Lapa‘au / Healing


Lapa‘au / Healing

William Kalunakeaki Kahu‘ena

Twenty million tourists have visited the island of Maui in the past decade. The island has been so transformed by condominiums, resorts, and newcomers that its sunny, leeward coast barely resembles Hawai‘i any more. A drive from the Nāpili condos to the Wailea resorts, with Kā‘anapali hotels, Lahaina honky-tonks, and Kïhei apartments in between, leaves many people wondering where the Hawaiians live.
Many Hawaiians make their homes in faraway Hāna, isolated by sixty miles of narrow road that squeezes through lush forests perfumed by guavas, mountain apples, ginger, and liliko‘i. The road to Hāna twists through six hundred curves and across fifty-six one-way bridges; the journey may take three queasy hours or more, especially when the asphalt is crowded with rental cars and vans filled with tourists. Intrepid visitors do not despair. Tour guides may share a song by Aima Aluli McManus with them, which promises sightseers mythic beauty and unspoiled Hawaiian hospitality in a land steeped in native history and folklore.

I lost my heart to Hāna by the sea
Where nature sang to me in sweet soft harmony
Her gentle waterfalls caress her mountains strong
It’s there I lost my heart, it’s there where I belong
Oh how she smiles so peacefully
Her voice reflects tranquillity
And her fragrances fill the air
Reflecting times that we have shared

Once visitors arrive in Hāna, mesmerized by the fragrant air and gentle waterfalls, they do not realize that the lives of many Hawaiians there are far from ideal. Since 1848, Hāna has suffered the consequences of laws that disenfranchised most Hawaiians from the land, while allowing foreigners to buy vast land parcels, create plantations, and profit from the demands of a growing and hungry western America.
The Danish owner of Hāna’s first sugar plantation severed the villagers’ remaining ties with their land when he offered them housing and jobs in return for low wages and long hours of monotonous, exhausting labor. A company store fed the families, but high prices indebted the Hawaiians until they finally understood what had taken place and became unwilling to continue working for the Dane. This situation forced the plantation--and other plantations in the islands--to import immigrant laborers, who introduced diseases that killed many of the native people they had been hired to replace. Some of the Hawaiians who still owned land in Hāna leased their plots to the plantation and departed for what they hoped would be an easier life in the cities. A few remained.
In 1944 a wealthy San Francisco businessman named Paul I. Fagan converted the withering Hāna sugarcane plantation into a cattle ranch. Fagan also built the exclusive Hotel Hāna-Maui, an expensive hideaway for tourists attracted by the quiet isolation and cordial ways of the small, one-company town.
In some respects Fagan was a generous boss. The hotel and ranch provided jobs for Hāna’s people. He donated $100,000 for a community center. His wife’s estate supported a trust fund benefiting the Hāna Community Association. He and the subsequent owner of the plantation-ranch-hotel complex permitted the town’s two thousand residents access across company lands to reach the ocean and mountains; it was important for the Hawaiians to continue their traditional fishing and hunting, to supplement food they purchased or grew. But this changed in 1984 when the Rosewood Corporation from Texas acquired the 4,700-acre ranch and hotel and closed many accesses because of liability fears. Five years later, Rosewood sold the property for $63 million to a consortium of Japanese, British, and Hawai‘i-based businessmen. The new owners promised they would resolve the access dilemma, but other problems continued to frustrate the local residents. Ambitious expansion plans for the ninety-seven-room hotel initially included a golf course and condominiums. A group of one hundred workers objected, telling the consortium they desperately needed housing for their own families. As the rural area has become an exclusive retreat for wealthy outsiders, land values have escalated beyond the reach of the low-paid hotel workers, many of whom were born and raised in Hāna. Some workers acknowledged the benefits of a golf course--it would attract more visitors to the hotel, help keep them and their children on the payroll, and perhaps help pay for employee housing. But not everyone in Hāna wants a golf course or more visitors. New people moving in prefer to see Häna maintained with the qualities that enticed them to go there in the first place. Five hundred thousand visitors a year is enough, even if most of them drive in and out in a day.
Enchanted by the beauty of Hāna, tourists rarely see the extent to which the hotel and ranch and influx of outsiders have affected the lives of the local Hawaiians. They might catch a brief glimpse--say on a Friday afternoon at the company store in Hāna town when workers line up to buy cigarettes, beer, and frozen food, along with videotape movies for another low-cost weekend in front of television.
