Ho‘omana / Religion
The journey to the island of Kaho‘olawe begins seven miles across ‘Alalākeiki Channel at a small cove on the island of Maui. In the predawn darkness, a dozen men and women stand on the beach and hold hands in a circle beside their outrigger canoes. Their breath warms the air with a pule (prayer), followed by a chant to their ancestors, to the people who have crossed to Kaho‘olawe before them, and to the pantheon of native gods--Kū, Lono, Kāne, and Kanaloa. As they invoke guidance and strength, their words weave a cloak of spiritual protection to guard them in what could be a four-hour pull across the channel.
The name ‘Alalākeiki means the child’s wail, the sound even adults cry in the channel when high winds rush down the mountain slopes of Maui’s Haleakalā and churn the dark waters into a nightmare. In years past, two friends of the assembled group have perished in the channel, but no one at the cove is fearful this morning. The paddlers draw on each word offered to their ancestors--their ‘aumākua--and reaffirm their conﬁdence in weathering any storm.
Unless you go by helicopter, the passage across ‘Alalākeiki Channel is the primary way to reach Kaho‘olawe, a 28,000-acre island the U.S. Navy used for ﬁfty years for bombing practice. The federal government stopped shelling it in 1990 and four years later returned the island to the State of Hawai‘i. By then the upper third of the island had been devastated by the bombardment and by animals that had overgrazed the land before the bombing began. Unexploded ordnance made the rest of the island--already a parched desert habitat--too dangerous to cross on foot. Nonetheless, many Hawaiians considered it a blessing when the island was returned. For almost twenty years they had prayed and protested and negotiated to end the bombing.
During those two decades, Kaho‘olawe was more than a symbol of American abuse of the lands that had once sustained the people of the Hawaiian nation. During monthly “accesses” coordinated with the Navy, Kaho‘olawe became a sanctuary, a place where Hawaiians could be Hawaiian and revive and practice their religion far from judgmental eyes. Today, state law has decreed that the island shall be reserved for traditional Hawaiian uses, with no commercial activity.
When Craig Neff ﬁrst landed on the island, in 1983, two years after the Navy began to allow native access, he thought he knew what it meant to be Hawaiian. “When I was growing up, I was always locked into being Hawaiian. That was one thing I liked and I felt strong about. . . . I was listening to Hawaiian music. I tried to see things Hawaiian. . . . I thought walking around with your Hawaiian T-shirt, having one Hawaiian ﬂag on the back of your car, paddling, whatever, was making you Hawaiian. But when I went over to the island, it really hit me what being Hawaiian was.
“When you’re off [Kaho‘olawe], you don’t have to like the guy walking on the street because you don’t know him. But on the island, anybody walk by, you tell ’em ‘howzit’ or something like that. It’s a different feeling because you’re dependent on this person. If you get hurt, he has to do something to take care of you. It’s a different way of thinking.”
The ﬁrst time Craig visited Kaho‘olawe, the sun and stars shone in clear skies for three days. But on the last night, after he had taken part in a ceremonial walk across the island, after prayers and offerings to the god Lono, clouds moved over the island, and it rained and rained--live-giving rain for the thirsty land. “That’s what we were asking for, hoping for,” Craig remembered, “and we stayed up the whole night talking story ’cause it was just too wet to even sleep. And the next day it was a nice, beautiful day. . . . As we left the island . . . we had to swim out and jump on this big catamaran, and I looked back and I just started to cry, and I told the person who went over with me, ‘What I went through, that was one for the Hawaiians.’”
Afterward, Craig decided Kaho‘olawe was the place to be. “This is the key to get into what I was looking for. It wasn’t going around beating up people, or yelling at people . . . that’s not the goal of being Hawaiian. . . . [It was] going over [to Kaho‘olawe and helping to restore the island] and learning. . . . When I came back and seen O‘ahu, the streets and everything paved . . . [for the ﬁrst time] I could feel the ground under the asphalt just suffocating. It’s a living thing, and if you put concrete or asphalt over it, you’re killing, you’re suffocating it. I could feel that when I was driving on the road. . . . [Kaho‘olawe] and its people really changed the way I thought.”
Craig attended Kalani High School in east Honolulu during the 1970s, when the Navy bombardment of Kaho‘olawe was becoming a political and cultural issue. In 1976, Hawaiians formed an association, the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana, to try and stop the bombing; protesters landed on Kaho‘olawe, and the military arrested them for trespassing. During the next four years, the ‘Ohana persevered through repeated landings and arrests, protests, negotiations, and a court case. George Helm, the charismatic ‘Ohana leader, and his friend Kimo Mitchell disappeared in the rough seas of ‘Alalākeiki Channel while paddling from Kaho‘olawe to Maui. In 1980, the Navy granted the ‘Ohana a four-day monthly access to the island ten times a year--forty days all together--for religious, educational, and scientiﬁc activities; during an “access,” the military would suspend bombing.
