One Seed Every 30,000 Years

This article appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times last Sunday:

Each year, I await with dread the federal governmentʻs catalog of the endangered species under imminent threat in the Hawaiian Islands, where I was raised and where I live.

The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in only two places on the island of Kauaʻi
The endangered Hibiscus waimeae, or Kokiʻo keʻokeʻo, found in two places on the island of Kauaʻi

On its 2015 list, the Fish and Wildlife Office included the ‘ea, or hawksbill turtle, as well as the green turtle, Ridley sea turtle, and leatherback turtle. Four mammals are considered endangered — the Hawaiian hoary bat; the kohola, or humpback whale; the sperm whale; and the endemic Hawaiian monk seal. Among the thirty-four endangered birds are the Hawaiian goose, or nēnē; the Maui parrotbill; the Nihoa millerbird; the red- legged stilt; and the iʻo, or Hawaiian hawk. There were once 99 species of land snails in the Islands; of the 25 that have survived, 9 are under threat of extinction. Fifteen arthropods, including the sphinx moth and the oceanic damselfly, are listed. Among the endangered plants are a white hibiscus found only in Wailau Valley on Molokaʻi; the lovely Hawaiian gardenia or naʻu (although now widely cultivated in an effort to save it, there are only two or three plants remaining in the wild), the mountain silversword of Mauna Loa; the loʻulu, or Pritchardia palm; and one small yellow campanula (Brighamia insignis) last seen on a cliff on the Na Pali coast of Kauaʻi.

Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), last seen in 1884.
The Sandwich rail (Porzana sandwichensis), or flightless Hawaiian crake, painted by William Ellis on Captain James Cookʻs third voyage of discovery (1776-78), was last seen in 1884.

There is a certain irony that such adaptive and resilient species as those indigenous (native, but occurring elsewhere) and endemic (occurring nowhere else in the world) to the Hawaiian Islands should be allowed to disappear from the planet. The chance of any species reaching and then surviving on an island as distant as one of the Hawaiian chain is infinitesimal, but despite the extraordinary odds, species found their way ashore, carried by the tide or blown by trade winds; inside birds or in their feathers; in the branches of trees; and in the jetsam of sunken ships. It is thought that such an event occurred only three hundred times in the history of the archipelago, meaning that on average, if one takes 70 million years as the life of the Islands, one seed or sapling was successfully introduced every 20,000 to 30,000 years. Many of those original species have now disappeared. According to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 271 species of all indigenous and endemic flora and fauna (introduced by various means) have become extinct in the last two hundred years.

Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 18, private collection
Feather lei, worn around the head or neck, watercolor by Sarah Stone, 1783, private collection

Although the decimation of species is due to commercialization, the loss of forests, hunting, the growth of population, pervasive invasive fauna, and now global warming, it began with the first voyagers from Polynesia in the seventh century A.D., who brought to the Islands their own plants and animals, including pigs, chickens, and dogs, which ensured the survival of the settlers, but threatened those native species which were innocent of predators. In the early nineteenth-century, rapacious Hawaiian chiefs were responsible for the disappearance of vast sandalwood forests, the fragrant wood sought by the Chinese for incense, and for the loss of thousands of native birds killed to make the yellow, red, and green feather capes, lei, and helmets of the nobility. Hawaiʻiʻs first king, Kamehameha I, must be held accountable for some of the early loss of plants, thanks to the kapu he placed on the cattle given him in 1793 by Captain George Vancouver. The cattle, and later goats, were allowed to roam wild in the uplands, where they destroyed the delicate ferns, vines, trees, and grasses that had provided generations of Hawaiians with food, fishing lines, nets, vegetable dyes, timber, medicine, barkcloth, and thatch for their houses. European contact, which began in 1778 with the discovery of the Islands by Captain James Cook, brought disease and the further destruction of ecosystems.

IMG_460078027Feather capes, watercolors by Sarah Stone, 1783

Later in the nineteenth century, the spread of sugar plantations ensured that additional acres of native grasslands and forests, and the creatures who lived in them, many of them natural pollinators, were heedlessly destroyed. Large cattle ranches, particularly on the Big Island, meant that the forests and valleys that were once home to numerous species were turned into grazing land.

The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2014
The ʻio, or Hawaiian hawk, photograph by W. S. Chillingworth, 2015

Despite its rank as the state with the highest number of endangered or threatened species, Hawaiʻi receives less than 5% of the funding allotted by the federal government’s endangered species program — $1.5 million in 2013, out of $32 million given to twenty states, a third of which went to buy 635 acres of forested land on Oʻahu, while the rest was given to Kauaʻi to plan habitats for birds. Private landowners, community watch groups, conservation groups, local government agencies, and even schoolchildren are increasingly aware of the great loss that is underway, but for many species, it will be too late. Many people despair that there is not enough compassion, not enough will, not enough time or money to go around. Is the disappearance of the Hawaiian cave wolf spider, they ask, or the Hibiscadelphus distans, one of the worldʻs rarest trees, that important to most people? Especially in comparison to human lives? History, it appears, indicates that the human ones will be able to survive without honeycreepers and monk seals, but that is a solipsistic view. If the wolf spider is in trouble, we are in trouble, too.

Advertisements

What Will She Do?

Princess Kaiulani, the daughter of Archibald Cleghorn and Princess Miriam Likelike
Princess Kaʻiulani, the daughter of Archibald Cleghorn and Princess Miriam Likelike, and heir to the kingdom of Hawaiʻi. She died when she was twenty-three years old.

I begin with a character. As you know, there are many kinds of characters — Henry James’s peripheral but all the same essential character who observes the narrative with the same mystification and curiosity as does the reader; Joan Didion’s ironical and vaguely menacing character, sometimes even the writer Joan Didion herself, who tells you the plot in the first paragraph, and then fills in the blanks; Stendhal’s historical figure, who is a creature both of his own ambition and the strivings of history. The character with whom I begin is a solitary figure, and always a woman (at least so far). But what is it that am I to do with her? Better still, what is it that she will do? If I trust her, she will tell me. Studying her with careful attention, while all the time giving her an inordinate freedom, she will reveal herself to me. How she looks and speaks and thinks; what she is wearing when she is sleeping in the room that I have made for her. There is in her story a certain inevitability, which often surprises and confounds me.

Dr. Gerrit Judd of the Second Company of missionaries, with Prince Lot and Prince Lunalilo, on their trip around the world
Dr. Gerrit Judd of the Second Company of missionaries, with the young Prince Lot (left) and Prince Alexander Lunalilo, on their trip abroad, Paris, 1849

My book In the Cut arrived by way of Raymond Chandler and Sherlock Holmes. While I was writing the last Hawaiian novel, I read every mystery and thriller I could find —- books about detectives in Bombay and judges in Stockholm, as well as the American classics of the first half of the twentieth century that came to be known as Noir. I wanted to take the traditional American crime story, and to turn it upside down. I wanted my crime fighter, my dissolute, tired, cynical detective who is typical of the genre, to be a woman. And I wanted my female character to survive at the end of the book. As it turned out, the detective in In the Cut is not a woman, and the heroine does not survive, but I did not know that then. I understood that in order to write the book, I would have to do research, something I had never done before in writing fiction. My imagination is vivid, but I would need facts. I would even need impressions. While it is possible to do absolutely anything with the novel — it is one of its charms (and terrors) — the one thing that I did not want to do was to propagandize either for a cause or a point of view. It was in my interest — it is always in the interest of a writer — to be without an opinion at all — a position that later was to cause me to disappoint some critics and readers. But the writer’s work is to render the world, not to alter it. I never intended when I began writing, nor in truth throughout the long two years it took me to finish the book, that In the Cut would be narrated by a dead woman. When I came to write the end of the book, there was no other possible resolution than her horrible death; and once I accepted this, I was bereft. I tried later, when writing the second and third drafts, to change the book so that the story is told by Franny as she is dying, when she would at last understand what had happened to her, but it would not do. In this kind of detective story, the heroine must be as innocent of the (fictional) facts as is the reader, until the end, when all that is mysterious and inexplicable is made clear.