This scene is repeated in other impoverished communities in Hawai‘i, but for those who care, the situation in Hāna is especially troubling. Hāna is still a beautiful, rural Hawaiian place, populated predominately by native people in a rich landscape capable of supplying much of their food. They should be enjoying good health, but most of them are not.

Hāna was a natural choice when a group of Hawaiian healers, doctors, and kūpuna thought about where they would hold a gathering to discuss Hawaiian health and healing. They didn’t meet at the luxury hotel, but at the Hāna Hawaiian Village, an oceanside complex of fishponds and gardens subsidized by vanloads of tourists who stop there for lunch. The native proprietors, the Noa family, appreciated the opportunity to host the healers--people who still practiced the wisdom of their ancestors. Participants in the group included Harry Kunihi Mitchell, Sr., from nearby Ke‘anae; Agnes Kalaniho‘okaha Cope of Wai‘anae, O‘ahu; Kalua Kaiahua of Lahaina, Maui; and an elder whose story deserves close reading--William Kalunakeaki Kahu‘ena, a plant-medicine man who had recently returned to O‘ahu after an eighteen-month effort to settle in Florida. In all, about forty people traveled to Hāna for the talks.
On the opening day of their 1989 gathering, the healers stood in a line, ranked by age and expertise, outside the entrance to Häna Hawaiian Village. Kamaki A. Kanahele III, a healer and hula master, chanted an ancient oli as he led them across a fishpond bridge onto the Noa property. He conveyed the guests’ respect to their Hāna hosts and called upon their ancestors to join them, that their knowledge, essence, and mana would enhance the group’s sharing and healing. Hāna schoolteacher Parley Kanaka‘ole, also speaking Hawaiian, greeted Kamaki and the others and welcomed them to Hāna. Then Parley and Kamaki stood beside the fishpond and mixed together waters that had been carried to Hāna from each island. Non-Hawaiian observers stood off to the side while the rest of the group walked single-file past Parley, who sprinkled the water over their heads; after this blessing they were free to move onto the land. They climbed a slope toward an arrangement of picnic tables under a canopy of green and blue tarps stretched over bamboo and metal frames. After more prayers, they sat down for a ho‘oponopono ceremony to clear the air of any bad feelings and then allowed the non-Hawaiian observers to join them.
This was not the first such gathering of modern Hawaiian healers, nor the last of the concerned men and women seeking ways to apply the wisdom of years gone by to the health crisis faced by kānaka maoli (native Hawaiians) living in the medically Westernized Hawai‘i of today. They know that in Hawai‘i, America’s healthiest state, the native population is the most unhealthy ethnic group, living an average of ten years less than other residents. This has been documented and publicized so often by haole researchers that some Hawaiians no longer permit examinations and study by outsiders. Instead, they want to undertake healing for themselves, and rather than talking about how sick they are, they prefer to emphasize the progress being made to improve their lives. But according to a 1991 report prepared by Hawaiian internist Dr. Richard Kekuni Blaisdell, more--much more--needs to be accomplished. Dr. Blaisdell reported that kānaka maoli have the highest overall death rate in Hawai‘i, especially from the major causes--heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents, diabetes, and infections. Kānaka maoli also rank highest for mental retardation, suicide, child abuse, and infant mortality.
Other studies have found that among the eight thousand remaining pure Hawaiians, the death rate is 146 percent higher than for other races in the United States, and the death rate for the estimated 200,000 part-Hawaiians is 17 percent higher, with even higher percentages for specific diseases and populations. All together, pure and part-Hawaiians represent about 19 percent of the state’s total population, and in 1989 the annual income for one-fifth of that percentage was less than $15,000. Most of the homeless in the islands are Hawaiian. Many of them live in rural communities where health care may be inadequate or financially out-of-reach.
The U.S. Congress examined these serious problems and passed a bill in 1988 that eventually provided $2.3 million to fund five Hawaiian health centers. The bill mandated that the centers prevent and control diabetes and high blood pressure among Hawaiians, improve overall nutrition, provide prenatal and infant care, including immunization, and reach out to the community wherever possible. It also encouraged the centers to provide access to traditional Hawaiian healers and healing--an option that was included in the bill partly because a few knowledgeable healers were still alive in 1988.
The congressional staff report blamed Hawaiian health problems on Hawaiians, claiming they do not control obesity, smoking, and drinking. It also faulted island natives for avoiding doctors until it is too late--a behavior typical, the report said, of Americans with low incomes. But some Hawaiian health professionals believe the reasons for poor health in their community are more complex than simple negligence and low income levels. They see harmful behaviors as the result of 150 years of oppression by a dominant Western society and government, a dominance that denies Hawaiians access to resources and opportunities to pursue their native life-style, such as medical centers where they could seek Hawaiian healing methods. Kekuni Blaisdell and others propose to reduce problems with culturally sensitive healing, but success will be limited, they say, as long as the dominant society prevents Hawaiians from being kānaka maoli.
