were smart, they would come with me on the huakai to connect with the people."

Since the first year, a few others—although no politicians—have joined him for portions of the walk, including the mysterious lua practitioner. Now Souza covers his malo with a pareu—a wrap-around cloth—to minimize the attention he draws. And he walks mostly at night when there is little traffic, wearing a light jacket against the chill.

"At night, everyone is sleeping but you and the ancestors. Everything smells different, the maile lau lii, the wind, the sea, the rain. I hear the ocean, the wind, the mongoose in the bush. These are the sounds the ancestors heard. They smelled the maile, the pili grass in Nanakuli. It’s a time when you can pick up on hoailona, signs, interpreting them in ways that make sense. It’s a time of insight."

It came to him on one of these nights that Makahiki is a societal healing. "It was unity—lokahi—and balance—pono—all conscious during those four moons, a way of immersion in peace. It seems like practicing Makahiki can help us find our kuleana as individuals, families, communities, a nation, a country.

"Walking is a universal act, a symbolic act to move people," he says. "Notice Moses, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. Our Hawaiian ancestors showed us you can change the paradigm by the act of walking. It’s a detox, physically, mentally and spiritually."

Yet even Souza is subject to the pressures of modern life. Near the end of his huakai last March, when he’d been "power walking" through mud and floods for two weeks, trying to be at certain places at certain times, he pulled a muscle so badly it crippled him completely.

He had forgotten one of the big lessons he’d learned: After some days, or even weeks, of walking, the aumakua (spirits) will talk. "But this has to be at their pace, not yours," he says. "Slow, to receive revelation, understanding, insight. Eventually you begin to see your relationship with everything and with yourself."

The injury, he says, "was my body and the universe telling me to slow down."

But he had another firm date, to close Makahiki at Mokapu with the Lihue-Kahanu-Paoa-Kea-Lono ohana. The universe provided for him. Most people sympathized with Souza’s plight. But only one, elder Makanani Atwood, a konane master he’d met earlier in the year during Makahiki ceremonies on Kahoolawe, said, "I’ll walk for you."

Souza drove the support van and Atwood walked the last thirty miles, from Kahuku to Kualoa, in a storm. On March 6, Souza, in keeping with ancient ceremony, was ferried by canoe from Kualoa, across Kaneohe Bay, to the closing ceremonies at Mokapu, where he had begun the pilgrimage the previous October.

On that day, Makahiki ended under a bright sky. The ohana, their guests and a few families waited on the sand for the canoes bearing Souza and the image of Lono. The entire image was now completely wrapped, to mark the end of the Lono season and the beginning of Ku time.

A pu (conch shell trumpet) was blown from one of the canoes; another answered from shore. Thirty-or-so fifth- and sixth-graders, who had been studying Makahiki and Mokapu with ohana members Manu Suganuma and Donnie Camvel, did an oli aloha and haka (chant and dance).

"Totally excellent!" Camvel beamed after the students performed. "You guys were awesome!"

Makahiki was officially over. The airy tones of a nose flute drifted in the air as the canoes were hauled ashore and people shared a casual lunch. Then it was Ku time again. Back to work.

As you read this, in the fall of 2004, it’s time for Makahiki again. Kapono Souza walks once more, and he invites everyone to walk with him. To him, everyone means all local people, regardless of ethnicity, and Island visitors, too.

"Come. Join us," he says. "Bring whatever you have lots of: time, energy, money. Participate, celebrate or donate. This is broadband, direct from the aumakua. Express aloha and get it back! This is the time of peace, and Hawaii is the Geneva of the Pacific! Give it life! E ola!"

This year, Makahiki will open at Mokapu on the weekend of November 13 and 14. For information about participating, e-mail