Lydia Kamakaeha Paki, the future ueen Liliuokalani in her youth. Honolulu, Hawaii, 1850s
Lydia Kamakaeha Paki, the future Queen Liliʻuokalani, Honolulu, circa 1850

When I began to write my new book, Paradise of the Pacific, which will be published in August, I again began with a heroine, the brilliant, cunning, and willful Kaʻahumanu. At first, I did not know what to do with her. Her story has been told many times. As I was not writing a novel, I was not able to invent her, or even to imagine her. I did not want to write a book in which I attributed words and thoughts to the characters, or even to attach adjectives to nouns: “Kʻaahumanu, bored and irritable inside the airless and dark grass house in which she was ritually confined during her menstrual period, wondered restlessly if the high surf (she could hear the waves breaking on Kauhola Point at the bottom of the kingʻs large compound) would continue through the week, when she would be at last cleansed of her defilement.” Many writers do assume the point of view of historical characters, but I dislike it when they do, and tend to put away their books.

By the roadside, Puna, 1895
A race dispossessed, sitting by the roadside, Puna, 1895
Kauikeaouli, the future Kamehameha III, oil painting by John Hayter, 1824
Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III, oil painting by John Hayter, 1824

In order to find Kaʻahumanu and to keep a clear head, without censure or adulation, I began to read. I did not stop reading for two years. In the end, I had thousands of pages of notes, collected from journals, memoirs, newspapers, gossip sheets, histories, songs, research papers, archaeological surveys, monographs, oral histories, church records. I knew that I was ready to stop reading, which is always difficult for me, and to begin writing, which is even more difficult, when I began to dream of Kaʻahumanu.

As I wrote the new book, my love affair with the great queen, as love affairs tend to do over time, began to include other people — Kamehameha, Lucy Thurston, Liholiho, Dr. Judd, Kauikeaouli, Hiram Bingham, Kaumualiʻi of Kauaʻi, and George Vancouver, among many others — and, to my relief, the numerous characters began to insist on having their own way. This happens, of course, in writing history, as one is expected, if not required to adhere to the facts, but I was interested to discover that in all that is available to the writer of history, certain events, certain statements, certain actions force themselves to the front, insisting upon precedence and illumination, and requiring not only your attention, but your use of them. Given Kaʻahumanuʻs guile, I should not have been surprised.

rchibald Cleghorn at his home, Ainahau, in Waikīkī (now the site of the Princess Kaiulani Hotel). Kaʻiulani is on the right. Wʻs great grandmother, Rose, is sitting to the left, a baby in her lap.
Archibald Cleghorn at his home, Ainahau, in Waikīkī (now the site of the Princess Kaiulani Hotel). Kaʻiulani is on the right. Wʻs great grandmother, Rose, is sitting to the left, a baby in her lap.

       

“Sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian” (Part II)

After “eating the land” at Lahaina, Kamehameha moved his court to O’ahu in 1804, in the last stages of preparation before attacking the island of Kaua’i. As he assembled his army, however, there was an outbreak of plague, which killed many of his chiefs and warriors. Hundreds of bodies were washed to sea each day from the beaches of Waikīkī. The historian Samuel Kamakau wrote that those who contracted it died very quickly:

It was a very virulent pestilence…A person on the highway would die before he could reach home. One might go for food and water and die so suddenly that those at home did not know what had happened. The body turned black at death. A few died a lingering death, but never longer than twenty-four hours; if they were able to hold out for a day they had a fair chance to live. Those who lived generally lost their hair, hence the illness was called “Head Stripped Bare.”

Kamehameha himself was ill, but recovered. As Ka’ahumanu’s father, the high chief Ke’eaumoku, lay dying in Kamehamehaʻs arms, the weeping king asked him if there were anyone strong enough to take the kingdom from him. Ke’eaumoku is said to have answered that Kamehameha need fear only his wife, Ka’ahumanu. He reminded the king that her intervention in various plots against him over the years had helped to keep him in power. If she were ever to ally herself with another man, there was the chance that a new husband or lover would rise against Kamehameha, bringing along the many powerful chiefs who were her relatives and adherents.

Ka’ahumanu’s grief at the death of her father was very great. For the rest of her life, she kept his bones next to her sleeping platform on a feather mattress given to her by a sea captain, assuring that her father’s mana would be in her care as his spirit assumed the nature of an ʻaumakua or family god. This is the mourning chant that Ka’ahumanu wrote at her father’s death:

Like a peal of thunder is your tread
Reverberating to the presence of Wakea,
Here is the divine child of a multitude of sacred offspring, My father and chief,
My beloved companion,
My loved one.
I am breathless with grieving for you.
I weep for my companion in the cold,
The chill encircles me,
The cold surrounds me,
Purple with cold not rejected,
Only two places to find warmth —
The bedmate at home,
The tapa covering is the second warmth,
Found in the bosom of a companion.
It is there, it is there, it is there.

(Translation by Samuel Kamakau)

Treating Ke’eaumoku’s warning with the seriousness it deserved, Kamehameha declared Ka’ahumanu kapu to all persons other than himself. The following proverb from Mary Kawena Pukui’s book of Hawaiian sayings, ‘Olelo No’eau, refers to the unification of Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu, Lāna‘i, Hawai‘i, and Kaho’olawe in 1795:

Eonu moku a Kamehameha ua noa ia ‘oukou,
Akā o ka hiku
O ka moku ua
Kapu ia na’u.

Six of Kamehameha’s islands
Are free to you,
But the seventh [Ka’ahumanu] is kapu,
And is for me alone.

The kapu on the queen meant that should Ka‘ahumanu be caught in adultery, her lover would be killed, and his body given in sacrifice to the gods, although she herself would be spared. If any person, including Kamehameha‘s own relatives, were to start a quarrel with any of Ka’ahumanu’s family, he, too, would be put to death. Kamehameha assigned the somewhat fraught responsibility of guarding her, given her sensuous and willful nature, to two of his men, who, it may be surmised, were not always successful in their task.

Kamehameha also gave to Ka’ahumanu the right of pu’uhonua, which allowed her to grant sanctuary to anyone who sought her protection, and the power to repeal a death sentence, making her person, while forbidden to anyone but the king, a place of refuge where men, women, children, fugitives, and criminals could find safety. The lands that Ka’ahumanu had inherited and that Kamehameha had given her were also deemed places of refuge. Samuel Kamakau, who valued Ka’ahumanu at half the worth of her husband’s kingdom, wrote that Kamehameha dealt out death, and Ka’ahumanu saved from death, but the king’s gift was potentially dangerous, as it lessened the religious significance of refuge, once found only at heiau and special sacred sites, at the same time that it increased Kaʻahumanuʻs already estimable power. The role once played by gods and priests within kapu precincts was henceforth to be shared with a woman. In addition, she was awarded her father’s place at the king’s councils, a privilege which would by tradition have gone to one of her brothers.

In 1809, when Kamehameha was no longer young, although still possessing the physique and strength of a warrior (“without the flabbiness of age,” wrote Kamakau), he at last married Kekauluohi, the daughter of Kaʻahumanuʻs sister Kaheiheimālie and Kamehamehaʻs half-brother, whom he had claimed at birth. The girl, who had a light complexion and husky voice, had spent her childhood studying genealogy chants, although Ka’ahumanu, whose responsibility it had been to guard her, allowed her to meet in secret any man who pleased Ka‘ahumanu, which tended to keep the girl from her studies. (At the death of Kamehameha twenty years later, she married his son, Liholiho, who in turn gave her to one of his favorite chiefs.)