Ever since the arrival of traders, whalers, and missionaries in Hawai‘i, most foreigners have expected--often demanded--that Hawaiians conform to new values. Early European explorers described the islands’ native people as exceptionally healthy, as could be expected after fifteen hundred years of subsistence living and isolation from outsiders and foreign diseases. Among all Pacific people the Hawaiians were considered the most humane, social, friendly, and hospitable to newcomers. The reason for pre-contact Hawaiian health and civility, according to Dr. Blaisdell, stemmed from a simple belief: “To intentionally harm others or anything in nature was to harm oneself. . . . Pono, or proper order or harmony . . . required conscious effort of each individual kanaka. . . . Imbalance of mana or loss of pono accounted for misfortune, such as illness, sparse catch of i‘a [fish], or crop failure. . . . While there was collective lökahi [unity] and interdependence with self, others, and all of nature, nevertheless, individual self-reliance was expected.”
During the nineteenth century, 80 percent of the Hawaiian population (at least 160,000 people and many more by other estimates) died from newly introduced bacterial and viral infections. Hawaiians needed time to develop immunities to the various plagues, from influenza to smallpox, that had ravaged other parts of the world in previous centuries. In the course of the Hawaiian depopulation, the native life-style disintegrated. Chiefs sought Western mana when their traditional political and religious systems collapsed, and the Hawaiian ways were replaced by a European-style monarchy, by the idea of private property, by capitalism, and by the Christian god. The ‘āina, the land, became a commodity exploited by Hawaiian and haole owners or lessees for exportable goods--produce, sugar, then pineapple.
Unfortunately, Western medicine could not help the thousands of Hawaiians dying from the physical and psychological upheavals that were the nineteenth century in Hawai‘i. In 1859, Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV established a clinic in Honolulu to help their people, but the natives distrusted Queen’s Hospital and the Kapi‘olani Home (founded later by Princes Kalaniana‘ole and Kawānanakoa). Western-trained doctors focused on diseases, rather than trying to help Hawaiians cope with the rapid changes in their daily lives, changes that resulted in abnormally high rates of diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and heart disease. These problems continued during the Territorial years as urbanization increased and American rulers enacted laws that further alienated Hawaiians from their language, culture, and lands. Many kānaka maoli simply gave up trying to survive, and died.

Today, as Dr. Blaisdell and others see it, the effort to restore good health to Hawaiians is doomed unless Hawai‘i chooses and encourages the development of native gardens rather than golf courses, fishponds rather than yacht harbors, villages rather than casinos--Hawaiian models of living rather than Western.
Passage of the 1988 Hawaiian health bill was lengthy and arduous--some participants at the Hāna conference wondered why the elders, the healers, would ever want (or be allowed) to integrate their skills and wisdom into a medical system so Westernized, so politicized, and at times so inhumane.
Several kinds of healers attended the Hāna gathering, and to the outsider, each one seemed to have a slightly different healing method. There were those who use ho‘oponopono, which involves family discussion, reflection, and prayer to cleanse the mind and spirit of trouble that often leads to disease; the kūpuna lā‘au lapa‘au, who heal with medicines made from plants; practitioners of lomi, a form of massage; and practitioners of lā‘au kāhea, who use their voices to channel God’s strength into healing--all techniques with parallels in other cultures.
Some parents in the group had raised their children without ever taking them to a doctor, keeping them healthy with medicines made from native and introduced plants. Leaves from one plant had been used to cure a son’s ruptured spleen. Sap from another plant had relieved a granddaughter’s constipation. A certain combination of plants had helped repair someone’s bleeding heart after doctors said nothing could be done. But the most important ingredient for all healing, the Hawaiians said, was faith--faith in the healer, in the spirit, and especially in God. Said one kupuna, “Prayer is the key.”
The Hāna conference was something of a summit meeting for the emerging group of healers gathered from around the islands, and William Kahu‘ena was a special case. His modest story--how he became a kupuna lā‘au lapa‘au--describes the widespread dissipation of traditional Hawaiian wisdom and the challenges to keep it alive.
