Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Sacred and the Profound

With the first lane of the new Wailua cane haul bridge opening, following a blessing by Rev. Ipo Kahaunaele-Ferreira and coinciding with a weather forecast for heavy rain, lightning and even hail, it seems an appropriate time to revisit an article I first published in Honolulu Weekly on Aug. 4, 2010.

There was a period, last November, when unremitting lightning brought day to the night skies over windward Kauai, as thunder boomed, cracked and rolled. Brisk winds swept in rains so heavy and insistent that streets ponded, mud slid and streams rose, flooding buildings, forcing evacuations, closing bridges and breaking water lines. When it was over, Mayor Bernard Carvalho surveyed the damage and issued a disaster proclamation.

The dramatic display by the elements coincided–though Kumu Hula Kehaulani Kekua would say it was no coincidence — with an aha hoano, a sacred ceremony, that she and other cultural practitioners were engaged in at the mouth of the Wailua River, whose source is Waialeale, the wettest spot on Earth. Every hour on the hour, from noon on Nov. 13, 2009, to noon the following day, they carried out a set practice of protocol with the intent, Kekua said, of “petitioning the natural world, the ancestors, the guardians, the gods, who are still much alive and real. When you recognize that, and make that connection, profound things happen.”

The site of the vigil, which remained calm and dry as the storm raged around it, was not selected at random. Instead, it was chosen both to call upon its inherent cosmological powers and call attention to the construction projects that some feel are intruding too heavily upon it. The aha hoano was conducted as a culturally based response to those threats, a deliberate attempt to bring the sacred and the profound into the debate over development.

“Wailua is one of the two most important places on Kauai and one of the most sacred places in Hawaii,” Kekua said recently, as we sat at a breezy picnic table overlooking the Wailua River as it emptied into the ocean, our backs to the Aloha Kauai Beach Hotel, not far from where the aha hoano was held some six months before. “It was the birthplace of alii, a religious center, while Waimea, on the other side of the island, was the political center. It has a high concentration of major heiau [sacred structures] still in existence and many moolelo–stories, myths and legends — that take place here. In the ancient chants and hula, even the gods and goddesses entered Kauai through Wailua.
“I’ve come to see Wailua as important not only for Kauai, but all of Hawaii, and it has to do with where it is and what it’s aligned to,” she explained. “When you look at all the heiau, from makai all the way up to the top of Waialeale, they represent conduits to higher sources of mana and power that our ancestors clearly understood. They knew how to manipulate the elements through practices of prayer, meditation and ceremony.

“Each of the heiau has a specific function, protocol and ceremony, and they were all strategically chosen by kuhikuhi puu one, which means one who points to the sand dunes. They were master architects who chose where sacred sites and temples are constructed, and it all has to do with alignment with the different cosmic movements in the heavens.

“Wailua is on the eastern end of an east-west corridor, directly opposite the Waimea district. Wailua is a portal. The sun, moon, stars, all rise here, and the heiau all correlated with that. This kind of understanding is global. Native peoples everywhere understand the importance of pulling in that mana, that energy, from the heavens.”

Although some of the heiau have been damaged since Western contact, even reduced to mere skeletal remains, Kekua said Wailua has lost none of its power.

“It’s not necessarily the structure, it’s the place, the land upon which these heiau were built,” she said. “No matter if it’s scattered or fully restored, it still has the mana; it’s still sacred. Our job as kumu is to perpetuate and animate the mana of these places today.”

As we spoke, we heard the steady shush-shush of surf hitting sand, the steady clang-clang of hammers hitting metal; the clatter of wind-touched palm fronds, the whirring of a giant mechanical crane. Over the past year, the Wailua corridor has been greatly disrupted by a major construction project that calls for widening an old cane haul bridge across the river and adding a fourth lane to Kuhio Highway where it runs between Wailua Bay and the decaying Coco Palms Resort.
Especially controversial was a county plan to build a boardwalk for a bike path across the beach itself, which would involve drilling augers into the sand and perhaps disturbing burials. Mayor Bernard Carvalho eventually agreed to move the path slightly mauka, straddling the highway shoulder and crest of the dune, but many remained opposed to the path, the projects and the process.

Native Hawaiians claimed federal, state and county agencies had not properly consulted with them before proceeding, and that environmental and archaeological reviews were rushed, inadequate and segmented so as to avoid considering the cumulative effects of the various projects. Waldeen Palmeira, a Native Hawaiian and Wailua resident, mounted a pro se legal challenge against the state Department of Transportation to halt the work, but did not prevail.

“The judge said the area has long been impacted,” Kekua recalled. “We realize that, but now we’re at a place where as Native Hawaiians we can speak against it. When they put the railroad in back in the 1920s, Hawaiians had zero voice to speak out. What has happened in the past should not provide an excuse in this 21st century when we have laws that are supposed to protect our iwi kupuna and our ancestors.

“We’ll always be at a disadvantage fighting the fight in a Western system,” Kekua said, which is why she and others chose to conduct the aha hoano. “The only way I personally feel comfortable about going up against these issues is in a very Hawaiian way–to gain more knowledge about the place, and nurture and strengthen one’s connection with that place, culturally and spiritually, through the ceremonies, the pule, the chants to the original gods and ancestors. Because they hold the mana, which is why the iwi in the land are so important.