That same year, Ka‘ahumanu’s mother, Namahana, died in Honolulu. A mourner hurried to town from Waialua on the north shore so that she could be buried with the chiefess, sharing her grave, as was the custom, but Ka’ahumanu and her brothers would not permit it. This is Ka’ahumanu’s death chant for her mother:

My mother in the house well-peopled,
House into whose shelter we entered
To rest from the heat of the way,
Love to my mother who has gone,
Leaving me wandering on the mountainside.
You are the woman consumed by the wind
Consumed by the trade wind,
Consumed, consumed, consumed with love.

(Translation by Samuel Kamakau)

Idols made of hundreds of thousands of feathers, mother-of-pearl eyes, human hair, and dog’s teeth attached to wickerwork, watercolor by Sarah Stone, from the Leverian Museum, England, ca. 1783, private collection
Idol made of tens of thousands of feathers, mother-of-pearl eyes, human hair, and dog’s teeth attached to wickerwork, watercolor by Sarah Stone, from the Leverian Museum, England, ca. 1783, private collection

Despite the kapu on her body, Ka’ahumanu began a love affair with Kanihonui, the nineteen-year-old son of Kamehameha’s half-sister. A favorite of Kamehamehaʻs, he had lived in his house since childhood. He was said to be the most beautiful man in the kingdom — a description used for all of Ka’ahumanu’s lovers. The queen met him in secret whenever Kamehameha conducted rites in the heiau, but a guard of the sleeping house, aware that he would be killed if he did not report it, told the king, and Kanihonui was promptly strangled to death in Papa’ena’ena heiau on the slope of Diamond Head in Waikīkī.

IMG_456867768.JPG
War gods, watercolor by Sarah Stone, ca. 1783

The surf was particularly high on the day of Kanihonui’s death, and a holiday was granted so that the court could surf at Kapua, near Diamond Head (still a popular surfing spot, now known as First Break). As Ka’ahumanu rode her board to shore, she could see the heiau where the body of her lover lay rotting on the altar, and the smoke as the sacrificial fires were lighted. Ka’ahumanu, who blamed her disloyalty to Kamehameha on foreigners’ alcohol, angrily determined to take the kingdom from her husband on behalf of Liholiho, the king’s son, whom she had raised from childhood.

Hawaiian women with feather lei around their necks and on their heads, dancing for haole men, seated right. Lithograph after watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822
Hawaiian women with feather lei around their necks and on their heads, dancing for haole men, seated right. Lithograph after watercolor by Louis Choris, 1822

John Papa ʻĪʻī wrote:

Kalanimoku [Kamehameha’s commander-in-chief and prime minister of the kingdom] was there, watching over his grieving cousin. While the young chief [Liholiho] and a group of chiefs were in their presence, Kalanimoku asked, ‘What do you think? Shall we wrest the kingdom from your father, make you king, and put him to death?’ Liholiho bowed his head in meditation…and answered, ‘I do not want my father to die.’ This reply brought forth the admiration of all the chiefs.

Although perhaps not the admiration of Ka’ahumanu. Kamakau believed that while it was wrong of the king to put Kanihonui to death, there had been talk of rebellion, and Kamehameha had been forced to kill his foster son Kanihonui in order to frighten the restive chiefs.
Human sacrifice, lithograph from a drawing by Jacques Arago, 1822
Human sacrifice, lithograph from a drawing by Jacques Arago, 1822

The Woman Has Lighted Her Fires

bigis_so4_thumb
Vog Aerosol Output – Hawaiʻi Island

It is not always paradise here. Sometimes the air is so filled with sulfur dioxide and other gases from the Kilauea volcano in the Puna district of southeast Hawaiʻi, that it is difficult to breathe. Your eyes burn, and your throat hurts, and the dense atmosphere of toxic chemicals, called vog, occasions depression and malaise.

Kilauea, the home of the fire goddess, Pele, has been erupting since 1983. According to measurements taken in 2008, the volcano spewed 3000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air every day. There is more poisonous air now. It is often worse in Kaʻu and Kona, which are in the path of the once invigorating trade winds. Kona is the destination of most planes from the mainland to the Big Island, and the unwary tourist often steps into a thick miasma of ash, smoke, sulfates, and ammonia. Perhaps I should not be telling you this.

Portions of Haleʻmauʻmau Crater collapsed May 3, triggering an explosion of spatter and a "robust particle-laden plume"
Portions of Haleʻmauʻmau Crater collapsed May 3, triggering an explosion of spatter and a “robust particle-laden plume”

The fire goddess Pele, capricious, cruel, jealous, and vengeful, makes her home with her five compelling brothers and sister in Kilauea crater. O. A. Bushnell writes:

Those first Hawaiians became acquainted with two manifestation of divine power they could not have seen in the land of their birth. With a fine sense of relationships, and their realists’ humor, they decided that these novel forces must be feminine. The blazing, impulsive, destructive, hot-tempered, and beautiful one who issued so unpredictably from her underground realm they called Pele. The haughty, pallid, silent, cold maiden who never deigned to descend from her lofty mountain citadels they named Poli’ahu . . . Pele as their Earth Goddess in her triple manifestations: as Mother, maker of mountains and of islands and humankind; as Lover-Pursuer-Virago, devourer of men who do not heed her power, no matter how handsome and accomplished they may think they are; and, finally, as Kuku Wahine, Grandmother, who receives in her wrinkled bosom the bodies of the dead, taking them into her care once more.

multimediaFile-1157
Halemaʻumaʻu crater on the Big Island with rising lava, April 25, 2015
Kilauea crater, home of Pele. Oil on canvas by Titian Ramsey Peale, 1842. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.
Kilauea crater, home of Pele. Oil on canvas by Titian Ramsey Peale, 1842, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu


Kahu
(guardians or acolytes) of Pele coated their long hair with red dust, and made their eyes red. The fact that volcanoes destroy entire villages understandably helped to underline the magical connection between the visible danger (the kahu) and the invisible danger (the goddess).

Kamehameha I, watercolor over pencil by Mikhail Tikhanov, artist on board the Kamchatka, 1818. The king had shaved his head in mourning for his sister. Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg.
Kamehameha I, watercolor over pencil by Mikhail Tikhanov, artist on board the Kamchatka, 1818. The king had shaved his head in mourning for his sister. Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg.

Kamehameha was said to be a favorite of Pele. When his land at Puako in South Kohala was threatened with lava from an eruption at Hualalai, people said that Pele had lost patience with him and was punishing him for making love to Kaheiheimālie the sister of the favorite, Kaʻahumanu. He quickly made offerings to Pele, and a forgiving Ka’ahumanu and Kaheiheimālie (who was said to be the more corpulent of the two) loyally resolved to perish with Kamehameha should the lava overtake him. The historian Samuel Kamakau wrote that Pele appeared to the women, dancing at the end of a troupe of goddesses, chanting, “Our husband has gone to carry the bigger load [Kaheiheimālie], while the lighter load [Ka’ahumanu] is neglected.”

Pele sent her lovely sister Hi’iaka to find the handsome chief Lohi’au of Kaua’i to bring him to Pele on the Big Island. During the dangerous journey, beset by water spirits and sorcerers, Hi’iaka and Lohi’au fell in love (a Hawaiian version of Tristan and Isolde). Hi’iaka, who is herself a sorceress with the gift of prophecy, is said to have composed the following chant:

I lose my breath crossing Hilo’s rivers and ravines,
countless hills, descents innumerable as I travel
Kula’imano’s gullies and streams.
There’s Honoli’i stream and the cliff called Kama’e,
single cliff among many in spacious Hilo-of-the-standing-cliffs.
Waiolama River flows on and on through Pana’ewa,
Pana’ewa the rain drenched forest-island of tallest trees, dense branches of scraggly lehua,
‘ohi’a’s flame flower, beloved of birds.

Now Hilo darkens. Night falls in Hilo.
Puna, sunk in dusk, glows through my smoky land.
All things stir with life, breathe anew.

The Woman has lighted her fires.