Before plantations covered the island slopes with green sugarcane fields and neat rows of pineapple, native forests flourished. The plants and trees were used by Hawaiian families to make medicines, as well as for food and shelter. According to native historians, good health for the Hawaiians depended on the well-being of the forest, so they took care of the kukui groves, where they planted kalo; the hala trees, whose leaves were plaited into mats for their houses; the coconuts, bananas, and breadfruit, which helped sustain them; and the ‘ōlena, ‘awa, pöpolo, noni, kī, kō, mamake, hinahina, hau, ko‘oko‘olau, limu, and other plants and shrubs, which healed them.
Foreigners planning to expand the sugarcane business regarded these people as poor. They did not understand how the wealth of the land enriched the Hawaiians’ spirits and bodies in ways that Western “improvements” could not. Perhaps that is why the mother of William Kahu‘ena decided in 1919 to send her pure Hawaiian infant away from downtown Honolulu. He went to live with his grandparents in Wailea, an isolated town in the Hāmākua district on the island of Hawai‘i.
The Hawaiian-speaking elders welcomed the child into a house thatched with pili and paved with stones. Wherever Grandfather went, the boy followed, usually on the old man’s back as he walked up the mountain to cultivate kalo or down to the beach, where Bill played and fished from the stream. Everywhere they ventured, Bill absorbed strength and knowledge from the rugged land, and he grew into a robust and independent boy. On Bill’s first day of school, he encountered a teacher who beat him because he spoke Hawaiian. The boy threw a desk at the man and never went back.
“And from then on,” Bill remembered decades later, “my grandfolks taught me how to live off the land, which consists of going up the mountain and getting all the things that we had up in the mountain or down at the beach, in the river. We traveled out in the deep ocean, out in canoe.”
Along the paths of land and sea, Bill learned how to use plants to catch lunch from a stream, how to build a fire to cook, and how to turn bamboo into a spear to catch dinner from the reef. His grandparents also showed him which plants can heal and how to prepare the leaves, roots, bark, and fruit as medicines.
Bill grew into “oni kalalea ke kū a ka lā‘au loa” (a tall tree that stands above others). Even in his seventies, gray-haired, he mirrored the forests of his youth: tall, robust, brown, silently offering visitors shade, fruit, comfort, or medicine. From a Western perspective, his humility did not make sense. This man grew up Hawaiian, as fluent in the language as he was in the indigenous crafts and medicines. He had adapted to the changes brought about by annexation, World War II, and statehood, and Uncle Bill endured with the steadfastness of a giant koa tree, observing the world in a quiet, friendly manner, shy in the presence of strangers eager to learn his knowledge. His voice, barely audible but always polite, shared without embellishment, even with family or his friends at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. When others might have bragged before the reporter’s tape recorder, he simply said, “What I know about medicine, it took me a quite while. I had to grow up with it. I used to go to up-mountain and pick the medicine up . . . and bring back and prepare it for my grandfolks and my granduncle, and they showed me how to apply it.”
Back then, in the 1920s, Bill knew tension between his world and the encroaching haole world. “Some doctors,” he said, “when I was growing up, they only use pills and they found that the pills didn’t heal the people, so they went to the Hawaiian people that knew about the [plant] medicines and they would be taught. The doctors that came and learned about that medicine, they use that medicine for their patients, but somehow or other the medical association found out they was using herbs, some other medicines besides what they was supposed to have, and they were reprimanded for it. I don’t know why. They killed a lot of people with their pills. I can remember those days. They used to call the doctors ‘Dr. Pill.’ For any kind of sickness you had, they would give you a pill.”
Bill’s grandparents transformed plants into medicines that kept the boy healthy. Pōpola got rid of colds. ‘Ōlena juice took care of earaches. They healed burns and cuts with the ashes from a dry coconut husk, strained and then mixed with water. “There’s lots more,” Bill said. “But all in all our medicine is not used only for one type of sickness. It’s used for all types. It’s a dual purpose ’cause our medicine, when it goes into the blood system into the body, it goes through your blood system and cleans you all the way from the top of your head, all the way down to your toe.”
Bill was a young boy when his grandfather died, and his grandmother moved him up the coast to Waipi‘o, an enormous valley where Hawaiians still grew kalo and fished from the sea. His grandmother died there in 1931 when Bill was twelve. By then, Bill said, “I knew how to live off the land and not depend on anybody for food. I knew all the things that I was taught by my grandfolks--how to make a living for myself and take care of any sickness I have. . . . When they passed away, some other family had . . . sickness and I did the healing for them.”
