Malama Aloha A’aina Kaho’olawe: Caring for the Land the Hawaiian Way

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.

KahLandscapeKaho’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.

Morning Beach Fire, Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.

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.

Sunrise over Haleakala.

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.

Bombs in Land and Water Warning, Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.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.

Traditional Hawaiian Roasting PIt.

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.

WorkCrewKahLunch 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.

MeCrewKah

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.

Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.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.

Sacred Path to Whalebones on Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.

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.

Traditional Hawaiian Haeiau, Kaho'olawe, Hawaii. 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.

Evening on Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.

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.

Hawaiian Canoe Club returning from Kaho'olawe, Hawaii.

Unloading, Maui-side, at Makena Landing.

Chanting E ala e

By Neva Knott

Jim’s rustling in the kitchen and the smell of coffee awakens me. It’s four in the morning. I stay nestled in my blanket on the couch, listening to him find pans to make breakfast, listening to his wife Gail turn on the water for a shower. The lapping sound of the ceiling fan reminds me I’m in the tropics, not at home in rainy winter Washington. I stretch my arm over the couch. Jim puts a cup of coffee in my hand and says good morning. “I’m up, really,” I reply. I’m usually the sleepy head of the bunch, but today we need to get a move on, so I get up, dress quickly, organize a bag for the day, and step out onto the lanai, into the still darkness. Our rental is a cabin is in Haiku, a residential area just off the North shore. Each Hawaiian island has a wet side and a dry side–Haiku is on the wet side, the jungle-y part of the island. No street lights, curvy roads through gulches and eucalyptus. The air smells clean yet musty, as it always does after a night of rain in the islands. I swing for a while in the hanging porch chair, taking in the warmth of the coffee, the dampness of the air and the silence.

Twenty minutes later, we pile into the rental Jeep. Our destination is Haleakala, the “house of the sun,” Maui’s volcano ten thousand feet above sea level. We’re going up to watch the sunrise, so pitch black is what we want right now, the darkness is why we’re up so early. It’ll take us about an hour to drive to up. Though I lived on Maui for a year a decade ago, and though I drive up to Haleakala National Park every few visits, I’ve never been up for sunrise. Haleakala is, in Hawaiian culture and oral history, a sacred place, a place of ancient ritual. In the words of Mark Twain, who visited the islands in 1866, Haleakala is a place of “healing solitudes.”

This trip to Maui is my way of saying thank you to Jim and Gail for helping me remodel my mom’s house after she passed away two years ago, my way of saying thank you for the support, the sweat equity, for feeding me and for letting me sleep on their couch for a long stretch while mom was in the hospital. This trip is also a celebration of our reunion. We went to high school together, but lost touch after adult life took over. Jim and Gail have only been to Maui once before, and they had the bad tourist experience. The whole plan for our trip is for them to see this beautiful island through my eyes.

We make our way out of Haiku and to the main roads. I direct Jim the back way through the still-sleeping town of Makawao and onto the rodeo road that connects to Haleakala Highway. Then it’s up and up, via an s-curved, two-lane road. We drive, mostly in silence. Jim has said he wants to see the sun “boil out of the ocean on one side of the island, and sink back into it on the other.” Jim’s request reminds me of the myth of how Maui stole the sun. Legend tells that Haleakala Crater is where the demigod Maui captured the sun in order to convince it to take longer crossing the sky each day, so that his mother’s bark cloth could dry fully. Maui held the sun captive in the crater for several days. Finally, the sun granted Maui’s wish, so he let it return to the sky. Since, the island has enjoyed full days of sunshine and warmth.

The sky is lightening as we snake up the last few miles. I glance between the dashboard clock, the sky’s edge I can see along the volcano’s slope, and gauge the distance to the top. We make it to the parking lot just as the whole sky is turning from gunmetal to coral. Jim parks the Jeep and we jump out. As we start walking to the viewpoint along rim of the crater, we hear voices. Gail asks, “What’s that noise?” It’s rhythmic and soft, low in tone. “Chanting the sunrise,” I tell her, though in my mind, I worry that I can’t remember the words. I give a quick explanation of the Hawaiian ceremony of chanting the sunrise as a prayer, and as a way to begin each day with purpose. We make our way to the guardrail along the rim, arriving just as the sun peeks through the cloud layer and burst into layers of crimson-orange brilliance, filling the sky. For that moment, nothing else existes, nothing except the sun rising out of the ocean, coming through the clouds, lighting the sky, signaling the beginning of that new day.