In 1824, the high chiefess Kapi’olani (a recent convert to Christianity), despairing of the reverence and fear with which Hawaiians still worshipped Pele, made the arduous journey across the lava fields to climb the southwest slope of the crater to challenge the goddess in her lair. Kapiʻolani, accompanied by the Hilo missionary Joseph Goodrich (the missionary Samuel Ruggles wished to go, too, but he had no shoes), was followed along the rough path by hundreds of people who pleaded with her to return home, knowing that it was they, not the haoles and the ali’i, who would suffer the revenge of the goddess. At the edge of the crater, Kapiʻolani defiantly ate a handful of the ʻōhelo berries sacred to Pele, and threw stones into the volcano (Peleʻs skin was said to be so hot that if a bundle of taro touched her for even an instant, it would be cooked at once). Kapiʻolani sang numerous hymns, and prayed at length with Goodrich to give Pele sufficient time to display her fury. When the goddess was silent, Kapi’olani triumphantly turned her back in scorn and walked home, leaving the frightened Hawaiians to follow in astonishment.

Pele seems to bring out the worst in artists. I used to think that Santa Fe had more bad art per square mile than any place in the world, but what might be considered contemporary Hawaiian art may be worse.

ibka8PcsgR8a0X               034

Oil on velvet, Ralph Burke Tyree,
Oil on velvet, Ralph Burke Tyree

Excepting of course, paintings on velvet from the Fifties and Sixties. As a young woman, I read scripts for an actor who was eager to begin an art collection. As I now and then came home to Hawai’i, he asked me to find him some paintings on velvet. There was a very good dealer in Hawaiian antiquities in Honolulu, the late Don Severson, and I would make an appointment to see him at his gallery. He had the most exquisite things — calabashes, Hawaiian quilts, poi pounders, nineteenth-century paintings by Hitchcock, Peale, and Tavernier, prints and watercolors by Choris, Arago, and Webber, delicately-patterned Hawaiian kapa cloth unlike anything in Oceania, and once, an exquisite koa-wood outrigger canoe. He also had a small collection of kitsch, including paintings on velvet, which he somewhat amusedly kept in a separate room. I tried to convince my employer to buy something of beauty — at least what I thought beautiful — but he really wanted his nudes on black velvet, and so I would purchase them on his behalf and carry them to Los Angeles. To be just, he soon abandoned paintings on velvet and moved on to Matisse and Picasso, among others, but I had nothing to do with that.

The Passion of Men, Women and Children

There is an assumption among collectors of Hawaiian antiques and artifacts, that koa was the wood favored by the ali’i (chiefs and chiefesses) of Hawai’i to make surfboards, paddles, house posts, utensils, bowls, and furniture, but it is not true. In the late nineteenth century, koa was used for palace furniture and in the houses of discerning haoles, and others, but the belief that objects of koa have always been highly prized is a modern construct. In the nineteenth century, the chiefs preferred carved Chinese beds and tables, brought from the East by sea captains and merchants, and traded for sandalwood, sought by the Chinese for incense. Sandalwood posts were used in Kamehameha’s grass house at Helumoa in Waikiki (between the present-day Royal Hawaiian and Moana hotels), but by 1829, the once-vast forests of the fragrant wood were decimated. Before the missionaries from New England forbade most games and entertainments (including hula), surfing was the passion of men, women and children, commoner and ali’i. As with all things, it was a ritualized act. The right tree with which to make the board had to be found. The hewing and shaping of the wood was imbued with ceremony, in the hope that the gods would favor the board, its maker, and its owner. The first time that it was put into the water had its own ritual, and its care (drying, oiling, wrapping in kapa) was accompanied by chants and prayers. People surfed naked, lying outstretched on thin boards, five to seven feet long, and flat on both sides, although the most accomplished surfers would stand. The chiefs, who often put a kapu on the best surfing spots so as to have exclusive use of them, used glossy black boards made of wiliwili wood, which was lighter than koa, that could reach sixteen feet in length and one hundred and fifty pounds in weight. In a surfing contest, a buoy was anchored close to shore, and whoever reached it first was the winner. If more than one surfer reached the buoy, or no one reached it, a tie was conveniently declared. Excited spectators placed bets on the competitors, as they did in most games and sports.

3A Bathing_scene,_Lahaina,_Maui,_watercolor,_by_James_Gay_Sawkins

    Surfing at Lahaina, watercolor by James Gay Sawkins, 1855. National Library of Australia

It is said that upon Kamehamehaʻs marriage to the young Kaʻahumanu, he built a stone wall at Kauhola Point in Kohala to make a small protected cove where he could teach her to swim, although it seems unlikely that she would not have known this essential skill by adolescence. He did teach her to surf, and throughout her life, she was a keen and skillful surfer. John Papa I’i described one of her favorite surfing spots in Kohala:

Kekahau was a kama’aina [old-timer] of the place, and it was he who led Ka’ahumanu to the surf of Maliu…As the story goes, Ka’ahumanu and Kekakau swam or went by canoe to the spot where the surf rose. Before they left, Kekakau talked with the king about the nature of the surf and showed Ka’ahumanu the places to land, which would be signaled by the waving of a white tapa. If the tapa was moved to the right or to the left, she was to go to the side indicated before the sea rose up high and overwhelmed her. If the tapa was spread out, or perhaps wadded into a ball, the signal meant to go in on the middle of the wave.

“Reine Cahoumanou,” Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822. Hawaii State Archives.
“Reine Cahoumanou,” with the dwarf whose only responsibility was never to let her out of his sight. Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822. Hawaii State Archives.

Ka’ahumanu, who was Kamehameha’s ku’u i’ini, or heartthrob, was said to be impossible to control, and willful, jealous, and spoiled, but she was beautiful (some foreigners were surprised, given her reputation, to discover her size — she was six feet tall and corpulent), and she was very intelligent. In a compliment rendered by one foreigner, she was said to possess the thought processes of a man.

Lieutenant Thomas Manby, sailing with Vancouver in 1791, was beguiled by Ka’ahumanu, and described her as she sat stringing beads under a tree in a small courtyard in Kamehameha’s compound in Kealakekua while attendants fanned her with feathered staffs. A fresh mat was spread for him, and Ka’ahumanu sat next to him. She offered him fruit, asking one of her servants to bring some coconuts for herself and her guests. Manby would have known that men were forbidden to eat with women, but Ka’ahumanu must also have known that the Hawaiian women visiting the sailors on board the foreign ships frequently ate with the sailors, a violation of kapu for which they would have been killed if caught. She amused herself by “tying and untying his hair,” as she braided it with feathers and flowers. She was fascinated by the whiteness of his complexion. “She then nearly undressed me to observe my skin,” and was delighted to find that he bore a Tahitian tattoo on his leg. She sent for an old man who examined it intently and interpreted the design to much teasing and laughter. Manby’s attention to the queen must have seemed a bit too forward even for the ali’i, who were impressively informal about their sexual arrangements (unlike commoners who tended to be monogamous), as Ka’ahumanu was “called to order by a little deformed wretch” who would be put to death should his charge be found in the arms of a man not her husband. She liked to turn out the pockets of her Western friends to choose what she wanted for her own, and when she discovered that Manby’s pockets had already been picked by one of her attendants, the guilty one was punished and dismissed from her household. She was said to take great pleasure in the company of men, preferring them to women, and did not hesitate to show her contempt for a rival, although she took care, like any clever royal favorite, to befriend pretty newcomers to court, turning any possible threat into a companion. Most women, however, were said to be frightened of her, and did not like to enter her house. Before the coming of the missionaries, there had been no binding formal marital relationship between Hawaiians. There was no word in Hawaiian for marriage or adultery — “the woman who sat sideways” is an old expression for a woman who takes another man. He ʻuha leo ʻole (“a thigh over which no word is spoken”) was said disparagingly of a woman thought to be promiscuous, and a child whose paternal lineage was unknown, was said to have been conceived by the wayside, a keiki a ka pueo, or “child of an owl.” If a man and a woman remained together through the night, it was tantamount to a declaration of union. When a man took a new woman to his house, it was left to her to decide whether any of his other women might remain. Should a woman choose to leave a man, her children remained with their father. It was different among the aliʻi, however. If a person was abducted by a chief, his (or her) companion could go to the chief with an offering of a dog (to eat) in hope of an exchange. John Papa Iʻi again: “If an insolent courtier were to see that a country clown had a beautiful woman for a wife he would say to her, ‘You come along with me,’ and the country clown would be too spiritless to make any resistance. Or one of the women about court, meeting a handsome young countryman whom she fancied, would turn his head with flattery and try to win him to herself, saying, ‘Why does such a fine fellow as you condescend to live with such a fright of a creature as that wife of yours? You’d better come along with me’…Men and chiefs acted strangely in those days.”