For a brief time Bill lived in nearby Kamuela with his father. He worked for the Parker Ranch and at various jobs in Hilo until someone discovered that this tall young man was a minor. He moved on to the harbor village at Kawaihae, staying with an uncle who taught him what he knew about canoes, fishing equipment, how to trap wild cattle, and how to catch feral pigs with a hook and a lariat made from the morning glory vine. “Sometimes I tell people that and they laugh at me until they went up and tried themselves, and then they found it was better than having a rifle. It’s quiet and you won’t disturb anybody up there with that loud noise, although sometimes it’s dangerous. It depends on the size of the wild hog you have.”
During World War II, the Army sent Bill to the Solomon Islands, to Guadalcanal, where thousands of Americans and Japanese spent months slaughtering each other for control of the island. During one battle, enemy shrapnel shredded the body of a friend. Because the daily bloodshed had drained the medics’ supplies, all Bill could do was watch his companion suffer. Then he looked down and discovered lettucelike leaves growing on the ground and recognized them as laukahi, which Bill had used as a boy to cure boils. He prepared them for his friend, and the wounds soon healed.
After the war Bill returned to Hawai‘i, and in Honolulu he became a driver-mechanic for the Pacific and Hawaiian dredging companies. He continued operating heavy equipment until his retirement in 1985 from the state Department of Transportation, Harbors Division. During those years, the man who as a boy in Hāmākua had learned the traditional methods of plant medicine healed only two people--a cousin with tuberculosis and a sister whose neck had become infected and swollen after an operation. “I made the medicine for it; got all that thing out of there. That took three days. It healed without the operation. Didn’t have to cut her up.”
Bill’s first wife suffered from diabetes, a disease that affects many Hawaiians. “I tried to make the medicine for her, but she wouldn’t take it. She was strong-headed.” She died in 1972. The following year Bill remarried and moved to Windward O‘ahu, where he and his second wife, Alapa‘i, lived for sixteen years. After Bill retired, his pension and social security paid the rent until the house was sold and the Kahu‘enas found they could no longer afford to stay in Hawai‘i. Encouraged by a relative who lived in Florida, they decided to retire there, with the hope that the Sunshine State would be affordable and tolerable for them. When they left Hawai‘i, Bill did not know that his vast knowledge of Hawaiian ways had become something rare among Hawaiians; nor did he realize there were people who wanted to preserve and perpetuate the things he knew.
Bill and Alapa‘i Kahu‘ena stayed in Florida for eighteen months, until they could no longer endure the racial intolerance they suffered there. A cousin offered them a studio behind his Kāne‘ohe home on O‘ahu, and the state Department of Education’s Küpuna Program gave them jobs teaching children about native culture. They joined a group of Hawaiian elders, who told a leading native kupuna, Harry Kunihi Mitchell, about their new friend’s mastery of Hawaiian healing.
Harry and Bill became friends. They were the same age and shared similar backgrounds. Harry had been raised in remote Ke‘anae on Maui, where he had learned the traditional ways of fishing, planting, and healing. But whereas Bill was quiet and had kept his learning to himself, Harry was busy and involved. He initiated the first modern gathering of Hawaiian healers. He helped form the statewide healer’s organization Papa Lā‘au Lapa‘au (which became Küpuna Lā‘au Lapa‘au O Hawai‘i), and two other key groups, Papa Ola Lōkahi (Board of Health and Harmony) and E Ola Mau (Live On), the sponsors of the gathering in Hāna.
In the Hāna discussions, the question was simple: Could native healing be recognized by and institutionalized within the Western political and medical systems that dominated Hawai‘i? The answers were difficult. For instance, besides having different levels and different kinds of expertise, the healers had been trained differently. Some, like Bill Kahu‘ena, had learned as children. Others had received the knowledge or healing gift through their mentor’s last breath. Several believed their abilities came from God.
How, one participant asked, would the Lā‘au Lapa‘au association certify someone like Kalua Kaiahua of Lahaina? Kalua explained to the group that his father had taught him the use of herbal remedies, while his mother, a registered nurse, had shown him how to care for the young and elderly using both Hawaiian and Western medicines. His aunt, a blind woman who was a healer, had touched Kalua’s hands and examined his palms and fingers. She had sensed a gift within him and told him that if he wanted to know how to use the gift--what he could do with it, its cautions and blessings--then he had to pray to God in order to receive the knowledge.
The group pondered which part of Kalua’s training was certifiable and which was not. Who would judge? A committee of his peers? A panel of Western doctors?
