Fleshing out Hawaii’s bones: hula, lava, and mahu

In my early 20s, when I was living in Boston, I had a dream about my home town. I dreamed that I was on a black sand beach in Hilo, but ash and rock fell all around me. I tried to run to save myself, but I couldn’t run fast enough — and I heard a voice speaking, and it came from the falling rock. “Your father is in my protection,” the voice said. “He is doing my work.”

I remember the dream still, because whether or not the dream held any truth, my father’s work was, in fact, Madam Pele’s work.

The work that Dr. Fred Stone did was this: he explored and surveyed many, many of the lava tubes in Hawaii, so that they could be protected from development and saved for future Hawaiians. He took me on these journeys with him during my years growing up in Hilo, under the land and deep into its veins, stepping where only the Hawaiians stepped before us.

When I went back to Hilo in March, I didn’t expect the flood of emotion I’d get from seeing a place that had not been very welcoming to me as a white-looking happa (half Asian, half white) girl. There was something about returning home that touched an uncomfortable spot in my heart. Although I never felt especially welcomed in Hilo by anyone I grew up with in the ’80s, the very shape of the land snapped into place inside of me like something I never knew I missed.

Nowadays I understand better why the local people have so much anger toward Haoles. The land itself was wrested from Hawaiians by a group of greedy plantation owners in the late 1800s (I wrote more about it here); men who held Queen Lili’uokalani captive at the cannon-point of an American ship until she stepped down from power. Hawaii’s statehood is within the lifetime memory of the Tutus of the land, and native Hawaiians’ anger at their disenfranchisement still burns today.

But I spent much of my childhood inside of the lava veins of Hawaii with my father, walking through the dark ways, guided by the strewn kukui nuts left by the Hawaiians long ago (little nuts full of oil, half burnt, lying on the floors of the lava tubes, the Hawaiians’ tiny candles in the dark places). I walked those paths and around the burnt shells, and occasionally I’d see the bones of the people they’d left there — caves are a place of kapu, a holy place and an underground highway, and I was only allowed to walk there because our intent was to preserve the land.

And this why I am still soaking up what was happening above ground while I walked below it.

After I returned from Hawaii in March, the week after my trip, Hilo held their Merrie Monarch festival (a hula festival popularized in the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch).

The ship Hokule’a returned to the little port next to our hotel, the Naniloa, in Hilo, and I pulled my family into the living room to watch the ceremony of its landing. The ship was part of every science class I took in school growing up, and it cut into the foreground of my memory saying “MAKE WAY!” (Thanks again, Disney.)

And after that, watching all of Merrie Monarch, I admit that I fell in love with hula and chant all over again. I followed breathlessly when Shalia Kapuauʻionālani Kikuyo Kamakaokalani performed her two beautiful dances to win Miss Aloha Hula 2018. Her intent to honor Hawaii’s past and embody the spirit of Aloha really hit me in a deep spot in my heart — I know what it feels like to want to honor the beautiful land where you lived, to preserve the memory of its past and deliver it to the future as a work of art.

And then I wanted more. Exploring Netflix one day, I stumbled across a documentary about a part of Hawaiian culture that is not often discussed. The documentary is called Kumu Hina, and is about a language and dance instructor at a Hawaiian culture charter school, who identifies as both kane (male) and wahine (female), or specifically “in the middle” — the Hawaiian term is Mahu.

The documentary follows the life of two people, one an adult “kane/wahine”, and one a kid “wahine/kane”, as they prepared for an end-of-year hula performance. The introductory explanation of the Mahu’s place in Hawaiian culture as a teacher and holy person struck me as — pretty healthy, actually. Some cultures are good at allowing for different gender representations, and the way that the kids in the charter school treated the wahine/kane with perfect matter-of-factness felt like something every culture could learn from. (Also, the hula and chant, portrayed as an interwoven part of the everyday life of the school, were lovely.)

And that brings me to today, when my phone is pinging with “severe weather: volcanic eruption” notifications for my hometown.

Madam Pele is raising her voice again, and sweeping her long arms down the coast to touch the sea. Earthquakes are crumbling the roads where we drove in March, and some of the places where I walked underground with my father are once again rivers of living, fluid lava.

Hawaii is building new lava tubes for someone in the future to walk — new capillaries for the land, and new, dark passageways for a little girl between two cultures to walk in and feel at home.

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