By Neva Knott
I’m dreaming and a beautiful noise comes in and I’m dreamt awake to the sound of the conch shell, the pu. The night is still dark. Time to prepare for sunrise. Time to go into the ocean and cleanse. I walk down to the shore and take in the stillness of the morning. I don’t swim–the water is only ankle deep and the waves are harsh–and to swim in the dark is to swim with sharks. I wade in, naked and wobbly in my negotiations with the boulders and surf. I breathe to the rhythm of the waves and watch the sky turn to the deep grey of predawn. The water is cool and brings me awake. I use this time to think through my dreams and the remnants of the previous day, and to let go of all that is uselessly left over. I give to the ocean any distractions that may keep me from being present to the work here on the island of Kaho’olawe, any distractions to getting answers from the a’ina, the land. Hawaiian culture is a land-based way of living. To be from here is to be kama a’ina–the contemporary translation means resident, the literal means child of this land.
Kaho’olawe is the uninhabited island off the south shore of Maui. It is uninhabited because it was used as a bombing test site for the US and allies since the 1950s. The island’s surface was left covered in unexploded ordnance. The vegetation is dead except for a few tenacious kiawi trees, there’s no terrestrial or marine wildlife, and the water lens is cracked.
This island is steeped in tradition; in fact, the original navigation points to Hawaii from Tahiti are the stars above Kaho’olawe.
Kaho’olawe reverted to Hawaiian ownership in 2003, the year of this trip. Our group, teens and adults from the Hawaiian Canoe Club, are here as guests of the Preserve Kaho’olawe Ohana. The task of the Ohana is to malama aloha the a’ina–to take care of the land. It’s a privilege to be here.
Because of the traditional and spiritual significance of the island, we learned ancient chants and rituals that we’ll use throughout the week. Tomorrow, we begin work on extending a trail across a ridge and down to the ocean shore, to a set of whale bones, considered sacred. Two kupunas, elders, from PKO will guide our work. Auntie Davi and Uncle Maka. “Auntie” and “Uncle” are informal titles of respect, softer than Mr. or Mrs., but a reminder that, no matter age in years, Auntie Davi and Uncle Maka are beyond us in wisdom.
As I turn back from the water, Niccole, another adult chaperone, appears in shadow silhouette and asks if I swam, and if I will stay with her while she goes in. I hold her wrap and keep an eye for her safety, all the while leaving her at silence and peace. She does not swim either, but sends her worries on their way and gives thanks. Just as I hand Niccole her wrap, Wendy appears. Like Niccole and I, Wendy paddles for Hawaiian. Not only are the three of us friends and team-mates, we teach together at King Kekaulike High School. As the sky lightens to soft grey, Wendy tentatively steps into the water. She stands for a moment, silent, then turns and says, “That’s enough for me. Sharks out there, and it’s cold.” The three of us walk back to our tents for water bottles and warmer clothes, then head to the main beach that serves as the gathering place.
Others are in the water at the main beach. Uncle Maka is supervising. He checks to make sure Niccole, Wendy, and I have gone into the water. His job is to teach culture and to make sure we all adhere to protocol. The three kuas, stewards in training who will eventually take on the role of cultural education alongside Uncle Maka, have built a fire on the beach near the canoes. Though I hadn’t gone too far into the water, I felt clear and purposeful as I sat to warm myself in the still pre-dawn. I watched others come quickly out of the ocean in silhouette, rush in to clothes, and join others by the flames. No one talked much at the fire, a fragment of speech here and there, but there was really no need. It was a time of silence, or reflection, of setting one’s perspective for the day. It was a moment of individuality within the collective. Then, we began together, to move toward the day’s events and endeavors.