The ‘Ohana wanted to perform religious ceremonies on Kaho‘olawe. Their elders advised them to go to the island, believe their ‘aumākua and gods, and call on the deities for help in restoring the island. At ﬁrst, it was a self-conscious effort. The ‘Ohana had to ﬁnd teachers--native kūpuna with living experiences healing the land; then they had to research, learn, and practice the rites for the annual Makahiki rituals, seeking to reenact the ceremonies as closely as contemporary realities allowed. Makahiki is the ancient four-month celebration of Lono, the god of fertility and agriculture. Traditionally, the season began in November; when Makali‘i, the Pleiades constellation, appeared in the night sky with the new moon, it was time for the chiefs to suspend war, collect tributes, and hold festivals with hula and physical competitions. For the ‘Ohana, the Makahiki became a time to rest and remember the past, plan for the future, and ask Lono’s help in restoring the island of Kaho‘olawe. But the consequences of the public ceremonies--the ﬁrst in more than a century--extended beyond Kaho‘olawe. The courage of the ‘Ohana led other Hawaiians to ignore criticism and incorporate religious rites from past generations into modern ceremonies. Their efforts reminded Hawai‘i that the ‘āina, the land, has a spiritual life force; it has cultural value that is perpetuated through love, respect, responsibility, and proper cultivation of food and medicinal plants.
Craig Neff’s ﬁrst visit to Kaho‘olawe was during a Makahiki access. “I just went over there to take pictures, hang out in the back, and I ended up in a malo in a ceremony.” The ceremony marked the beginning of Craig’s development as a religious person. Although his parents sent him to an Episcopal grammar school, they never forced Christianity on him, nor on his older brother and sister. Their Hawaiian father, Aaron, a former star athlete at Kamehameha Schools, worked as a supervisor for the city Parks Department, as did their mother, Hester, whose ancestors are Chinese. Craig grew up living at the back of Wailupe Valley in ‘Āina Haina. He graduated from Kalani High School in 1977, a large, tough teenager with a talent for art who also played football and basketball, and beat up a few haole along the way. “I don’t know if it was jealousy or what, but when you’re a small kid you just don’t like them. I guess every local kid at that time was brought up in the same situation: You didn’t like the tourist. Even the local haole, if he didn’t stand for what you thought was right, you just didn’t like them. That was just how I thought in those days. . . . A lot of people felt that way, still do, especially even now.”
Craig shared these thoughts while sitting on a lau hala mat that covered the ﬂoor of a one-bedroom unit that he and his wife share in the corner of a Mānoa Valley rooming house. Craig and Luana keep the tiny living room comfortable with minimal furniture: a backless pūne‘e couch and low brick-and-board shelves for books, photographs, television, a miniature stereo, and their stones. Canoe paddles stand against the walls, which are decorated with Craig’s framed sketches, including one of his wife. He parks his old white Volkswagen van alongside the building with the other tenants’ cars.
At ﬁrst, Craig spoke reluctantly; as a local boy, he’d rather “sit in the back, cross [his] arms, and listen.” Craig does not trust reporters, and when he heard at an ‘Ohana meeting that yet another writer wanted to visit Kaho‘olawe during a Makahiki ceremony, his eyes burned a warning that required no words.
“Reporters, photographers, videotape--it’s an evil. It’s a swear word,” Craig said with a laugh. “A lot of people come over [to Kaho‘olawe] and they tell you a good story. ‘Okay, we’re gonna help you. We’re with you. We like the Hawaiians.’ And then you open up, you show ’em something. Boom--next day, you see it [in the newspapers. We tell them,] ‘You’re not supposed to take those pictures; you’re not supposed to use that video.’ It’s misquoted. It’s used to further their capital gains, their money, their greed.”
After high school Craig took his passion about being Hawaiian to the University of Hawai‘i, eventually earning a degree in art while working full-time at night. There were few native students on campus during the 1980s, and he was one of only two in the art department. “I ﬁgured if I was going to [college] for that many years . . . I might as well do something I liked and had a talent for. . . . All my artwork was focused on Hawaiian. That’s how I learned a lot about my culture--doing a lot of research.”
Returning to Kaho‘olawe again and again was a different kind of education for Craig. “You can’t learn being a Hawaiian from a book. Yeah, a lot of people try, but being a Hawaiian is the way you think. Books aren’t reliable. They can’t actually show you or [give you] the feeling or explain it the same way. You have to live it.”
His involvement with the ‘Ohana evolved with each visit to Kaho‘olawe. He met a small group of men who had made a ﬁve-year commitment to being the mo‘o Lono, the priests responsible for religious protocol on the island. “Every time that I went I learned something, and I am sure they were just learning. It wasn’t like they were brought up in a system that taught this.”
One mo‘o Lono was ready to move on to other responsibilities after ﬁve years, and his friends approached Craig about taking his place. “It was a pretty big honor for me. . . . I didn’t ask any questions on how long I should do this commitment or what is the protocol on being a mo‘o Lono--what are the rules and regs on that. It ended up that I became a mo‘o Lono and kept going. We don’t want to exclude anybody. We’re there to teach people. If they want to learn, we really encourage that.”