“It has to do with burying the kupuna strategically along the coastal areas, facing the horizon, so they’re able to continue their own migrations into the spiritual realms, where life continues,” Kekua explained. “The manao [thinking] of politicians and developers is just move the bones, but the mana, the spirit, lives in the bones. It’s not a one-way trip; it’s a cyclical movement, which is why Hawaiians feel obligated to protect the iwi kupuna. When we hala, die, we leave our bodies, but in places like Wailua, that are sacred portals, our ancestors can always come back and we can mingle with our kupuna. Now days we are accused of using the word sacred as an excuse to deter or stop any form of development, which is not true. I do see all land as sacred, and some places as more sacred than others.

“In a very messed up way, when they encroach upon and pave over sacred burial places, like this one, it doesn’t cut off that mana completely, but it makes the connection much more difficult. The pule become even more important because you have to work much harder to make the connection, and unfortunately, a lot of people give up. Many have disconnected from the traditional practices. As a Native Hawaiian, I believe it’s our responsibility to continue them, even in these modern times, because sacred places are only in history books unless you’re practicing.”

Kekua became fascinated with Wailua as a very young child, when she listened with rapt attention to the stories that her grandparents told about the far-reaching significance of the place. Her grandmother, Kumu Hula Helen Kaipuwai Kekua Waiau, taught her hula and chants about the region, as well as legends that recounted its ancient history. In the summertime, she often rode her bicycle from the family home in nearby Kapaa to the sandy beach fronting Wailua Bay.
“For Kauai, Wailua was a major attraction for visitors and I grew up around it,” she recalled. “My grandfather was a musician, and he played at the different hotels. But there were very few hotels. Tourism was pretty controlled back then, and people didn’t just go out on their own. They were taken to various sites by Native Hawaiian tour guides who were born and raised here, who knew the stories and didn’t have to make things up.”

As she grew into adulthood and was appointed by her grandmother to carry on the family lineage as a kumu hula in her own right, Kekua observed with some concern the development-driven changes that were occurring on Kauai, first slowly, in the 1970s, then picking up speed in the ’80s.

“People were arriving with different values and lifestyles,” she recalled. “With the advent of rental cars, tourists went off on their own and began to impact different places. The guidebooks exposed sacred and hidden places, and before you knew it, the whole island and its sacred places were infiltrated by curious visitors. I began to worry about those significant places.

“But ‘progress’ didn’t stop,” she continued. “We started getting more visitors, more roads, more businesses started by [mainland] transplants who began to exploit the island, its sensitive places, its sacred places. All of that has contributed to what we’re seeing in Wailua today.

“And at the foundation of all this is 200 years of a suppressed culture with native people needing to assimilate into a Western culture and a Western mindset and set aside the cultural practices to work three or four jobs to support their families and try and survive in a time when it was just not cool to be Hawaiian.”

As a result, Kekua said, many ancient cultural practices came to be seen as old-fashioned, superstitious, even evil–a view reinforced by Christian religions.
As kumu hula of Halau Palaihiwa O Kaipuwai, the hula school her grandmother founded in 1945, Kekua seeks to erode that perception, loosen the stranglehold of Western mindset, Western culture. Although she offers formal instruction in dance and chant, hers is not a performing halau, or one that participates in hula competitions. Kekua, a self-professed proud pagan, instead emphasizes the traditional study of Hawaiian protocol and cultural perspectives, including beliefs that revere nature as a living being.

“Hula is much more than dancing,” she said. “It’s about maintaining the life-giving source. All of the ancient practices have to do with nature. They hold you accountable to that resource in nature that you access and take from. The rituals and practices are how we give back and replenish nature, and there’s nothing spooky about that.

“When I teach halau, I have absolutely no inhibitions. Nothing keeps me from speaking to the sacred and the profound. I have amazing trust and confidence in the power of the land and the gods and the ancestors. That’s been a major support system for dealing with all of this,” she said, making a sweeping gesture toward the bustle of construction at the Wailua Bridge. “It’s sad that even with the 24-hour vigil and the animation of the elements–the rain, the flooding, the washed out beaches at Wailua — that people see that as coincidental.”

Others, including Kekua and her students, saw it as a life-shifting experience. “During the entire 24 hours, when Kauai was literally rocking and rolling with the elements, this area remained dry. It was like we were in a bubble. We could see the wind pushing the rain, we could observe the river flooding, trees and picnic tables floating by, and literally yards away we were warm, comfortable and protected.

“At midnight we chanted the kumulipo and the lightning and thunder were so synchronized. While we were beating on the pahu here, the heavens were holding the same rhythm and timing, even the crackling of the lighting. I’ve never experienced anything like that. We came away from this energized, inspired, motivated and totally convinced the natural world guides and directs our well-being.”

During the vigil, Kekua said, she was given “a guidance and direction to teach and share the history of the sacred and profound about Wailua,” prompting her to launch a nine-month public lecture series on Wailua that concludes with the fall equinox next month. Topics have included its heiau, fresh water resources and cosmological significance. “Every month I’m learning to see Wailua from different perspectives,” she said. “It’s been humbling.”

Although construction was not halted as a result of the vigil, Kekua remains convinced that petitioning the gods did have an effect, and that such practices reflect a culturally based approach to activism.

“I haven’t given up hope for Wailua,” she said. “Sometimes what appears to be a lost battle is really not. It’s an illusion. The natural world will always shift things back into balance. Some of the development, unfortunately, we’ll have to live with. But in no way, shape or form should it stop us from elevating the sacredness of Wailua.

“When I look at the development in Wailua, when I see the greed, the carelessness, the irreverence for nature and other life forms, it saddens me, because humanity will suffer as a result,” said Kekua, her eyes brimming with tears. “I always pule for a shift in consciousness, that people will be reconnected somehow. We need to be fully conscious of the decisions that we make, because the power of this land will hold us accountable.”

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