The sun was just starting to throw light behind the east peak of Haleakala volcano on Maui, eight miles across the water to our north. Now warm by the fire, we made our way up the shoreline cliff to chant the sunrise. Image a single line of thirty individuals along a ridge, clapping and chanting in the coral and orange glow of a new day. Imagine the rhythm of sixty hands and the cadence of the words,
E ala e Ka la i kahikina (Awaken, arise)
I ka moana (the sun in the east)
Ka moana hohonu (from the ocean)
Pi’i ka lewa (climbing to the heaven)
Ka lewa nu’u (the heaven highest in the east)
I kahikina (in the east)
Aia ka la. (there is the sun)
E ala e! (awaken!)
It took about forty minutes for the sun to break over the top of the volcano. As we chanted, we watched the sky change from blue-grey, watched the sun light the undersides of the clouds, saw the mountain in silhouette, felt the warmth come into the air, and saw the last, farthest light in the Maui town of Ulapalakua fade. There were still no boats upon the water. There was no noise except for the lap of the ocean and the voices of our group, the voice of one greeting the day. Auntie Davi stopped us from chanting when the sun was sufficiently high in the sky. By then we were chanting with eyes closed for the brightness.
On the way back to camp we visited a couple of cultural sites, mostly fishing koas, or altars. Auntie explained the proper types of offerings to leave, and even though we would not be fishing, she felt that leaving offers was a gesture toward renewal of the life of the island and the ecosystem has been destroyed by the bombings.
All access to Kaho’olawe is granted by either Preserve Kaho’olawe Ohana or the Navy. PKO began illegal occupations on the island in the 1970s to stop the bombings. Their efforts ended in court battle against the Navy to regain Hawaiian access to, and care of, the island. PKO won. The court’s decision also mandated that the Navy conduct a clean-up mission. So far, the ground has been cleared of explosives to the depth of four feet.
Just after lunch and our arrival yesterday, the Navy representative swooped in via helicopter for his info-visit. This is when the past horror of the place became real. We were shown picture upon picture, all catalogued in huge binders, of the explosives tested here. These facts sent a chill through me at the thought of the physical destruction to this place, for the deaths in reality caused by such mechanisms, and for the destitution to the Hawaiian soul wrought by these acts. At the end of his presentation, we signed waivers limiting the liability of the Navy should any one of us be hurt. We turned in the waivers and were given instructions for radio channels in case of emergency.
The Navy man’s attitude was aloof. His tone was business as usual even though he was explaining to a group of teenagers that there are spent bomb casings everywhere, and possibly live explosives. He seemed to have no frame of reference that this land had once belonged to the people listening to him, and that they considered the bombings desecration. He didn’t seem to see the culture and tradition of a people coming to the island to rejuvenate it. It was clear that his America is elsewhere, and that the native history of this island lays just past the fringe. He then swooped away in his helicopter and we were left to walk softly.
It took awhile to get going after breakfast, after rising so early and hiking up to chant the sunrise. A group of girls washed dishes and the older boys dug the imu, the roasting pit, and filled it with the food for dinner. Another group packed lunches and another organized tools and water for our afternoon work trip. This was another aspect of culture we learned, children served adults. So, while the teens cleaned up after one meal and prepared for the next, we lounged, wrote, pondered, and talked, took a few trips from tent to beach and back to the to camp, making the little motions of settling in.
Then we began our work. The pu sounded and we gathered tools: pick axes, rakes, shovels, hoes, gloves, water and food. We hiked to a sheltered beach and stashed the food there, then back up to the shoreline cliffs to begin the labor of moving rocks from their embedded places to the edges of the trail. Before we started to work, we chanted, the mele for healing the island. Then we found our rhythm in our chores. Some cleared the path, some hunted rocks. The boys carried boulders as a way to show off masculine strength.
Lunch time came. Before eating, Niccole, Wendy, and I walked out to the whale bones. The trail had yet to be put there, so we followed the cliffs and crossed beaches of olive-colored sand. The whale, which washed upon the shore some time ago and was cleaned by sharks, is buried under a cascade of rocks in a slight crevice. Auntie Davi and Uncle Maka told us the death of this whale stimulated a regeneration, or flourish, of marine life. Lobsters and fish appeared in what had, for decades, been the sterile boundary waters of Kaho’olawe.