“When you’re on island and you’re a mo‘o Lono, it doesn’t separate you from anybody. It’s just you’re the last link between you and Lono. You’re the one who has taken responsibility for the ceremony, the preparation for the ceremonies, . . . continuing the ceremony, and learning what you’re supposed to learn.”
The ‘Ohana conducts the opening and closing Makahiki ceremonies during two of its monthly accesses to Kaho‘olawe, in November and January. Generally, the accesses last four days; they begin Wednesday evening or in the early morning hours on Thursday. The ‘Ohana and up to eighty people leave Maui from Mā‘alaea Harbor or Mākena in ﬁshing boats, outrigger canoes, or tourist catamarans and cross ‘Alalākeiki Channel to Hakioawa Bay on Kaho‘olawe. They double-wrap their gear in trash bags sealed with duct tape. After the crossing, the boats anchor offshore and everyone transfers in small groups to a Zodiac to motor closer to the shorebreak. Then people jump into the surf and join a human chain passing bags and people to the beach. The ocean is cold in the darkness, and it sometimes breaks with a ferocity that reminds newcomers they could easily drown without the help of others, without conﬁdence in themselves, without an understanding of the ocean and the island.
For the next three nights, people camp near the beach, within an area the Navy has cleared of bombs. During most accesses, the ‘Ohana and its friends spend their days working on trails, erosion control, or projects such as building a pä--a hula platform. During the entire Makahiki season, the ‘Ohana focuses on honoring Lono. They trust him to provide gentle rains for the island to help turn it green again within their lifetimes.
Erosion is a major problem on Kaho‘olawe. Rainstorms continually wash exposed dirt into ravines and gullies, ﬂushing thirty tons of island soil into the ocean every year. The ‘Ohana once blamed the Navy’s bombing and military exercises for accelerating the island’s erosion. But the condition dates back to 1864 when the Kingdom of Hawai‘i stopped using the island as a penal colony and leased it as a cattle, sheep, and goat ranch. The goats had completely denuded the top third of the island by 1917. With minimal rainfall (less than twenty-ﬁve inches annually), the sun burned the exposed dirt into tough hardpan. When the Navy began an erosion control project in the 1980s, men used explosive charges to blast holes in the ground for planting trees. The Navy and the ‘Ohana have made progress planting the island with drought-resistant tamarisks and native plant species, and a desalinating unit provides fresh water for drinking and plants at the main camp. But every furrow in the raw earth is subject to winter rains, which erode the smallest groove into a gully, which becomes a gulch, and eventually a canyon. Except for areas cleared or approved by demolition squads, the Navy considers Kaho‘olawe unsafe because military planes and ships (and those of visiting allies) dropped live bombs all over the island during three decades of maneuvers and target practice. Many of the bombs fell onto the island without exploding and became obscured. As part of its agreement to return the island to the state, the federal government has promised $400 million to clear Kaho‘olawe of live shells and the many inert bombs subsequently dropped by the Navy.
The Navy had silenced its guns and jets around Kaho‘olawe by November 1989, when the ‘Ohana began its Makahiki access. About sixty people attended--two dozen university students who had been encouraged by their professors to visit the island; a video crew documenting the work of the ‘Ohana; three Sierra Club people interested in seeing the island; and three Native Americans from the Seventh Generation Fund, a California-based organization that grants money to projects beneﬁting Native Americans. Since 1980, about ﬁve thousand people have visited the island as guests. The Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana requires that, in addition to personal gear, everyone provides a ﬁve-gallon jug of water for drinking and cooking.
The water shortage and stories about bombing and erosion perpetuate the impression that Kaho‘olawe is a rock devoid of life. But after the midnight landing of the November 1989 contingent, sunrise revealed Hakioawa green with kiawe trees and grasses waist-high after the autumn rains. But at the same time the rain watered the island plants, it also bled topsoil down Hakioawa’s two gulches and into the shorebreak, which was red weeks after the rain clouds had passed.
At dawn on Thursday morning, there wasn’t time to linger in a sleeping bag, enjoying the fragrance of the island as the birds chirped good morning. Another boat had arrived, and folks needed help getting ashore. People pitched in to lug water containers and gear about ﬁve hundred yards from the beach to the main camp. Then the leaders called everyone together for breakfast and a review of the rules: Because of unexploded ordnance, no one could leave Hakioawa; volunteers were needed for cooking and cleanup; and attendance and participation in evening discussion groups were mandatory. The ﬁrst day, people set up camp. On Friday, they used rakes and machetes to clear brush and kiawe from the trails leading to a shrine and heiau at Hakioawa. On Saturday, the religious processions to the heiau would begin.