Obtaining certification for today’s kūpuna is important to the Kūpuna Lā‘au Lapa‘au because their association wants to ensure that others can share in learning correct healing techniques and medicines and because they want to protect patients from fake healers. Some kūpuna are cautious about the idea of certification to satisfy the organization or the Western medical community. Others will have none of it.
Agnes Cope, for one, explained that her knowledge is not for examination or dissection but only for sacred learning by her son, Kamaki, and her grandson. When interviewed by the Kalihi-Pālama Culture and Arts Society about his knowledge of the healing arts, Kamaki described the nonacademic nature of his training. “We learned by watching and repeating. Sometimes doing it daily or only in the mornings. As children we practiced our healing lessons on our dogs. They were very good patients, and because we loved them the healing lessons were very wonderful. . . . In sickness we healed ourselves. For some things you can heal and cleanse, for others we must first return to the teacher or suffer from kāpulu [careless] work. We never realized what we had learned or been given until we were adults. Like all children we just wanted to play. Our lessons were our games.”
At the Hāäna gathering, Kamaki reiterated his point. “The keepers of the healing are you and I. Our healing knowledge is not on exhibit for the whole world. It’s between healer and patient. Practicing kähuna doctors never went out in public and made a spectacle of themselves. . . . Some ideas must not be shared.”
Despite resistance to the idea of measuring up to some Western system of acceptability, the Hāäna conference pursued the idea of certification as necessary to allay doctors’ concerns about integrating traditional Hawaiian healing methods with Western medicine.
Four Hawaiian doctors attended the gathering in Hāna, offering their sympathies and expertise; they warned the kūpuna about the resistance they might encounter from the medical establishment. As lawsuits and economic pressures increase, Western medical practice becomes more specialized and standardized. Many physicians restrict themselves to narrow fields of practice and are often ignorant about healing approaches that are outside their standards of care. The national and Hawai‘i medical associations reinforce this isolationism through political lobbying that tries to limit authority and reimbursement for other Western practitioners--including advance practice nurses, certified nurse midwives, chiropractors, and naturopathic doctors.
The kūpuna will face other challenges, too. Different patients do not always respond to medicine the same way, whether plant medicine or modern drugs. Penicillin saves millions of lives, but kills the allergic few. “The problem of medicine [Western or traditional] is that it is not entirely predictable,” said Dr. Blase B. Lee Loy, a Hawaiian general practitioner from Kona. “Even though you try your best, sometimes you are not successful and the patient dies. If it happens to [kūpuna] lā‘au lapa‘au, it could throw the whole thing back into the fire. You have to look at it objectively, without getting emotional. It will be a tough job introducing traditional healers to Western medicine. That doesn’t mean it won’t be successful, but it will be a long, uphill battle. It will take a lot of ingenuity. It will take a lot of patience.”
Cedric “Rick” Akau, a Honolulu-based doctor whose specialty is sports medicine, raised the thorny issue of liability. “I am supportive, but the Western medical-legal system makes it difficult. Physicians may open themselves up to liability problems if they bring in lā‘au lapa‘au.”
Some healers flatly rejected any discussion of liability, dismissing it as a Western concept alien to their traditional ways. True healers never pondered liability, they said, because they had achieved harmony and balance within themselves, with others, with nature, and with the universe. Holistic by nature, Hawaiian healers used herbs only after the source of disharmony had been singled out and removed from a patient’s life. Anger among relatives could provoke illness, as could the simple action of taking a neighbor’s tool. By bringing a family together through ho‘oponopono to discuss someone’s anger or hurt, a kupuna could eliminate the psychological cause of an illness without the need for treating the physiological symptoms. Medicinal herbs only became necessary when the symptoms progressed too far.
The healing process of ho‘oponopono can take days or months, and the healers pondered how they could pass on the old ways of life and healing to a younger generation leading busy lives. The children of some kūpuna are not interested in learning the old ways, even though they know the knowledge will die with their parents. The Kūpuna Lā‘au Lapa‘au organization tried assigning apprentices to some of its members, but the students are busy surviving modern Hawai‘i, and have difficulty finding the time to devote to learning from the masters. The older Hawaiians wonder whether they--like elders around the world--can ever turn their grandchildren’s attention from television or video games long enough for them to learn anything about the native culture, much less the intricacies of native healing.