The sun shifts higher and higher, causing the colors in the crater to change. The cinder rock hills come out of shadow and take on their daylight hue of deep rusted burgundy, the sharp edges of grey cliffs come into relief so that the stone’s edges are delineated, the vegetation is now bright green. The angle of the sun in relation to the volcano’s peak reminds me of the first time I saw Haleakala come out of shadow. That morning, I was looking toward Maui from Kaho’olawe, the island eight miles off Maui’s South shore.

Kaho’olawe was used as a bombing practice target by the US military, for fifty years. In the early 2000’s, ownership of it reverted to the Hawaiian government. Because of all the bombing, the island is uninhabitable. The water lens is cracked, and most of the vegetation is dead. Kaho’olawe, like Haleakala, is sacred ground, a place of tradition and ritual. The Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana, a non-profit activist group interested in rebuilding a cultural connection to the island, sponsors work party excursions. While living on Maui and paddling on the Hawaiian Canoe Club outrigger team, I was invited to join one such trip. I went with my friends Niccole and Wendy, as chaperones of the teen members of our club. Before we were allowed to set foot on Kaho’olawe, we had to learn a series of rituals and chants. This morning, I’m reminded of the pre-dawn cleansing swim and sunrise chant for Haleakala, E ala e. As I stand next to Gail and watch the sun take over the sky, I think back, try to remember, and slowly, the words come out of the cadence of the chant I hear along the rim today.

As I listen, my mind drifts back a decade, across eight miles of ocean, to Kaho’olawe, to another pre-dawn awakening. In memory, I hear the group leader blow the conch shell, or pu, signaling it’s time for the day to begin. I rustle in my sleeping bag, and I reach for my flashlight but decide to leave it off–illumination will only upset the calm of the darkness, and will make it harder to see once I’m outside. I wake my tent-mate, Wendy, telling her I’m going to get Niccole and we’ll wait for her before we head to the beach. The last blows of the pu drift into the still-night darkness as I unzip the tent flap and step into the cool Hawaiian morning.

Rising before dawn is traditional cultural protocol. After the pu sounds, we are to make our way to the water, strip, submerge and cleanse ourselves of anything left from the day before or that crept into our consciousness during the night. The ocean will sweep away negativity, worry, guilt, exhaustion, anger, or distraction that will keep us from living this day fully. Wendy, Niccole, and I are alone at our scrap of beach, just yards from our tents. The water is shallow–ankle-deep, and the bottom rocky. We wade out as far as feels safe, knowing that darkness is not shark-safe, then kneel, dunk, and splash in the salty water. This ritual makes sense to me. I think to myself, “How can I awaken with such focused intention every morning?” The earth-based, cycle-of-life Hawaiian style of spirituality resonates in me.

After our dip, the three of us gather at the fire the kuas, or group leaders, have built. The sky is lightening, but is still some version of a blue-black-grey. After all of the group have made their way from tent to ocean to fire and are warmed and dry, we make our way up a shoreline ridgeline to watch the sun come over Haleakala, for the day to begin with purpose, as we chant our prayer for its climb from ocean to sky:

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 heavean)

Ka lewa nu’u (The heaven highest)

I kahikina (In the east)

Aia ka la. (There is the sun)

E ala e (Awaken!)

Just as these words weave into my memory, the Park ranger’s voice changes from the soft lilt of Hawaiian words to a tone of admonishment. His voice pulls me back to the present. I look at Gail and laugh, “And that’s the park ranger yelling at people not to crush the plants.” Haleakala is home to an amazing diversity of rare species, one of which is my favorite, the ahinahina, better known as the Haleakala Silversword.

As we turn away from the guardrail, the wind picks up and cold air hits us, and I realize I’ve forgotten to tell my friends it can be close to freezing up here. I have on yoga pants and a sweater, but am still cold. Gail is in shorts and a t-shirt. Jim runs back to the Jeep for our beach towels–Gail and I wrap ourselves in the hibiscus-print terry cloth, she in blue and me in red. As we walk back toward the Jeep, I suggest we drive the last half mile up, to the observation spot on the very top, to see the Silverswords.