Ranching and restricted access ensured that some of the ancient sites on Kaho‘olawe were preserved long after urbanization had destroyed most of them on the other islands. The Navy allocated $500,000 and spent four years (between bombings) mapping 544 sites and 2,300 archaeological features. In 1981, the island was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Archaeologists believe Hawaiians used Hakioawa as the political and religious center on the island. Here, directly across from Maui, where canoes can beach easily, people of past generations built the largest number of sites, including a Hale O Papa heiau, now hidden among kiawe trees on the eroding north slope. On the opposite side, a ﬁshing shrine ﬁfty feet wide and terraced with stone walls climbs one hundred feet up a hillside. A single stone is situated on the middle terrace, surrounded by pebbles and bits of coral. Many ‘Ohana members believe the stone represents the god who, when properly fed and supplicated by worshippers, attracts ﬁsh--today as well as in times past. From the top terrace you can look out over Hakioawa Bay and across the channel to Haleakalā and the West Maui Mountains, the slopes green until they touch the coastline, which is crowded with hotels and condominiums.
The ‘Ohana allows both men and women to prepare the heiau and shrine for the Makahiki ceremonies. But only the mo‘o Lono, the men who devote themselves to the god Lono, conduct the formal ceremonies to the god. Women participate in the Lono rituals and, in addition, perform their own rites.
Efforts to restore the Hawaiian religion and the shrines of old have been difficult during the past ﬁfteen years. The Navy accused the ‘Ohana of revitalizing the Hawaiian religion on Kaho‘olawe as a means of securing legal access to the island. Some Hawaiians, like Craig Neff’s parents, could not understand what the young people were trying to do. Others dismissed the ‘Ohana as crazy activists and said küpuna would keep secret the traditional rituals in order to protect their children from the consequences of awakening old kapu. But a few elders--Harry Kunihi Mitchell, Emma DeFries, and Mary Lee--encouraged the ‘Ohana. Edith K. Kanaka‘ole, a Big Island kumu hula who had grown up with the native language and culture, urged ‘Ohana members to go to Kaho‘olawe during the Makahiki and perform the Lono rituals so the island would become green again. After she passed on, Aunty Edith’s daughters helped teach the ‘Ohana the traditional chants. Other people offered additional information. They gleaned what they could from books. All this, the ‘Ohana said, was an intermediate step while more Hawaiians learned to speak the language and live the culture. “We are not schooled in it,” an ‘Ohana leader told the students who had come to Kaho‘olawe for the ﬁrst time. “We have had ﬁfteen years of experience. We are learning as we are doing it. We do the best we can.”
In ancient times, at the beginning of Makahiki the Hawaiians resurrected an image of Lono from a place of refuge and carried it in procession clockwise around an island, stopping at every district boundary. Each community presented offerings to representatives of the high chief. The people were then free to celebrate the remainder of the festival season with competitions and games. This is difficult in the twentieth century, when work schedules and logistical problems in traveling around Kaho‘olawe force the ‘Ohana to modify its rituals. During the closing ceremony, in January, Lono’s image is carried across the middle of the island to the westernmost point, Lae O Kealaikahiki, the place where long-ago voyages to Kahiki, the ancestral homeland, began. At sunset the ‘Ohana launches the Lono image in a ceremonial canoe ﬁlled with offerings. These will accompany the god on the journey to Kahiki until fall, when he returns. The ‘Ohana then hikes back to Hakioawa for two days of Makahiki games, discussion, and personal reﬂection before returning to their lives across the channel.
Since the ‘Ohana revived Makahiki on Kaho‘olawe in 1981, vegetation on the island has increased. The Navy has exterminated the goats, and the water table has risen. “When I was [ﬁrst] going,” Craig said, “people were laughing at us. ‘No way they gonna stop the island bombing. No way you gonna get that island back.’ But look--the bombing has stopped; [the island has returned]. . . . From when I started to where it is now, we’ve added to our [religious] procession, to our protocol. We’ve added chants, and along with us growing, we can see the island growing. . . . The island is far from being what it’s supposed to be, but you can see small changes that are occurring; certain areas are greener. Just the repetition of doing [the Makahiki] every year, of doing that pule, of doing that commitment and the island seeing it; it’s gotta have something to do with what’s happening there.”
The day before the November Makahiki ceremony, Craig Neff and the other men cleaned and cleared Hale Mua, the ﬁshing shrine, using machetes, sickles, and a chain saw. Their vigor would have horriﬁed archaeologists concerned about disturbing anything at the shrine, including the offerings of ‘opihi shells and coral branches scattered across the terrace tops. But to the mo‘o Lono, Hale Mua lives and requires caretaking the same way holy people prepare churches for Easter and temples for Yom Kippur. The chain saw cut through a kiawe limb hanging over a wall, and the limb fell, knocking down some stones. The men hauled away the branch and repaired the wall. Higher up, others cleared kiawe and grass from the upper terrace, where a retaining wall had collapsed. The mo‘o Lono decided to use the scattered stones to rebuild the wall and level the terrace for the lele, an altar they made from poles of lama wood. The men carried the lele up from a lower terrace where previous Makahiki offerings had been made. “Gotta keep moving up,” Craig said as he secured the altar.
