Hawaiian Culture


Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, is famous for its moai statues that line the shore. Over the centuries, many western anthropologists and archeologists have tried to explain how a people without beasts of burden or the wheel managed to move massive stone carvings ten or more miles from the quarry to the seashore. If They Could Only Talk, in the July 2012 edition of National Geographic Magazine, explores a new theory proposed by Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University Long Beach. Oddly enough, it’s based on what native Rapa Nui islanders have been saying all along.

The moai walked.

The solution is elegant, practical, and based on physics. The statues are designed with pot bellies and rounded bottoms which allowed a few people using three ropes to “walk” the moai down the mountainside to the beach. It’s not perfect—and there are many broken moai strewn along the way to prove it—but it makes far more sense than any other “expert” opinion and fits into the native oral tradition.

My favorite line in the whole article is a quote from an islander who was observing an experiment by the Norwegian social scientist Thor Heyerdahl and his team in 1955 when 180 people strapped a real 13-foot 20,000 pound moai to a tree trunk and tried to drag it. “You are totally wrong, sir,” he said.

And he was right.

Which brings me to the real purpose of this post. Over the years as an amateur enthusiast of human migration and origin stories I’ve noticed a distinct lack of respect, credibility, and propensity to discount what indigenous cultures have to say about their past on the part of non-native social scientists and other academics. It’s the mistaken belief that outsiders with fancy degrees must know more than the people who have lived the history they are studying. The Phd-ers forget that human ingenuity, genius, and intelligence isn’t found in letters after one’s name, but in all human cultures across all centuries and environments.

Fortunately, as new DNA studies and other forensic disciplines are applied in anthropology, more credence is being given to oral histories and traditions as they are proving to be in line with the new data, often to the surprise of the experts who are taking a new look at some very old traditions.

In this more receptive environment, a few Hawaiian families are starting to come forward to share the knowledge they have kept private for centuries, some of which is very different from the accepted and established views. I can’t wait to learn more.

What about you? Do you have family stories and traditions that add new light to the “official” accounts?

In One Boy, No Water each chapter begins with a word or phrase in Hawaiian or Pidgin followed by its definition. This structure uses ‘ōlelo no‘eau, wise or entertaining sayings that reveal a hidden truth. Hawaiian relies heavily on poetic imagery, riddles, and puns to communicate significant truths veiled under casual conversation. Words and phrases can hold hidden layers of meaning called kaona, which is why songs about mist or fish or flowers or wind can leave old folks laughing and young ones wondering what’s so funny. Examples of ‘ōlelo no‘eau can be found on the Internet or in this book of collected wisdom:

 ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings

by Mary Kawena Pukui

Bishop Museum Press, 1983

Here are some of the newest ones I’ve come across:

·         ‘A‘a i ka hula, waiho ka hilahila i ka hale.

When one wants to dance the hula, bashfulness should be left at home.

·         Hōhohua no ke kawa.

A deep diving place indeed. Said of a topic that requires deep thinking.

I kani no ka pahu i ka ‘olohaka o loko.

It is the space inside that gives the drum it’s sound. The empty-headed person is the one who does the most talking.

He manō holo ‘āina ke ali‘i.

The chief is a shark that travels on land. Like a shark, the chief is not to be tampered with.


When you ask anyone with any knowledge of Hawaiian history or culture to name the most culturally significant scholars who preserved ancient knowledge, Mary Kawena Pukui will top the list. More than any single person I can think of, her work paved the way for rebirth of the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s.

Born in 1895 and following the ancient traditions of hānai, she was initially raised by her mother’s parents in Kā‘u on the Big Island. It was during this time that she learned to cherish her Hawaiian heritage and began building her formidable foundation as a Hawaiian scholar, dancer, composer, and educator.

Her grandmother had been a hula dancer in the court of Queen Emma and taught her chants and stories. From her grandfather, a traditional healer who was known as a kahuna pale keiki (obstetrician) who used lomi lomi (massage), laʻau lapaʻau (herbal medicine), ho‘oponopono (forgiveness), and pule (prayer) came her great knowledge and understanding of the Hawaiian people’s relationship between the spiritual and mundane.

Mrs. Pukui composed over 150 songs, recorded miles of audiotape, published over 50 books including Nānā i ke Kumu (Look to the Source), and co-authored the definitive Hawaiian-English Dictionary in 1957. Bishop Museum, that bastion of Hawaiian culture where she worked as an ethnological assistant, has preserved her notes, film clips, and oral histories. They are considered priceless.

In my mind, Mary Kawena Pukui stands as a giant among Hawaiian scholars. Hero worship isn’t going too far.

Which makes the story my grandmother told me all the more mind blowing.

It was a couple of days before the publication of One Boy, No Water. I’d called her to wish her happy birthday and to find out how the party she’d hosted—champagne and cake—for friends in her retirement community turned out. Talk turned to the book. Ever mindful about manners and proper protocol, she asked if I had an acknowledgement section in the book.

“Yeah, Grammie, I do.”

“Well, did you remember to thank everyone? You didn’t write that book alone.”

“Yeah, I thanked my family for their support, Kamehameha Schools for my education, and people like Mary Kawena Pukui for their preservation of Hawaiian history and culture.”

“Oh, Aunty Mary! Good, you remembered her.”

Aunty Mary? “Grammie, I’m talking about Mary Kawena Pukui, the mother of the Hawaiian Renaissance.”

“Yeah, Aunty Mary! After school, we used to go to Bishop Museum and run up and down the stairs and take all the covers off the displays and she’d chase us around the halls and finally call the police station (Grammie’s father was with the HPD) and say, ‘George! Your kids are driving me nuts! Come get them!’ Oh, we loved to tease Aunty Mary! She and my Dad were good friends. She used to come to our house often.”

And my mouth is on the floor and I start to think about it and realize that her family home in Kalihi was a block or two from Bishop Museum and my Grammie isn’t joking. She kept telling me stories and I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that the woman who wrote at least 20 books on my shelves about Hawaiian history and culture was Aunty Mary to my grandmother!

Blows my mind almost as much as the idea of Grammie and her siblings playing hide and go seek in Bishop Museum’s hallowed halls after school!

On Saturday, November 17, 2012, at the Layton Barnes & Noble, Na Keiki Ka Ua Kilihune Hula Halau performed at my book signing for One Boy, No Water.

After a welcoming oli, Kumu Hula Barcarse taught us about the Hawaiian alphabet through a song and hula I learned when I was their age! These talented kids performed using kala’au (wooden sticks) and niu (coconut shells) and chanted and sang as they danced. One of the crowd favorites was a lively Samoan dance accompanied by Kumu’s ‘ukulele. For some of the kids, at four years old, it was their first ever performance. (Special aloha goes out to the Dads who performed with their kids. You guys get my vote for Father of the Year.)

Too bad Aunty was so busy watching na keiki, she only got a few photos!

Mahalo nui loa to Kumu Barcarse and the youngest members of his dance school for their gift of hula, oli, and mele. They brought a lot of warm aloha to wintery Utah!

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