Kaʻahumanu in middle age, pen, inkwash and watercolor by Louis Choris, 1816, Honolulu Museum of Art
Kaʻahumanu in middle age, pen, inkwash and watercolor by Louis Choris, 1816. Honolulu Museum of Art

When Ka’ahumanu’s father died of plague in 1804, his last words to Kamehameha were to beware of his daughter, as it was she alone who could take the kingdom from him. Treating his warning with the seriousness it deserved, Kamehameha declared Ka’ahumanu kapu to all persons other than himself. The following proverb from Mary Kawena Pukui’s book of Hawaiian sayings, ‘Ōlelo No’eau, refers to the unification of Maui, Moloka’i, O’ahu, Lānaʻi, Hawaiʻi, and Kaho’olawe in 1795: Eonu moku a Kamehameha ua, noa ia ‘oukou, akā o ka hiku o ka moku ua kapu, ia na’u. Six of Kamehameha’s islands are free to you, but the seventh [Ka’ahumanu] is kapu, and is for me alone. Five years later, when Kaʻahumanu was in her forties, she began a love affair with Kanihonui, the nineteen-year-old son of Kamehameha’s half-sister. A favorite of Kamehameha, he had lived in the king’s house since childhood, and was said to be the most beautiful man in the kingdom — a description used for all of Ka’ahumanu’s lovers. The queen met him in secret whenever Kamehameha conducted rites in the heiau, but a guard of the sleeping house, frightened that he would be killed if he did not report it, told the king, and Kanihonui was promptly strangled to death in Papa’ena’ena heiau on the slope of Diamond Head in Waikīkī. The surf at Waikīkī was particularly high on the day of Kanihonui’s death, and Ka’ahumanu asked that a holiday be granted so that the court could surf at Kapua, near Diamond Head (still a popular surfing spot, now known as First Break). Ka’ahumanu could see the heiau where the body of her lover lay rotting on the altar, and the smoke as the sacrificial fires were lighted. Surrounded by her chiefs, she wailed in rage as she surfed to shore. It is said to have been the last human sacrifice conducted in the Islands.

Mourning Rituals

The Hawaiian ritual of mourning served to incorporate the past into the present and the present into the past; creating anew, over and over again, a cosmology without end. The twenty-six year old missionary Lucy Thurston, who arrived in the Islands five months after Kamehameha’s death in 1821, was terrified by warnings that she would be robbed, bewitched, and possibly even eaten. She described in her journal what she had been told of the traditional chaos that followed the death of King Kamehameha I.

Niuli'i coastline
Niuli’i coastline in North Kohala

They went upon the idea that their grief was so great, that they knew not what they did. They were let thoroughly loose, without law or restraint, and so gave themselves up to every evil, that they acted more like devils incarnate, than like human beings . . . Their grass-thatched cottages were left empty; their last vestige of clothing thrown aside; and such scenes of wholesale and frantic excesses exhibited in the open face of day, as would make darkness pale. A tornado swept over the nation, making it drunk with abominations . . . It was among their more decent and innocent extravagances that they burned their faces with fire, in large, permanent, semi-circular figures, and with stones knocked out their front teeth.

After his death, Kamehameha’s body, as befitted that of a great king, was wrapped in leaves of banana, mulberry, and kalo, laid in a shallow trench a foot deep, and covered with soil. A fire was lighted the length of the grave and kept burning for ten days, during which time chants and prayers were recited without pause. The grave was then opened and the bones cleaned. The flesh, internal organs, and other parts of the body were taken out to sea after dark and discarded, during which time no commoner was allowed to leave his house or he would be killed. The priests then arranged his bones in the shape of his body and wrapped them in white kapa, which marked the end of the period of defilement. The hiding place of Kamehameha’s bones, said to be along the Kona coast or in Kohala, has never been found.

Nancy Johnson at eighteen at Waipiʻo after a swim in a cold mountain pool. She is wearing a blue chambray shirt, called a Kauaʻi shirt, once favored by workers on the plantations, which we wore on all adventures, particularly fluming and ti-leaf sliding.
Nancy at eighteen at Waipiʻo, after a swim in a cold mountain pool. She is wearing a blue chambray shirt, called a Kauaʻi shirt, once favored by workers on the plantations, which we wore on all adventures, particularly fluming and ti leaf-sliding.

My childhood friend, Nancy Johnson, who died six years ago, told me that she had come upon a cave on the coast at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel while diving for golf balls near Hole Three of the hotel’s notoriously difficult course. The following is an excerpt from my book, I Myself Have Seen It, published in 2003:

She saw at sea level the entrance to a cave, visible only at low tide. When she swam into the cave, it was as dark as night…but for a scant moment of sunlight each time the ocean receded, leaving the entrance uncovered. The water was deep and the cave rose to a height of ten feet. In one of the intervals of light, she saw, to her astonishment, a long wooden canoe wedged onto a natural shelf near the dome of the cave. What appeared to be wooden images wrapped in kapa were inside the canoe, as well as long spears. As the water was rising with the turn of the tide, there was not enough time to climb onto the ledge to look inside the canoe. A week later, after swearing me to secrecy, we swam along the coast at low tide, looking for the entrance to the cave, but we could not find it…The Hawaiians say, ʻThe morning star alone knows where Kamehameha’s bones are guarded.’

I received quite a few letters after the book was published from people who had the same story to tell, which made me wince in embarrassment, as I had somewhat naively believed my friend. I can no longer ask her if she was teasing me, or if she made up the story and then came to believe it herself, as happens, or if she had indeed seen the canoe and artifacts in the cave, or if the cave itself was a fantasy. That we could never find it after many attempts should have told me something, I admit. I was once taken by my brother into what was called the Vagina Cave, a lava tube whose entrance was a damp rock-strewn crevice in the middle of open brush, concealed by the ferns and wild orchids growing in a narrow rivulet of water. One had to squeeze into the opening (either head or feet-first, your choice), only to land in an enormous cavern where it is said the high chiefesses of Hawaiʻi Island had gone to give birth. The name of the cave refers to a large representation on the floor of the chamber, both carved and natural, of a woman’s vagina with rose-colored labia, on either side of which were ledges strewn with the remnants of frayed and desiccated mats and water gourds. My brother made me swear not to tell anyone about the cave, as it was on private property belonging to the Bishop Estate, and for years I kept my promise. Others knew about the cave, however, and when it became evident that people were visiting it, activists buried the entrance, and it can no longer be found. I tell this story only because years later, when I did describe the cave to friends, no one believed me.

Nancy grew up in Manoa Valley in Honolulu in a distinctive house designed by the architect Charles W. Dickey, who also designed Pauahi Hall at Punahou, where we went to school, the Alexander and Baldwin building downtown, the charming cottages at the old Halekulani Hotel, and the Waikiki Theater where we saw our first movies (“Imitation of Life” with Lana Turner, and Susan Kohner, who is beaten in an alleyway by Troy Donahue when he discovers that she is black).

A slumber party in Manoa, circa 1954, to celebrate Nancy’s birthday. The friend with whom I swim at Mahukona is standing far left. I am in the middle in a striped t-shirt, above Nancy, whose two hands are raised in front of her. We seem to be wearing lipstick.
A slumber party in Manoa, circa 1954, to celebrate Nancy’s birthday. The friend with whom I swim at Mahukona is standing far left. I am in the middle in a striped t-shirt, above Nancy, whose two hands are raised in front of her. We seem to be wearing lipstick.