The men perspired in the heat of the sun, sweat dripping into their eyes as they hauled away the kiawe and tried to avoid the thorns, which scratched their bodies and poked through their rubber slippers. Most of the men ﬁnished the work as they had begun it--quietly and thoroughly. As they left, Hale Mua absorbed the afternoon sun falling full upon the stones, and the cool dry November air blew uninterrupted across the terraces.
After clearing the shrine and the pathway to it, most of the newcomers drifted off to rest at their various camps set up along the beach and among the trees at Hakioawa. Clearing kiawe and ﬁghting erosion is hard work. The ‘Ohana hopes the young people will become committed to protecting Kaho‘olawe as a Hawaiian sanctuary for future generations. “The people that are committed are the people who come back,” Craig said. “You gotta make an effort. If you have a job, if you have a family, you have to make time and get over there, and that’s the commitment. It’s hard. Sometimes it’s real hard. It’s life threatening just to get on the island. You gotta be willing to go through that and . . . you have to take care of yourself there and be responsible for people who are being on access at that time.”
Before each Makahiki officially begins, the ‘Ohana asks everyone on-island to participate in an ocean puriﬁcation ceremony, called hi‘uwai. The ceremony usually takes place before dawn, but the ‘Ohana decided to hold the November 1989 hi‘uwai after dinner Friday night. The puriﬁcation began with the sounding of the pū, a conch-shell trumpet, in the darkness. It signals kapu, and silence must be maintained. By the light of the moon and stars, people silently crossed the sand and lined up on the beach to receive from a mo‘o Lono a sip of water mixed with limu kalawai, a freshwater algae symbolizing forgiveness, and ‘ōlena, a ginger root, for cleansing. Then, wearing swimsuits or nothing at all, they waded into the cold shorebreak and immersed in the sea.
The next time the pū sounded, ending the kapu, the people would celebrate by shouting the name of the god, “Lono-i-ka-Makahiki.” Until then, many arms and legs tensed and curled up for warmth against the ocean chill, as people waited for their minds to relax and their bodies to ﬂoat in rhythm with the sea. The water washes away ill and negative feelings, the sins and wrongs known as hewa. And with puriﬁcation comes peace. It was a peace too brief for some; the pū sounded and people cheered “Lono-i-ka-Makahiki” as they splashed through the water, hugging one another. A bonﬁre was lit on the beach, and people huddled close to warm themselves and watch sparks ﬂoat up to the stars. In the blazing ﬁrelight, their eyes glowed with happiness.
Puriﬁed by the ocean and warmed by the ﬁre, everyone went to their camps to dress. They returned to the beach when the pū announced it was time for the procession to place offerings to Lono in the imu, an underground oven. Earlier, ‘Ohana members had prepared ti-leaf bundles of ﬁsh, pig, ‘awa, kalo, breadfruit, banana, coconut, and sweet potato--all sacred to the god. For this Makahiki, the ‘Ohana had selected ten men and ten women to carry the offerings. After cooking the ti-leaf bundles in the imu Friday night, they would remove the offerings and rewrap them in fresh ti leaves before Saturday’s predawn Makahiki ceremonies at the Hale O Papa heiau and Hale Mua, the ﬁshing shrine. Then, after an arduous hike to the top of the island, the ‘Ohana would present one more set of offerings to Lono at another lele at Pu‘u Moa‘ulaiki.
For the imu procession, the ‘Ohana dressed the ten men and ten women in simple unbleached muslin. The men wore malo and stood in a column to the left; the women were in kīkepa on the right. Two spearsmen, also barefoot and in malo, separated them from the crowd. The mo‘o Lono stood before the presenters, their bodies bare except for the muslin malo that covered their loins. One of them carried the image of Lono, which was raised high above the procession on a tall, wooden pole, its crosspiece festooned with kapa, feathers, and ferns. The men selected to blow pū preceded Lono’s image, the sound of their conch shells trumpeting through the darkness, announcing the god’s return to Kaho‘olawe.
The procession moved slowly beneath the full moon. It crossed the beach and the dry streambed, moved up the slope through the main camp and beneath the kiawe grove, past Ka‘ie‘ie, the pā for hula, to the imu. Each presenter silently handed a ti-leaf bundle to a mo‘o Lono, who passed it to another, then to another, until the last one placed it among the roasting stones in the imu. When all the offerings rested inside, the mo‘o Lono covered the imu with burlap and dirt, and the cooking began.
The people returned to the main camp, where ‘Ohana leaders reminded everyone to remove jewelry and watches before the early morning procession, and urged them to wear only a kīkepa or malo. The ceremonies would begin at the beach, and together the people would walk to Hale O Papa and then on to Hale Mua, the shrine on the other side of Hakioawa.
The sound of the pū echoed through the camp before sunrise, and soon the procession set out as it had the night before, in silence. The awakening birds sang, and a young man beat cadence on a pūniu, a small drum made from a ﬁshskin-wrapped coconut shell. People picked up the rhythm of the pūniu as they walked barefoot over the ﬁne, dry soil of Hakioawa.