It was too hot to work more on the trail, so we returned to camp. Late afternoon, Wendy and I gathered soap and towels and headed to the beach designated as the bathing spot. The sand was a black mixed with beige, and there was a small bay made by the descent of the sea cliffs into the ocean and around the beach. The break appeared rough, but there wasn’t a strong current so the waves were easy to negotiate and the bottom was sandy, making it easy to balance while ducking waves. We had just waded into the surf when Niccole appeared. The tide was fairly high, so it was easy to submerge to bathe. Though we were left with a salt film, which one gets used to living near the ocean and swimming daily, we felt clean after hauling rocks in dust and under the sun all day. While we were bathing a few of the girls came down to join in. We all body surfed in the waves for awhile, and then got out to dry off, dress, and return to camp for dinner.
In Hawaii, almost all leisure–at least all outdoor leisure–is multi-generational, and everyone lives to finish every day with some sort of connection to the ocean.
On our way back, the sun was fading behind the West Maui Mountains and the sky was a soft echo of the blue of the day. The Navy work helicopters were flying toward Maui, our home that was only eight miles distant but felt so far away in consciousness, time and space. As we walked, we came upon the marker for the two activists who disappeared in the 70s–their bodies never found–while protesting here. As I placed a blue lobster shell I’d found on the beach on the altar, I felt a pain in my heart for all of the wrongs done on Kaho’olawe. And I felt a lightness in my being knowing that we were here as a group to continue the work that these two men started almost three decades ago. I realized that each rock moved today was a piece of this island’s history, and each tired body this evening an agent of change, each story told when we arrive home in a few days a new chapter in Hawaii’s oral history.
Dinner was a traditional Hawaiian luau with hams from the imu (whole pigs are too big to bring), roast taro root, rice, and cabbage salad. Our whole day had been what I imagine an ancient Hawaiian day to be like: the rising in the dark for the cleanse, the chanting of the rising sun, the collective work of the day with much time given to the preparation of food, the play after hard work and time in the ocean, the celebratory meal and thanks given. The individual acts that come so seamlessly together to create the whole. No conflicts, only laughter and smiles. Every little disturbance along the way solved by help from another.
After eating, many went to bed early. Uncle Maka talked story, telling us more and more about Hawaiian history, about the fight in the 1970s, all the while giving commentary on contemporary culture in the islands. He told fishing stories and “when I was a boy” stories. Random conversations floated about, something about sustainable building, something about replanting the island and the water supply. At one picnic table some played cards.
The next day, our third on Kaho’olawe, was the best. We’d settled into a routine and had something meaningful attached to our trip here. One has to have some meaning behind experiences such as this or each excursion is reduced to mere consumerism, entertainment, reduced to statements like, “I got to go to Kaho’olawe.” We’d found the rhythm and balance between work and play so that we began each day enthused and ended it fulfilled. We had begun to understand the richness of traditional ways and the meaning of our work here–that as we moved each stone, rock, boulder we were rejuvenating a sacred place.
By this third day we were quite used to awakening to the sound of the pu, hearing it as a call to gather, organize, or move to the next endeavor, so that dream-ending hollow, low sound came as a comfort rather than a surprise. Niccole, Wendy, and I now habitually gathered at the beach near the canoes and took our cleanse in the ocean. I had begun to enjoy using this time to set myself for the day.
There was a lot of work left to do on the trail, and this was our last day. Auntie wanted to wait until the rain stopped to begin the work. While we waited, the teens had the ritualistic mud fight–a part of every Kaho’olawe trip–that turned into a wrestling match and a mud bath.
The adults sat on the beach and watched, talking of the fun we’d had, learning from Paul, one of the HCC coaches and another of our teaching colleagues, about the spiritual significance of the island and of the religious practice called makaheke, the Hawaiian version of a vision quest or journey of homage, held here in the winter. He talked story of the other trips he’s made to Kaho’olawe, of the excellent fishing offshore.