This is another story about Nancy, again taken from I Myself Have Seen It:

Not so long ago, a friend sitting on the beach at her familyʻs beach house at Malaekahana on the north shore of Oʻahu happened to notice a turtle, the size and shape of a quarter, staggering across the sand to the sea. The turtle, after many cumbersome attempts, at last tumbled into the surf where, to my friendʻs dismay, it began to drown. She dashed into the water, and after some trouble, she found it, but the turtle was not strong enough to swim on its own, despite being ferried beyond the breaking surf to deep water, and she reluctantly carried it back to shore. She filled a bucket with seawater and went to the Kahuku market, the old company store where indebted Chinese and Japanese workers once forfeited their meager weekly wages for scrip (as opposed to what was called cash-money), and she bought raw shrimp, which she chopped into minuscule pieces to feed the turtle. After a few days, when it grew apparent that the turtle was dying, she called the Oceanic Institute near Makapuʻu to inquire if she should alter the turtle’s diet or the temperature of the water. She was startled to learn upon describing the turtle that she had rescued a species last seen in 1943, so rare as to be thought extinct. Her picture, with the turtle balanced on the tip of her finger, was on the front page of the newspaper and she was given a lifetime pass to the Institute, which promptly confiscated the turtle.

This story, I swear, is true.

Dusky Native Women

alekahi gulch
Alakahi Gulch, which leads into Waipiʻo Valley

If a person were to walk east from Pololu, he would eventually reach Waipiʻo Valley in the district of Hamakua. Visitors may visit Waipiʻo by car, inching down a treacherously winding and narrow road that seems made to discourage any outsiders from coming into the valley. Many Hawaiians still live in Waipiʻo, unlike Pololu and Honokāne. The trail from Pololu soon disappears in heavy brush, what was left of the overgrown trails made by the workers on the Kohala Ditch finally swept away for good by the earthquake of 2006. A friend who knows the valleys well sometimes walks to a small cabin built in the mountains for the men who once worked on the ditch, a climb that takes ten hours, although, he says, it is faster coming out. Recently he gave me a cutting of the rare mountain rose, lokelani, that grows deep in the valley, where, he said, it was not doing very well. Too many wild pigs, and too much guava.

Crossing the stream for a picnic at Waipiʻo (the writer John Wray is on the far left, Wheelock Whitney is holding my hand, and John Stefanidis in on the far bank, removing his shoes)
Crossing the river for a picnic at Waipiʻo (the writer John Wray is on the far left, Wheelock Whitney is holding my hand mid-stream, and John Stefanidis is on the far bank, removing his shoes)

The historian John Papa I’i described a trip Kaʻahumanu made by sea to Waipiʻo:

Ka’ahumanu’s circuits of the land were always by canoe, for she had learned all about canoeing and surfing from Kamehameha, her cousin, lord, and husband . . . She boarded a canoe and sailed to Waipio, while the king and chiefs traveled over land. When the canoes arrived . . . the waves were very rough, and there was no place to land. Therefore, Ka’ahumanu ordered the paddlers to go out and come in a second time. This time they were close to the back of a wave that rose up directly in front of them, and she encouraged her paddlers to head for it. The canoe came up very close to it and as the wave rose up to a peak and spread out, the craft rode in with the foam to where the prows could be caught by the men on shore. Those on shore remarked to each other how cleverly they were saved, and this became a great topic of conversation.

Sometime in the year 1780, a lack of food thanks to the provisioning of Cookʻs ships led King Kalaniōpu’u of Hawaiʻi Island to move his court from Kailua to Waipiʻo Valley, where he called a council of chiefs. Limbs shaking from a lifetime of drinking ʻawa, Kalaniopu’u formally declared his oldest son, Kiwala’o, heir to the kingdom, and named Kamehameha high chief of Kohala, giving him land that already belonged to Kamehameha by inheritance. More important, however, he bequeathed to Kamehameha the guardianship of the feathered war god, Kūka’ilimoku, whose name means The Island Snatcher, and the attendant responsibility of conducting rites and tending the god’s heiau. Kalaniōpuʻuʻs gift gave to Kamehameha a significant political and religious advantage over other high chiefs. The war god—a wickerwork head five feet tall, to which thousands of small red, yellow, and black feathers had been painstakingly attached, its gaping mouth lined with dogsʻ teeth—was carried into battle by a special priest, and the terrifying screams that poured from its mouth were said to be the cries of the god himself.

Moore garden Hilo
R. and Q.’s garden in Wainaku, with Hilo Bay in the background
Kaiwiki Road in Hilo, in a workersʻ camp built in the Forties by a long-gone sugar plantation
Kaiwiki Road in Hilo, in a workersʻ camp built by a long-gone sugar plantation

My two younger brothers live in Hilo, a town on the east coast of the Island, about an hour south of Waipiʻo, which in many ways remains the same as it was in the Fifties. There are no good hotels, no good beaches, but there is an old theatre, the Palace, which has been restored and given life by my brother R. and his wife, Q., and which has resumed its place as the center of the community, where one may see everything from a local talent show to a concert by the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra. There is also a very good green market on Saturday, with unfamiliar fruits and vegetables among the passionfruit, papaya, white pineapple, starfruit, orchids, anthurium, and mangos, grown in small gardens by local Japanese, Filipino and more recently- arrived Cambodian farmers. A hula contest called the Merrie Monarch Festival is held each spring in Hilo, in which dozens of troupes representing different hula schools, or halau, from all the Islands and the mainland compete for prizes. I am always a little depressed by it — too much make-up, too much synchronized enthusiasm, not enough wildness or even spontaneity — but I also understand that it is impossible for hula to have retained its original meaning (human sacrifice, the consumption of small dogs, and the marriage of brothers and sisters are also no longer in common practice). It is, however, extremely popular with local people as well as visitors. Great care is taken by the various halau to replicate what is thought to be original choreography, if it can be called that, as well as costumes and the singing of chants. As nothing was written down by the Hawaiians until the missionaries devised a transcription of their language, no records were kept other than oral histories. There are some nineteenth-century engravings made from drawings by the shipsʻ artists who sailed with Cook and Vancouver, as well as other travelers, that give an idea of what was worn by the dancers, but that is all. Certainly the breasts of the women dancers were not covered, and I long for the day when a smiling troupe glides onto the Hilo stage with bare breasts.

Hilo sunrise
Hilo sunrise

The sight of men and women dancing the hula was particularly disturbing to the Congregationalist ministers and lay workers who arrived in the Islands after 1821. In his journal, the missionary Hiram Bingham described a ceremony he witnessed at the compound of the high chief Boki, where hundreds of male and female dancers had gathered to sing and dance ten days earlier in a celebration that would continue for several months. The dancers, adorned with leaves, flowers, and dog’s teeth anklets, were insufficiently clothed for Bingham, and he condemned the dancers as incitements to lust. A statue of Laka, goddess of the hula, stood at the entrance to Boki’s yard, and the dancers bedecked her image each day, further upsetting Bingham who complained to Boki that the idolatrous image should be removed. Boki, with his customary humor, told Bingham that he was welcome to the statue when the hula ceremonies were complete. Boki agreed, however, that the dancers, if allowed to dance undisturbed each morning and night, would attend the mission school by day. Other men, less encumbered by the Divine, did not hesitate to admire the dance, and particularly the dancers. Mark Twain found Hawaiian women irresistible, even in the shapeless shifts known as Mother Hubbards made for them by the missionaries, later to become the muumuu worn by haoles and Hawaiians alike (he and Robert Louis Stevenson could not resist comparing the skin of Hawaiian women to chocolate or leather).