The procession reached the edge of Hale O Papa, and the spear bearers separated the ‘Ohana from the ten men and ten women carrying the offerings. One by one, pairs of presenters--a man and a woman--approached the ﬁrst mo‘o Lono and handed him their bundles of food. As before, he passed the offerings to the next mo‘o Lono in line, who passed them to another, and so on until the offerings reached the top level and were placed on the lele. The mo‘o Lono had built this altar with lama, an endemic wood whose name suggests enlightenment. They had adorned the platform with long green ti leaves, a plant sacred to Lono; the leaves hung motionless in the still, morning air. Peering through the kiawe, the assembly watched as the offerings were passed upward from hand to hand. Then everyone intoned a chant they had practiced the day before:
E hō mai ka ‘ike mai luna mai e
I nā mea huna no‘eau o nā mele e
E hō mai--e hō mai--e hō mai.
The people repeated the verse, gaining conﬁdence, giving the message strength as the sound of their voices rose into the trees. By the third and ﬁnal recitation, all of Hakioawa rang with the petition, which asked for the wisdom and secrets of the deities.
The mo‘o Lono completed the offering with another chant, “Kihapai o Lono,” written for them by Nalani Kanakaole. This chant is translated only for those who attend the Makahiki rituals.
E ke akua
E ke akua ao loa
E ke akua ao poko
E ke akua i ka wai ola a Kāne
I ke kai ola o Kanaloa
I ke ao ‘eka‘eka o Lono
Kūkulu ka ipu ‘eka‘eka o Lono
Hō mai ka ipu lau makani o Lono
Ia hiki mai ka ua o Lono
Ho‘oulu ke ea
Ho‘oulu ke kupu
Ho‘oulu ka wai nape i ke kama o Ho‘ohōkūkalani
Ia hiki mai ke ala a Makali‘i i kahikina
Eia ka ‘awa i lani
‘Awa i Ku, ‘awa i Hina
Eia ke kupu pua‘a
Eia ke kalo o Lono
Eia ke kupu ‘āweoweo
Eia ke kupu kinolau
Ko hānai ia ke akua mai ka lani nui a Wākea
Ko hānai ia nä akua o kona hanauna hope
Ho‘oulu mai ke kupu o ka ‘äina
A ua noa--a ua noa--a ua noa.
The assembled group stepped back to allow the Lono image, his priests, and those who had borne the god’s offerings to lead the procession back down the path toward the streambed. In the predawn shadows, the rhythm of the pūniu guided them across Hakioawa to the ﬁshing shrine.
As the sun rose above the horizon, the group repeated their ceremony. The mo‘o Lono passed the second set of offerings from hand to hand up the terraces to the top, where they were placed on the altar. When the assembly and mo‘o Lono ﬁnished chanting, the morning kapu ended, and the people cheered the god’s name, “Lono-i-ka-Makahiki,” over and over again, until it became a greeting as they embraced one another. The ﬁrst two ceremonies had gone well; it was time to prepare for the ﬁnal one.
Most people changed into hiking clothes and ﬁlled their day packs with water bottles and lunch, preparing for a three-hour trek in the sun. The ‘Ohana intended to hold the ﬁnal opening rite for Makahiki at noon on the island summit called Moa‘ulaiki, which is nearly ﬁfteen hundred feet above sea level. Navy officials had cleared ordnance from the path up the mountain, and although many people had walked it since, the military insisted that four Navy demolition experts follow the procession, “just in case.” The Lono image preceded the group, a reminder that the journey is a religious procession, but laughter and conversations distracted the newcomers from the steep ascent. It was too steep for several elderly visitors, who returned to the main camp exhausted after ten minutes of hiking. Sun and exertion drained the rest. Sweaty and fatigued, many of them stopped periodically for water and to ease their straining hearts and lungs, weakened by life beyond Kaho‘olawe. The only shade came from Lono’s pole; the earth along the way has been baked into a red shell as hard as concrete, too tough for any trees to grow in.
As the procession pushed on, past the few plants that manage to survive in pockets of soil here and there, the people participating for the ﬁrst time received another message from Kaho‘olawe: You may come here, the island seemed to say, and you may help me, but remember as you gasp for breath and water that you must also care for yourself and one another; like the handful of plants that endure on this slope, only strong Hawaiians will survive the erosion taking place beyond my shores. Only the strongest will have the strength to make my slopes bloom again. “It’s a life and death situation,” Craig said. “If someone gets hurt, you can’t just call up 911 and the ambulance is gonna pick you up. You’re really dependent on everyone there to take care of each other.”
The group reached the plateau, from which people expected to see Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i, Hawai‘i, and Maui in the distance. But a volcanic fog, or “vog,” drifting north and west from an eruption in Puna on the Big Island had ﬂoated across the channel. It had draped a cloak around all the islands, even Molokini, a tiny islet only three miles away. Some people look for supernatural signs when they go to Kaho‘olawe: Is a rock going to ﬂoat? Will the whales come in? Was the vog Pele’s way of kissing the island with her breath to obscure Kaho‘olawe and protect the Makahiki from the outside world? Craig did not remember the vog afterward. “Some people overreact, but you know that’s ﬁne. . . . You get more in tune with what you’re thinking about, what you’re seeing [when you’re on island]. . . . It’s real simple things. It’s just really going [with] what your gut feeling is. That’s a real hard thing to do for some people. It’s your logic against your feeling of what should you do. But if you go with your feeling always, you’re always gonna be right up there.”
