Written by: Kristen Nemoto Jay
The islands’ past stories are alive and well for those willing to learn and listen.
There’s the legend of Hāloa, the very first Native Hawaiian who was born from a kalo, or taro root. There’s the advice that’s passed down to navigators who’d explore the waters of the Pacific Ocean by reading the orbits of the moon and stars within the sky.
History books can miss the description of a cloud that’s narrow and long, indicating it as a‘ōpua, a bunch or cluster, which, if pointed downward, might indicate a storm looming ahead. Or it can neglect hands-on instructions for the paste-like feel of perfectly pounded poi (mashed and diluted kalo), and whether you have folded the air bubbles out fast enough or added too much water.
Ancient Native Hawaiians would express themselves in the form of storytelling—otherwise known as the tradition of mo‘olelo, an oral account of a person, place, thing or event that’s communicated from generation to generation. There’s a poetic technique, unabashed personal and emotional accounts, to mo‘olelo that’s steeped within thousands of years worth of mele (song), oli (chant) and hula (dance). A recollection of events and experiences that continues from kupuna (elder) to keiki (child).
Native Hawaiians were once prosperous in mo‘olelo, conveying lessons from former leaders who’d stressed the importance of the past as a guide for defining what was pono (proper, true). Without mo‘olelo, many Native Hawaiians would not have the proper knowledge of their own culture and history, which encompasses the entirety of life and cultivation for the Hawaiian Islands’ survival.
Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and master storyteller Lopaka Kapanui says what makes stories of Hawai‘i so unique is its direct connection to its land and natural resources along with its diverse make-up of ethnicities and cultures.
“It’s part of our everyday existence,” Kapanui explains. “Academically I can tell you that because we’re a volcanic collection of islands, there’s an electromagnetic energy here that is sort of a repository of psychic energy. For those of us who are able to receive those telegraphic signals and energies, we’re constantly in communication with spiritual energy whether we choose to believe it or not. We, as Hawaiians or locals, are practically walking side by side with spiritual energy, every single day.”
Trained under the late master storyteller Glen Grant—a former professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa and author of the widely popular “Obake Files”—Kapanui shares a modern version of mo‘olelo through weekly adventures with his “ghost tour” company Mysteries of Hawai‘i. From across the islands, Kapanui takes visitors on a journey through the past using solely his words. Words that were stressed of its importance by Grant to Kapanui, as it often came from a lineage that spanned back thousands of years.
“Storytelling for me is the opportunity to channel stories from our past,” Kapanui says. “Like (Grant) said, it’s a way to paint a picture with your words. And by using those words, you bring people in to that movie that’s playing out in their mind. You allow everyone to not only see it, but partake in it. To be a part of it and actually drawn in.”
The transition of traditional mo‘olelo occurred during the late 19th century when English was declared the official language of instruction and government. As Native Hawaiians were banned from speaking their own language, the articulation of the Native Hawaiian people became further repressed and eventually considered “primitive” or “savage.” The art of mo‘olelo was then referred to previously recorded textbooks.
One in particular was “Ka Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i” by students from Lahainaluna Seminary under the direction of missionary Sheldon Dibble. Interviews were gathered of local elders to develop historical essays. Dibble edited the final volume, which unfortunately missed much of pre-Western history, such as events prior to Captain James Cook’s landing in 1778.
One of the seminar students who undertook his own “Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i” was David Malo, who wrote a version that included the history, traditions, legends and myths of old Hawai‘i. Translator Dr. Nathaniel Bright Emerson noted that Malo was “the great authority and repository of Hawaiian lore” as he attempted to explain Hawaiian beliefs and practices to outside visitors as well as record them for future reference of Native Hawaiians. Samuel Manaiākalani Kamakau, another one of Dibble’s students, wrote the most elaborate “Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i,” by preserving mele that otherwise would have been lost.
He began with a series of articles that chronicled a visit to Hawai‘i from a visitor’s perspective and soon followed with volumes of the Kamehameha monarchy. As scholar Noenoe K. Silva recollects in “The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature,” Kamakau was “among the most prominent writers in developing this uniquely Hawaiian literary form, a combined Hawaiian and Western method of historical presentation.”
Today, the practice of mo‘olelo comes in—but is not limited to—Hawaiian Immersion schools, kumu hula, historians, locals and cultural leaders such as Kapanui. Although the tradition and practices of mo‘olelo is fewer than it was thousands of years ago, Kapanui says that many of his tour group’s willingness to learn about Hawai‘i’s culture shows a hopeful future for its revered past.
“Even though some people come two or three different times, they always say that they’ve always learn something new when they hear it again,” Kapanui continues. “For new people and visitors, it’s a way for them to learn respect for (Hawai‘i). That even though the people who once existed are long gone, their memory still remains and a part of them is still embedded in the environment.”