I saw long-haired, saddle-colored Sandwich Island maidens sitting on the ground in the shade of corner houses, gazing indolently at whatever or whoever happened along . . . I met dusky native women sweeping by, free as the wind, on fleet horses and astraddle, with gaudy riding-sashes streaming like banners behind them . . . I breathed the balmy fragrance of Jessamine, oleander and the Pride of India . . . I moved in the midst of a Summer calm as tranquil as dawn in the Garden of Eden . . . At night they feast and the girls dance the lascivious hula hula—a dance that is said to exhibit the very perfection of education motion of limb and arm, hand, head and body . . . performed by a circle of girls with no raiment on them to speak of . . .

Later that year, Twain was unable to contain himself at the sight of girls swimming naked in the ocean:

At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went down to look at them . . . when they rose to the surface they only just poked their heads out and showed no disposition to proceed any further in the same direction. I was naturally irritated by such conduct, and therefore I piled their clothes up on a bowlder (sic) in the edge of the sea and sat down on them and kept the wenches in the water until they were pretty well used up.

A tattooed dancer in a voluminous kapa skirt, from a drawing by the ship's artist Jacques Arago, 1819. Her short hair is died blonde at the hairline with a bleach made from lime and ki juice, as was the fashion
A tattooed dancer in a voluminous kapa skirt, from a drawing by the ship’s artist Jacques Arago, 1819. Her short hair is dyed blonde at the hairline with a bleach made from lime and ki juice, as was the fashion

The only dance that Captain George Vancouver did not like was the hula maʻi, performed in celebration of the genitals. Mary Kawena Pukui writes in her book, The Polynesian Family System in Ka’u, Hawai’i:

Every child of chiefly or priestly family had a special name given to his genitals. Meles [songs] were composed for them, but they were not necessarily descriptive of the genitals. In the older days every [hula] school chanted such meles without thought of immodesty or wrong of any sort. The genitalia of the first-born male or female were also given particular physical care in early infancy. This care was therapeutic in the sense that it was intended to guarantee health and efficient coition; and had also its aesthetic aspects, since the sexual act was accepted without shame in those days as being both creative and one of the supreme pleasures.

I have always wanted to see a hula ma’i, but they are rarely performed now. Last summer, at a book festival, the Hawaiian historian, kumu hula, and chanter, Nathan Napoka, was present at a talk that W. gave about his book of hawk photographs, for which Mr. Napoka had written an essay. Mr. Napoka brought with him from Maui a young woman who is his dance student. He himself had been been taught by the late ʻIolani Luahine, a devotee of the hawk god, and one of the last female dancers to perform in the old style.

IMG_0571The young woman with Mr. Napoka danced that day in honor of the hawk, and then performed a hula ma’i with all of the wit, joy, elegance, seduction, and sensuousness for which the native Hawaiian was known, and those of us who saw it were astonished and moved, mournfully aware that we might never see a hula ma’i again.

Untouchables and Other Beloved Persons

A restored heiau at Lapakahi on the Kohala coast
A restored heiau at Lapakahi on the Kohala coast

During the eleventh century, as the number of new settlers from Polynesia grew, the original inhabitants from the earlier voyages of the eighth century slipped into servitude. The historian Mary Kawena Pukui believed that the outcast slaves known as kauwa, kept for human sacrifice, may have been the descendants of the earliest people. Kauwa, who were known as corpses or foul-smelling things, were tattooed on their foreheads and made to hide their heads under pieces of kapa. Like the Untouchables of India, kauwa were scapegoats born into and imprisoned within an abhorred class. Confined to certain districts such as Makeanehu in Kohala, which is between Pololu and Kawaihae, near the restored national historic site of Lapakahi. Kauwa were forbidden to marry outside their caste, or even to enter the house or yard of a man who was not kauwa. If a child was born of a union between a commoner or chief and a kauwa, the child would be dashed to death against a rock, and the disgrace felt for generations. Kauwa were buried alive next to their dead masters, and often served as proxies for chiefs who had been sentenced to death for infractions of kapu, their heads held under water until drowned. If it was discovered that a kauwa was among a man’s ancestors, the man’s eyes would be gouged from his head. IMG_0553Unlike the despised kauwa, a valued attendant in a chief’s household was the punahele, or favorite, who had been adopted or taken in by the chief, and who might be the son of a friend, or a foster son (the custom of hanai, in which a child, usually the first-born son and daughter, was freely given to a grandparent or friend or relative to raise). Regarded as sacred to the chief, a favorite had the right to enter the kapu places. The favorite was not the same, however, as a moe aikāne, or a man’s male sexual companion. A shocked John Ledyard, an American from Connecticut who in 1777 accompanied Captain Cook as a marine on HMS Discovery, wrote that chiefs eagerly sought the most beautiful young men in the Islands, whom they brought to court and kept close to them. The chiefs, who were jealous of any unwelcome attention paid to their favorites, appeared to Ledyard to be very fond of the boys, and to treat them with more kindness than they showed women. The Kohala high chief Kamehameha, later to be the greatest of Hawaiian kings, was twice described at age twenty-five as being extremely affectionate with a favorite. David Samwell, a surgeon traveling with Cook, wrote in his journal that Kamehameha had a young male companion with him when he visited Cook’s ships in 1778:

“Kamehameha, a chief of great consequence and a relation of Kariopoo [Kalaniōpu’u], but of a clownish and blackguard appearance, came on board of us in the afternoon dressed in an elegant feathered Cloak, which he brought to sell but would part with it for nothing but iron Daggers, which they of late preffered to Tois (sic) and everything else; and all the large Hogs they bring us now they want Daggers for and tell us that they must be made as long [as] their arms, and the armourers were employed in making them instead of small adzes. Kameha-meha got nine [daggers] of them for his Cloak. He, with many of his attendants, took up his quarters on board the ship for the Night: among them is a Young Man of whom he seems very fond, which does not in the least surprize (sic) us as we have had opportunities before of being acquainted with a detestable part of his character which he is not in the least anxious to conceal.”

Swimming with my childhood friend at Mahukona.
Swimming with my childhood friend at Mahukona

A few miles north of Lapakahi is Mahukona, a small bay with dangerous reefs where Cook first traded nails and trinkets for fresh water, yams, bananas, and pigs with the Indians, as Cook called them. Later a cement landing was built with a rail line to carry sugar cane to the ships that would take it, along with half-drowned cattle, to Honolulu and on to the mainland. On a hill above the bay are the remains of a heiau, said to be a navigatorʻs temple, which was partially destroyed during World War II when it was used as a machine gun site. In her book, Kohala Āina, Sophia Schweitzer writes that, “Archaeological records mention a cave nearby as another possible heiau. The author Violet Hansen was told that Charles L. Wight, then railroad president…stumbled upon the cave in the late 1800s. He said he found ‘idols, stone objects, and artifacts.’ Story has it that Wight removed the objects and then lost a finger the next day in an accident. He returned everything, and sealed the cave.” Every now and then, a consortium of developers tries to buy Mahukona to build hotels and a shopping center and a subdivision, but so far they have been thwarted by local activists.

The house in North Kohala where my friend’s father lived as a boy. His family started one of Kohala’s first sugar plantations.
The house in North Kohala where my friend’s father lived as a boy. His family started one of Kohala’s first sugar plantations.