The Haleakala Silversword grows only here, in these volcanic soils, on this volcano, on this island. The bottom of the plant is round and covered in silver-green spikey leaves that grow in a whorl. The flower stalk shoots up from the middle of this ball and grows to five feet. The Silversword lives fifty to ninety years, flowers only once in its life, then dies. The charismatic nature of this plant comes through in its bloom–the petals are a deep maroon and the hundreds of flowers on each plant burst open at once, engorging the stalk with life. The expansive grandeur of the bloom seems to represent the spirit of the volcano itself, seems to symbolize the sunrise, seems to elucidate the cycles of life in the islands.

Early visitors to the Park often picked the Silversword as a memento of having made it to the top of Haleakala. Local lore explains that it was the thing to do…not really a custom, but something like tossing a coin in a fountain for good luck…to roll the ball-shaped part of the plant into the crater, for sport. I have to admit, it does look a bit like a spikey bowling ball. And, before Haleakala was a National Park, the volcano’s slopes were used as rangeland. In addition to the picking and the rolling, grazing goats and cattle caused the plant almost went extinct. By the 1920s, there were just over a fourteen hundred plants left. Since the 1970s, Park rangers have re-established the plant’s population. Now, about fifty thousand Silverswords grow across this gritty cinder rock landscape.

As a photographer, I’m drawn to the Silversword’s Dr. Suess-world shape, prodigious bloom-stalk, and textures. But now we’re shivering. My hands are too cold to take more photos. Regretfully, the three of us pile into the Jeep and head down the s-curved, two-lane road. It was too dark to see much detail in the landscape on the drive up. What’s beautiful about the drive down is that the landscape changes again and again as we wend from the barren wind-eroded zone of the summit and through the trees along the slopes. Plants change, rock formations change, hill slope changes. Jack London called the landscape of Haleakala, “a workshop of nature still cluttered with the raw beginnings of world-making.” Both the North shore and the South shore are visible. I look across the water at Kaho’olawe, and smile.

As we descend, we watch the Maui awaken. It’s not quite 9 AM when we roll into Makawao Town, so early we have to wait for the coffee shop to open. Once inside, with warm cups in our hands, and almost unspokenly–in that way between friends of a long time–we decide we’ll go up again tomorrow.

Hawaiian Immersion Graduation

 

            As was often true with colonialism, the missionaries deemed languages of the “heathens” to be coarse, base, unintelligible–forbidden, even. Use of one’s native tongue was disallowed, and use thereof was punished. In result, languages came near to extinction, as happened here in Hawaii. When missionaries arrived in the islands, they began their insurgence by forcing the islanders to speak English. In the 1970s, efforts were made to regenerate the speaking of Hawaiian. It is quite a beautiful language, rich in subtleties and nuance. There is a lilt to what is said, and the words seem to flow through the listener as a gentle breeze. All traditional Hawaiian language–story, history, genealogy, daily communication, chants, edicts–was spoken and not written.The written Hawaiian alphabet, a white man’s invention, has only thirteen letters.There are few consonants and many vowels: a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w.  As is true in English, the sound of the letters and words changes with intonation. A slight change of intonation can alter the meaning of the word, such as in this example: lolo means brain, while lo’lo’ means idiot. Contrastingly, “Hawaiian articulation is based very largely at the back of the tongue, while that of English is nearer the tip” (The Compilers, Handy Hawaiian Dictionary).