Near the mountain summit the naval escort retreated, the presenters changed into their malo and kīkepa, and the procession reformed. Craig and a group of mo‘o Lono advanced up Moa‘ulaiki to prepare the lele for offerings. While waiting for the pü to sound and announce kapu for this, the ﬁnal ascent, the young Hawaiians visiting the island for the ﬁrst time joked and laughed among themselves. Then the pū signaled that Lono was returning to another place of honor, and the procession, silent except for the beat of the pūniu, moved up to the second highest point on Kaho‘olawe. The summit is home to a bell stone, which people rang in centuries past to call the island’s inhabitants together. A heiau set in place generations ago still stands, and Hawaiians gather here, as their ancestors did, to learn celestial navigation.
From the top, newcomers in the group looked down for the ﬁrst time onto another plateau below them, a site formerly used by the Navy for bombing practice. They saw twelve acres of hardpan, which the Navy is trying to restore to healthy grasslands, and a nearby forest; a stand of ﬁfty-three thousand drought-resistant tamarisk trees has been planted nearby. The ‘Ohana has built rain catchments to water indigenous plants on the hillsides and gulches below. Gradually, efforts to take advantage of the life-giving gift of rain and to minimize its destructive erosion are taking effect.
As the noon sun poured through a break in the vog and a breeze stirred the dry grass and cooled the group, the twenty men and women repeated their ritual offerings. During the few peaceful moments before the chants and cries of “Lono-i-ka-Makahiki,” it seemed that the climb to Moa‘ulaiki had enabled some of these people to truly feel and see the island as their ancestors had known it and, in doing so, had made them one with Kaho‘olawe.
Afterward, men and women who had journeyed to Kaho‘olawe before pointed out landmarks to the newcomers, calling the bays, coves, hills, beaches, and valleys by name: Pu‘u Mōiwi--the hilltop where people in centuries past quarried stone for adzes; Kealaikahiki--where the ‘Ohana holds ceremonies in January to mark the end of Makahiki; Honokoa cove, Honokanaea beach, Ahupū gulch; and the island’s original name, Kohe Mālamalama o Kanaloa--the shining refuge of the ocean god Kanaloa. Young Hawaiians learned how these places got their names. They heard the history of the island. These people who had never before set foot on Kaho‘olawe added knowledge to their feelings and began to understand the life that existed before the island became a ranch, then a U.S. Naval Reservation.
After the procession returned to Hakioawa, the mo‘o Lono and ‘Ohana leaders sat on the beach to hold private discussions. Different people have different opinions about the ceremonies taking place on Kaho‘olawe. In the past, protocol has changed to meet the limitations of a speciﬁc access. Puriﬁcation ceremonies in the ocean have taken place at varying times--before dawn, before midnight, or in the evening. Some people want to see traditional ceremonial conduct more strictly enforced. Others want to see women in the role of mo‘o Lono. As with all religions, the worshippers here have differing perceptions of their gods. One woman believes if she does not worship and feed her gods every day, they will consume her. Another believes that all gods, including Lono, lead to one supreme deity who watches over everyone, regardless of whether people use the name Akua, God, Allah, or Jehovah.
“For us who are in today’s society, we don’t have all the [ceremonial] answers,” Craig said. “We cannot go to somebody and ask them what the correct way is. We have to research. We have to ask a lot of people. Everybody has a different opinion of what went on, and our ceremony is not exactly as it would be in our ancestors’ days, because of the circumstances that we are under. . . . Half of the people are gonna agree with you and half might not. You can’t worry about the roadblock, you just gotta keep moving forward.”
The last night on the island, everyone sat in a circle and shared his or her impressions and feelings about the trip to Kaho‘olawe. Participation in this kūkākūkā is mandatory, and newcomers usually talk about their changed perception of the island. On this particular night, some ‘Ohana members were angry. They had been videotaped during Friday night’s puriﬁcation ceremony and the dawn procession on Saturday. They believe videotaping violates the kapu. They want people to experience the island ﬁrsthand. Sitting in a room on another island and watching a tape, they say, dulls the Kaho‘olawe experience and the goals of the ‘Ohana.
The ‘Ohana had granted permission for a documentary to be produced about the island. The person with the video camera, a Hawaiian, said he felt compelled to tape the rituals so more people could see the native religion being practiced. That, he said, was more important than the objections of a few people who regarded it as an invasion of privacy.
The ‘Ohana later decided to exclude the controversial scenes from the documentary, but disagreement about the taping is just one of several conﬂicts that surface in discussions about native religion. Some Hawaiians oppose worship of the old gods, and others--including orthodox traditionalists--are critical of certain aspects of the ‘Ohana protocol that they consider too “Christian.”