Discussing these issues in Hāna, the healers and doctors became so focused that few of them acknowledged the passing rain showers, even when the water beat loudly upon the overhead tarps and cascaded down the sides. During breaks, participants relaxed and took time to wander along the shore, where they saw medicinal plants cultivated by the Noa family. Near a small ocean cove, Bill Kahu‘ena came upon some ‘uhaloa. Most people regard it as a weed, but Bill knew how to use its roots to make a cure for sore throat. Bill also explained how to steam the leaves in water, using the vapor to clear away congestion and headache. A woman attending the conference acted on his suggestion and felt better after deep draughts of the vapor.
In Honolulu and similar urbanized areas, Bill and other healers have a difficult time finding the plants they need. And Bill advised kūpuna to be careful that plants for medicinal use have not been poisoned by automobile exhaust or contaminated by herbicides that county road crews spray to destroy weeds. Obtaining clean plants usually requires access to remote areas, a task hampered by landowners who block trails to reduce liability.
Claire K. Hughes, a native Hawaiian nutritionist, told the Hāna group that proper nourishment is the easiest step toward better health. She also pointed out that in Hawai‘i, as in most American communities, low wages, the Western life-style, peer pressure, and mass merchandising of junk and fast foods encourage harmful consumption.
As an experiment, the Wai‘anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center on O‘ahu in 1989 devised a traditional Hawaiian diet. Twenty native participants promised to abide by it for twenty-one days. They consumed as much poi, kalo, squid, sweet potato, breadfruit, fish, fruits, and lū‘au leaf as they wanted. After three weeks, they had reduced their weight by an average of seventeen pounds. Their health, complexions, and energy levels improved. Their cholesterol counts dropped by 14 percent, and one pure Hawaiian man eliminated his need for insulin injections for diabetes.
“The first day, [we] were very gung ho,” said Kamaki Kanahele, a participant in the Wai‘anae study. “Lunch, same thing. By dinner, people were screaming for salt, shoyu, and milk. Halfway through the study, everyone was swearing a lot.”
By the end of the twenty-one days, most of them craved Western foods. Kamaki went to McDonald’s and ordered a soda. For the first time in fifteen years, he could not drink it. A week later, he tried to eat spaghetti. His body threw it up. “If we went back to the traditional diet, I’m positive our health would improve,” he said.
The Wai‘anae Diet Program organizers have moved beyond experimentation and now encourage the entire Hawaiian community to use more kalo, sweet potato, lū‘au leaf, fresh fish, and other traditional foods in their diets. If those foodstuffs are unavailable or too expensive, people are urged to substitute brown rice, potatoes, vegetables, beans, tofu, chicken, shrimp, and turkey. A few communities began building communal gardens and fishponds to reduce dependence on grocery stores and processed foods. At Pūnana Leo, a private school in Honolulu where preschoolers learn the Hawaiian language through the immersion system, administrators decided to prepare lunch for the students instead of asking the parents to do it. They use fresh vegetables, fruits, and Hawaiian staples from a Windward O‘ahu farm and soon discovered the children were napping better, learning more, and fighting less.
Another issue challenged the group of healers attending the Hāna conference: Could the kūpunas’ knowledge be helpful in Hawaiian families affected by abuse, alcoholism, or crime? Or in other families where social and economic pressure take their toll? A survey of Hawaiians living in west Kaua‘i found that about half of the households earn less than $15,000 a year. Rents on Kaua‘i are high--monthly rental fees for two-bedroom houses range between seven hundred and a thousand dollars. As in Hāna and other communities, many Hawaiians in west Kaua‘i are barely subsisting--even more so after Hurricane ‘Iniki damaged or destroyed six thousand homes on the island in 1992.
To help them, west Kaua‘i health care providers and community leaders created an organization called Ho‘ōla Lāhui Hawai‘i to improve health services for native Hawaiians. The group supports efforts to improve access to lā‘au lapa‘au expertise, because it knows that Hawaiians facing medical problems are as likely to seek the help of traditional healers and family members as they are to go to a doctor. The organization believes Western and traditional health care providers need to develop a relationship of mutual trust and respect. It will take time and patience--and recognition by Western practitioners that traditional healing techniques, such as ho‘oponopono and lomi, help Hawaiians. And Ho‘ōla encourages traditional healers to acknowledge the value of Western diagnoses and therapies. The organization hopes that by working together, Western and traditional practitioners can alter harmful life-styles and improve the overall health of Hawaiians.
Alu Like is a nonprofit corporation that seeks to help Hawaiians become self-sufficient. Largely through the efforts of its Big Island director, Everett “Sonny” Kinney, Alu Like embarked on an islandwide ho‘oponopono project. The courts and the state Department of Human Services and its agencies refer clients to the project, where a group of elders use ho‘oponopono to try and resolve problems among them. Sonny Kinney observed that Western-style group therapies tend to alienate Hawaiians, who prefer to have a kupuna help them acknowledge the true reasons for their pain or addiction and make amends to those they have hurt. It is the Hawaiian way.