Paul settled in to a long narrative of the intent of PKO to teach as many people about the culture and traditions as possible so that the Hawaiian way can live on, can be lived by anyone who really wants to live the Hawaiian way. Paul gestures at his heart as he expresses this. Chad, a colleague from the high school, and Paul, talked about their ancestry. Both are from old, old Hawaiian families. Paul’s family have owned the same land on the south shore of Maui for well over three hundred years, and Chad is a direct descendant of King Kamehameha, the king known for unifying the islands. I love the history that comes into story so regularly in Hawaiian conversations. We passed a couple of hours this way, in the soft rain, watching the teens become part of the earth.
Around lunchtime, the rain had stopped, though later we wished it would have continued as the day turned in to the hottest we’d had. The trail was marked to the whale bones as far as had been cleared of ordnance, so we reorganized our efforts to clear more of the cliff line as a path. We worked until the kiawi trees became too fierce for the tools we had. The older boys wanted to keep chopping, but the adults called a halt. It was time for a swim. As we walked to the beach, we all remarked at how far we’d gotten. The path to was now clearly delineated and drew a connection between the cliff line and the shore.
At the beach we all swam, for a long time. It wasn’t like an ordinary day at the beach–when one knows she can return to that spot again. Playing in the waves that day was a way to hang on to these irreplaceable moments in time on Kaho’olawe.
Just before sunset, after bathing, Auntie Davi and one of the kuas, Niccole, Wendy, and I took the teen girls to the women’s haeiau, or sacred place, which is on the cliff side above camp. The girls were tired and resistant, but Niccole and I insisted they come with us. The fading sun light set the tone for our gathering.
Auntie explained the traditional purpose of a women’s place of gathering and worship, that a women’s haeiau is a safe place, a place away from gender obligation, fear, or violence. Niccole and I each explained our knowledge of what experiences and the value we’ve found in a modern way with sacred women’s spaces, that they are places of internal honesty and growth. Lara, one of the kuas, talked about the importance of coming together as women to talk across generations about common experiences. Then we sat, silent. Then the girls began to talk, first the one who’d been hanging on the sidelines the last couple of days explained how hard for her it is at home. Then the girl who has no mom. Then from almost everyone else…stories of the gravity of their lives. Too soon, too soon for these teen women to have to quit letting go of their worries, it was dark enough that for safety’s sake, we needed to go down the cliff.
It was a night of celebration and ceremony. When dishes were done and the kitchen part of camp was packed away, ready for our departure in the dark of the coming morning, the older boys danced on the hula pa. With their bodies, they told the story, “How Maui Stole the Sun.” Maui, a demigod in Hawaiian folklore, urged by his mother, stole the sun from the sky to slow its rotation so his people would have more time during the day to work and play. So much power in that dance, so much pride in their expression. Such an appropriate story for hour time here, working and playing on Kaho’olawe under the hot sun. One of the girls in the audience whispered, “It’s so sexy,” and I smiled at this accidental recognition of one of the original purposes of this type of dance–for one gender to get the attention of another.
After the hula, all thirty of us sat in a circle, and each of us shared one thing we’d gained by coming to Kaho’olawe. Again and again, the responses were an offering, a chance to contribute, to give while learning, to connect. No one, not one person, made a selfish comment. The fire faded and the talk died as we each sat in silent recognition of all that had come from the hearts in that last hour.
The pu sounded and it was getting light, it was much lighter than at our usual rising. Wendy and I jumped at the sound and the realization that we were late to launch the canoes, jet skis, and supplies boat–an important consideration because of the swell that would rise while we made the crossing to Maui. We began running gear down to the beach, helping others disassemble tents, waking the teens and getting them organized. We helped launch the canoes, then jumped into the surf to join the line of people moving gear wrapped in trash bags (to keep it dry) to the supply boat. Finally, wet and cold, we boarded the boat to head home.