            I lived and taught on Maui during the 2002-2003 academic year. I taught at Maui’s newest high school, King Kekaulike. KKHS is a beautiful school, spanning 50 acres on the gentle north slope of Haleakala, Maui’s volcano. The school sits at about 2,000 feet above sea level; it’s vista is the world-famous North Shore. From my room, I could take in the day’s surf and could see past Maui’s edges out into the Pacific. King Kekaulike is an Hawaiian Language Immersion school. Five of my students took all of their other subjects in Hawaiian and came to me for, as one of them said, English as a Second Language (I taught standard Senior English).Immersion students are required to speak Hawaiian at home as well, and it truly is the chosen language for them. The pride they hold as members of this amazing take back tradition program is something they exude. Immersion begins in Kindergarten and continues until graduation. At the end of Senior year, the participants graduate the immersion program as well as walk for regular old American style high school graduation. I was personally invited to the ceremony by Kamaka, Ululani, Kapeka, Jasmyn, and JoAnna. A great honor–I was one of a handful of teachers there, and none other was invited by all of the graduates. The ceremony took place on May 25th, in the KKHS gym. The invitation was bilingual, but the program was in Hawaiian, as was the whole ceremony.

            The gym was decorated with ti & palm leaves, ginger flowers, and pandanus mats, in simulation of a traditional dais. The graduating students stood on a platform, the boys in black pants and white shirts and the girls in shifts of unbleached cotton. On the right of the stage sat the elders, in traditional robes, and in front of the stage to the right the parents, also barefoot and in traditional robes. In front of stage left at the administrators, barefoot and dressed by gender–men in black pants and white shirts and women in mumus. The Hawaiian way is to go barefoot. Shoes, again, were forced onto feet by missionaries–to the extent that acacia trees were imported from Africa because they drop thorns, which were seen as a way to make the Hawaiians wear the shoes. Ironically, it seemed to me, the black pants and white shirts the graduating boys wore are were missionary-style.

            The ceremony began with children from each lower grade of the immersion program chanted. I have no idea what was said, but it was all done with much feeling and pomp. Then the graduates chanted. After, they danced a hula in honor of their parents. Next, the previous year’s graduates came forward and danced the hula of the myth of Maui who stole the sun to give his people more time to work and play.

            After the opening chants and hula, the graduating students were wrapped in a symbolic cloth by their kumu (teacher), while she sang. Each student was wrapped individually, and quite ceremoniously, in a pale yellow under-cloth (the boys took off the white shirts for this part) and then a pale green top cloth, which had been stamped with the class tattoo. For each graduating class, the kumu creates a special design that incorporates the number of students graduating–in this case, nine. Each student has the design inked as a tattoo on his or her shoulder as a proud sign of the life-long unity, a pledge of sorts, of the group.

            Once the students were wrapped and instructed by kumu, the rite of passage segment of the ceremony occurred. It was pretty intense to watch, and I can only imagine how the kids felt. Actually one fainted and had to sit down for a bit. For each student, one at a time, the parents came up and put their arms in a circle around the child. In this position they chanted down the family genealogy–this is a big deal in Hawaii, as bloodline was an important factor in all facets of traditional life. Traditional Hawaii was a monarchy. Lineage kept the blood-lines pure in terms of social rank and ruling order. Also, knowing one’s lineage was a form of society introduction, a moniker of status and breeding. In the day of kings such as Kamehameha or Kekaulike, any visitor to an island was required to chant this information, and should the chief not like what he heard (the chant possibly elucidating an enemy in the lineage), he’d simply kill the visitor. As white people first came to the islands, they also were expected to do the same. Unable to do so, were thought odd, crude, coarse, base, or unintelligible because they could not chant down their ancestry. Therefore, they were called haole, a term that now means white foreigner and sometimes carries the connotations of a racial slur, but in traditional times meant “of no breath.”

            Afterthe parents chanted they placed a haku, which looks like a Grecian crown of leaves, on the child’s head and presented him or her to the audience. After the parents had acknowledged the student’s place in the family lineage, the kumu told each student of his or her responsibilities to family, community, and the land. The students each listened with serious attention. Then, the kumu and the students walked out of the gym, singing.

            Outside, we all gathered round to hug the students and give leis. Commonly, a lei is a flower necklace, but contemporarily, for a celebration such as this graduation, they are also made of all things: money, candy, toys. By the time I got to one girl she had so many leis on that her head was covered and she was using her arms to collect the leis that we continued to hang on her.

            After the usual hugging and tears, the crowd dispersed, some to family barbeques, some–spectators such as myself–left to continue their day. As I walked to my car, I remembered the words of Ululani, one of the day’s graduates who is continuing her love of Hawaiian language by training to be an Immersion teacher, “Languages speak us, we do not speak them.”