When Alu Like first undertook the Big Island ho‘oponopono program, Sonny Kinney heard reports of skepticism from Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike. They thought he and the elders were “talking voodoo.” The program’s success stories changed that attitude, and Sonny was confident the program would become a permanent resource on the Big Island.
“The outstanding part of ho‘oponopono is the spiritual quality we give it,” Sonny said. He related several stories about Hawaiians who had been healed. One couple had been hooked on cocaine and alcohol. As an elder opened the ho‘oponopono with a prayer, the couple had broken down and cried like children. Sensing the kupuna’s trust, warmth, and aloha, the couple spoke freely about their problems--how they had begun and how they were affecting themselves and their ‘ohana. “We don’t talk about drug abuse,” Sonny said. “We talk about how they are going to settle the harm done to family and each other, and how to ask for forgiveness. In the process, they learn why they should stop drugs.”
Young Hawaiian observers at the Hāna gathering and other meetings were moved by the elders’ words and decided to promote and help revive traditional healing practices through apprenticeships and associations that will quantify healing standards for a certification program. Many of them believe that ideally a certification program will make the healers “legitimate” by Western standards and thus more accessible to more Hawaiians.
After the Hāna meeting, these new groups of young Hawaiians held more gatherings where expert healers could share their knowledge. In most places, people were not allowed to take notes or tape record the sessions; they had to absorb the information as their ancestors had, so the healing wisdom would become part of their spirit and be more than just words.
In November 1993, the Kūpuna Lā‘au Lapa‘au O Hawai‘i association held an ‘ūniki (graduation) for twelve elders at Lapakahi State Park on the Big Island, the site of a Hawaiian village six hundred years ago. The kūpuna’s kāko‘o (assistants) and haumana (apprentices) also attended. “Papa” Henry Auwae, the eighty-four-year-old leader of the association, said the purpose of the ceremony was to recognize each elder as prepared to teach other people and their own families. In an interview with Ka Wai Ola O OHA, Papa Auwae said, “In medicine we have rules to follow. You don’t do it any old way you feel it should be done. They have to do it perfect. This is no fly-by-night healing.”
Bill Kahu‘ena did not make it to Lapakahi. Two and a half years earlier, on June 30, 1991, he died in Kaiser Medical Center, at the age of seventy-one. Bill had smoked for most of life, giving up cigarettes only after marrying Alapa‘i. But the damage had been done. After two radiation treatments, Bill returned to his lā‘au. Three months later he passed away. Much of his wisdom and knowledge lives on through the people he shared it with.
Bill helped Alapa‘i teach children about the old Hawaiian ways. Once a month he taught Windward O‘ahu kūpuna about different lā‘au. And one morning six women met together in a backyard in Kailua to learn from Bill about koali, the blue morning glory.
Koali is so common in Hawai‘i that most people think of it as a weed. But when a handful of freshly picked leaves from the blue variety is pounded into a pulp (along with five fingers of Hawaiian salt) and applied in a ti-leaf compress to a broken bone, morning and evening, the break is said to heal within five days. “When get through, get down on your hands and knees and pray to the Man in heaven and thank him for healing you,” Bill told the ladies. “That’s what a lot of people forget.”
One of the women asked Bill about other varieties of koali and their healing properties, and why salt is used (it kills bacteria and helps medicine penetrate the skin), and whether they could substitute a noni leaf for ti. Another woman wondered why, if noni leaves help remove tumors, her mother’s infected leg burned for thirty minutes after it was wrapped in noni (because her blood was clogged, Bill said). A young mother wanted to know where she could get clean salt water to flush toxins out of her body. “Cannot get it from here,” Bill said. “Have to go outer islands. It’s pitiful. Our island water is so polluted.”
The elders talked some more, and Bill let people prepare the koali themselves so they would get the feel of holding the grinding stone with one hand while they cupped the leaves in the other and pounded against the wooden mortar. He wanted the group to start off with simple cures and then move on to more complicated remedies.
Afterward, Bill passed out photocopied summaries of the koali healing method. He encouraged his friends to take notes and ask questions. He wanted them to keep a record for personal use in case there was an emergency and they were unable to reach him. “When I give it to you, it’s up to you and the Man in heaven. You have to have faith.”

William Kalunakeaki Kahu`ena: Lapa`au / Healing