The Cloak of Bird Feathers

IMG_0220
Looking east from the lookout at Pololu toward Honokāne and Honokāne Iki

W. and I go to the lookout at Pololu often, sometimes twice a day, because W. takes photographs of the ‘io, the rare hawk that is found only on the Big Island. No one knows how the ‘io, a species related to the mainland red-tail hawk, came to be here, but it is surmised that birds were blown off their migratory course 40,000 years ago to take refuge in the Islands. W. published a book of photographs of the hawk last year, ‘Io Lani (wschillingworth.com), and when we are at Pololu now, some of the surfers and old- timers recognize him and tell him about hawks they have seen. “Behind Arakaki Market, get one nest high in a ironwood tree…”

Taking the trail into the Valley with the horse Maka-Blue, or Blue Eyes
Fred taking the trail into the Valley with the horse Maka-Blue, or Blue Eyes

The hawks often appear low in the sky, leaving the valley and swooping over the house of Kindy Sproat, a member of one of the last Hawaiian families to live in Honokāne Iki. Visitors in the nineteenth century described the valleys along this coast as well-populated, with forty grass houses in Pololu alone, stretching from the beach, along the river, and into the gulch, but they are abandoned now, and the invasive vegetation (seen by some as a metaphor) has covered any signs of past habitation. Kalāhikiola Church, founded in 1841 by the missionary, the Reverend Elias Bond, at Iole in nearby Kapaʻau, was built with lava rock walls, strengthened with sand from Pololu. G. W. Bates in his book Sandwich Island Notes by a Haole wrote, “The sand was brought from the valley of Pololu and the beach at Kawaihae — the former place six miles distant, the latter twenty-six. There were no roads over which a team could travel; consequently, the materials were conveyed to the site of the building in a method entirely new, and each native threw in a share of labor. Some carried sand from the place just mentioned in handkerchiefs, others in their undergarments. Others very ingeniously connected an entire suit

together and filled it with the same material, and then conveyed it to Iole.”
perched 'io 2 At Pololu, we often stand with our backs to the ocean, causing some visitors to ask why we are looking away from the view that they have come some distance to admire. The tourists sometimes stay at the lookout a minute or two and then head back to their hotels. Others take the steep trail into the valley. Others only photograph the obliging mules in the Sproats’ nearby pasture. People often ask W. (because of his serious-looking camera) to photograph them with their phones. Others simply photograph themselves. selfie at pololu A few miles to the west is the favorite surfing spot of Kamehameha’s favorite, the high chiefess Ka’ahumanu, whose name means The Cloak of Bird Feathers. kuhio3_thOnly high chiefs wore the bright red, yellow, and black capes, made with hundreds of thousands of feathers in designs of fins, rainbows, sharks, and wings (the color yellow was associated with O’ahu; black and red with the island of Hawai’i), flung over one bare shoulder to facilitate the use of weapons. Judge A. G. M. Robertson, W’s great-great-uncle (left), wears a cloak of peacock feathers (over both shoulders) at the funeral of Prince Jonah Kuhio in 1922. Kuhio’s nickname was Prince Cupid, given to him by a French schoolmaster at what is now ʻIolani School, for his mischievous smile and “twinkling eyes.” A young Duke Kahanamoku is to the left of Robertson, wearing a feather cape.

Kamehameha took Ka’ahumanu as his third wife in 1785 when she was seventeen years old. She was six feet tall, and said to be without blemish. Samuel Kamakau wrote that her arms were like the inside of a banana stalk:

…her fingers tapering, her palms pliable like kukunene grass, graceful in repose, her cheeks long in shape and pink as the bud of a banana stem; her eyes like those of a dove or the moho bird; her nose narrow and straight, in admirable proportion to her cheeks; her arched eyebrows shaped to the breadth of her forehead; her hair dark, wavy, and fine; her skin very light. Of Kamehameha’s two possessions, his wife and his kingdom, she was the more beautiful.

The missionary Hiram Bingham, not given to praising women for their beauty, wrote in 1823, when Kaʻahumanu was fifty-five years old, that she was “sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian, and engaging when young . . . Kamehameha was exceedingly jealous of her.”

Black sand beach at Pololu
Black sand beach at Pololu

Upon their marriage, Kamehameha built a stone wall at Kauhola Point to make a small protected cove where he could teach her to swim, although it seems unlikely that she would not have known this essential skill by adolescence. He did teach her to surf, and throughout her life, she was a keen and skillful surfer. John Papa I’i described one of her favorite surfing spots in Kohala:

Kekahau was a kama’aina [old-timer] of the place, and it was he who led Ka’ahumanu to the surf of Maliu . . . As the story goes, Ka’ahumanu and Kekakau swam or went by canoe to the spot where the surf rose. Before they left, Kekakau talked with the king about the nature of the surf and showed Ka’ahumanu the places to land, which would be signaled by the waving of a white tapa. If the tapa was moved to the right or to the left, she was to go to the side indicated before the sea rose up high and overwhelmed her. If the tapa was spread out, or perhaps wadded into a ball, the signal meant to go in on the middle of the wave.

Pololu and Other Valleys

Kohala pasture land
Kohala pasture land

I live in the small town of Kapa’au — population circa 1500 — in the far north of the Big Island of Hawai’i. It is fertile pasture land and rain forest, with a rocky coastline of high cliffs. It was the family land of the great Hawaiian king, Kamehameha I, who was born in 1752 by some accounts (there are many dates given for his birth as there was no written historical record until the early nineteenth-century) at ‘Upolu Point, where there is a large heiau, or temple, said to have been built by one of the Tahitian settlers of the eleventh century, a powerful priest named Pa’ao (the historian Nathaniel Emerson wrote that, “We have no proof that he was a cannibal. The times were perhaps not ripe for the development of this particular quintessence of paganism and heathenism.”)

There is a legend that during the pregnancy of Kamehameha’s mother, she wished to eat the eyeball of a chief (she was given the eye of a shark instead), an omen that the child she was carrying would one day become king. The night before his birth, a blazing streak passed across the sky, later thought to be Halley’s Comet (which would make his birthdate the winter of 1758). It was taken as another omen, as was the rain, thunder, and lightning that marked his birth. Because of these signs, certain ali’i (high chiefs) in the court of the child’s great uncle, King Alapa’inui of Hilo, conspired to kill the infant, saying the words, E ‘aki maka o ka lauhue. “Nip off the bud of the poison gourd.” This is a quote from the book, Ruling Chiefs of Hawai’i, by the nineteenth- century historian, Samuel Kamakau:

A numerous guard had been set to await the time of birth. The chiefs kept awake with the guards (for a time), but due to the rain and the cold, the chiefs fell asleep, and near daybreak Keku’iapoiwa went into the house and, turning her face to the side of the house at the gable end, braced her feet against the wall. A certain stranger was outside the house listening, and when he heard the sound of the last bearing-down pain…he lifted the thatch at the side of the house, and made a hole above. As soon as the child was born, [and] had slipped down upon the tapa spread to receive it, and Keku’iapoiwa had stood up and let the afterbirth…come away, [Naeole] covered the child in the tapa and carried it away. When the chiefs awoke they were puzzled at the disappearance of the child. Kohala was searched that day and houses burned.

Naeole, a chief of Kohala loyal to the child’s father, was pursued through the night and at last trapped, but he was allowed to keep the infant, and to become his kahu, or guardian. The two lived alone in the isolated ‘Āwini gulch of North Kohala, earning the boy the nickname, The Lonely One, until he was five years old, when he was taken to Hilo by his great-uncle to be raised at court, as befitted a royal chief.

Foundation of a heiau in the abandoned settlement of Haena, with steps marked by two lava rock posts leading to the platform.
Foundation of a heiau in the abandoned settlement of Haena, with steps marked by two lava rock posts leading to the platform

Pololu Valley, which is at the end of the road, is a much favored spot by tourists, not only because of its beauty, but because there is little else to see here (there are few beaches), especially if one is unaware of Kohala’s history. The location, even the existence of certain ancient trails, or the sites of rock platforms and terraces which once formed the foundations of heiau, or the freshwater mountain pools loved by Hawaiian queens and thus forbidden to commoners, are often kept secret, lest they be despoiled, or even viewed.

W.’s great great grandmother on the left, said to be a sorceress from Tahiti
W.’s great great grandmother (left), said to be a sorceress from Tahiti

I, too, am ignorant of the history of this ancient district, but in writing a book of non-fiction, Paradise of the Pacific, about Hawai’i that will be published this August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I have come to learn a small part of the history of this mysterious and beautiful place. My husband, W., descended from bird-catchers who in the eighteenth-century lived down the coast at Kamae’e in the district of North Hilo, has also taught me to see more than I would have ever discovered on my own.