During the kūkākūkā, Chris Peters listened to the arguments and thought about disagreements and conﬂict being an inherent part of religion. Chris was one of three Native Americans visiting Kaho‘olawe from the Seventh Generation Fund. He graduated from Stanford University with a master’s degree and made a commitment to help indigenous people foster their traditional customs. But he ran into opposition. The U.S. Supreme Court denied his tribe’s petition to prevent the construction of a logging road through pristine forest where members of the tribe went for puriﬁcation ceremonies. Tribal elders questioned Chris and other young people about their reasons for reviving ceremonies no one had practiced in ﬁfty years. Why, some elders asked, did the young people want to go back to the Stone Age?
Chris said Christianity has not helped all Native Americans cope with the abuse they suffer nor with modern American life in general. Many people need the old rituals to revive and restore their spirits. Although more tribes are performing the old ceremonies, people attack the reconstructed rituals--as in Hawai‘i with the ‘Ohana--for not being true to the past. Chris believes they are true for those who participate in them. If the rituals are stopped, “You stop their believing. You kill them. . . . In some places, it is just a memory. It is past. It is no longer practiced. This,” Chris said, gesturing toward the Hakioawa base camp where people laughed together as they prepared dinner, “is life.”
A prominent Hawaiian scholar dismisses the ‘Ohana as a minority of a minority--weekend Lono worshippers who put on malo and kīkepa and chant memorized lines because they think that is what their ancestors did. The scholar sees Hawaiians becoming true to their culture only when they conduct themselves with a native consciousness every moment of their lives, particularly when they cope with the Westernized Hawai‘i that awaits them beyond Kaho‘olawe. And that, he said, requires a commitment few people are capable of making.
Craig has formulated his own ideas about Hawaiian worship. “The island knows who [we] are, and the island knows what [our] intent is in being there, and when you talk on that island, it hears you and it knows what you’re about . . . not just the island, the kūpuna who are there, your ancestors if they’re there, your ‘aumākua if they’re there. They know it’s not something you turn off and on. Nowadays, you say ‘aloha ‘āina,’ it’s a buzz word. . . . For me aloha ‘āina is just caring for not only the land but for everything around you. It’s the ocean. It’s the trees. It’s the air. It’s everything, and treating it as if it’s a living thing. It’s not dirt. It’s not a rock. . . . It’s another form of life. It lives. It grows. It dies. Just like you. And if you take care of it, it’s gonna take care of you. . . . I don’t care what religion you are, you don’t have to believe in what I believe. It’s a different road . . . but the concept of aloha ‘āina, or caring for the land, is a real simple thing. When you go back to your own home, that’s the only thing you have to practice.”
This is the philosophy that guides Craig as one of two ‘Ohana representatives on the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission. The commission is responsible for overseeing the ten-year cleanup project for Kaho‘olawe, for which the federal government has appropriated $400 million. The Navy shares access control with the commission, and the state has agreed eventually to transfer responsibility for the island to a sovereign Hawaiian entity.
The responsibility is enormous. Although state law reserves Kaho‘olawe for traditional Hawaiian uses and outlaws any commercial activity there, Maui ﬁshermen are already challenging the law by ﬁshing the island’s waters and harvesting valuable ‘opihi (limpets) from the shoreline. Other people see possibilities for proﬁt in retreat centers and wilderness excursions. Preserving the island as a wahi pana (special place) and pu‘uhonua (sanctuary) where traditional and contemporary native culture can be practiced in safety is a challenge. “One thing I learned,” Craig said. “Whatever you do, if you don’t do it right, it will come back to [haunt] you.”
Making repeated journeys to Kaho‘olawe helped Craig decide to give up his job at the Ala Wai Golf Course. He now focuses full-time on custom silkscreening for others and designing native images for clothing printed under his logo, The Hawaiian Force. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t quit; you’ll regret it.’ Especially my mom. For her, you work for the city, you put in your thirty [years], you got your beneﬁts, you got everything. But for me, I thought about it a lot, and I prayed on it, and I’m just going with my feelings.”
Whenever Craig Neff gets a chance, he goes to Kaho‘olawe to refocus. “When you go there, you’re not inﬂuenced by the car going by, by the radio; you can really concentrate on what’s around you,” Craig said. “You just look around and you can actually see a stone that was put there by a Hawaiian, by your ancestors, many years ago, a long time back, and it hasn’t been moved. It hasn’t been destroyed. It hasn’t been inﬂuenced or tainted by anything. . . . You can feel the mana around you in that area, what it was used for. If it was bad mana, you feel bad mana. If it was used for something good, you feel good mana.
“You can’t learn being a Hawaiian from a book,” repeated Craig. “A lot of people try, but being a Hawaiian is the way you think. . . . It’s your values and what you do every day. . . . See, Hawaiians didn’t have a real word for religion because it wasn’t something that you turned off and you turned on, and you did on Sunday and you turned it off and you went home. It was a life-style. It’s every day you live. It’s everything you do. That’s your religion. That’s your life.”