Elders’ Narratives in Hawai’i: An Ancestry of Experience

V.4 N.1, March 1997

Elders’ Narratives in Hawai’i: An Ancestry of Experience

by Leilani Holmes

Sociology/Cross-Cultural Studies Departments
Grossmont College

Introduction: First Peoples Knowledge

  1. We need a multivalent language, a language much richer in the symbolic meanings which language carried in its earlier forms when the human lived deeply within the world of natural forms…(Berry, 1991, p. 21). Hawaiian kupuna (elders) use narrative to construct earth-human relationships and ethical lessons about our place in the universe. As a Hawaiian, I believe that schooling, from early years through graduate programmes, often “edges out” Hawaiian (indigenous) oral tradition and its lessons. Colonization in Hawai’i began in 1778, culminating in statehood, land “development,” military growth, and tourist inundation. However, the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement is growing, and Hawai’i is undergoing intense cultural revitalization (Buck, 1993, 6; Trask, 1993, p. 188). A discourse which privileges oral knowledge, old ways and beliefs, and the aina (land) is emerging. The kupuna lend direction, meaning, and force to this discourse.
  2. One root of this discourse is The Kumulipo (“origin in the deep blue-black past”), a sacred creation chant framing the genealogy of a chiefly line and the identity of humans. In this paper, I want to talk about the words of two kupuna, Tutu (Grandma) Ohi’a, and Aunty Lau, and one younger person, Kalo. During field work in Hawai’i, I interviewed Kalo, and she interviewed Tutu Ohi’a and Aunty Lau, since they were her elders. I have used six significant cosmological claims from The Kumulipo as an organizing frame for these interviews. These claims seem more amenable to the spiritual concerns of the interviews than Non-Hawaiian (Western) theoretical frameworks, which often privilege material/economic concerns.Claim 1: Hawaiians are the progeny of earth and sky and younger siblings to the kalo (or taro plant). While their relation to the universe is familial, they are lower on the hierarchy than kalo.
  3. In answer to the question: “What do you feel is important to pass down to the younger generation?” Kalo states:

    Kalo: Hopefully everything we do today is…a legacy per se that we can leave to the younger generation…whether it be the environment, or whether it be our Hawaiian values and concepts that we pass on to the next generation and a positive wellness, wholeness, of who we are as Hawaiians…a legacy of positiveness, of strength, of courage, of energy. All the things that are…positive in the Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiian values that are being passed down to us, through our kupuna. And then through us as makua (parent generation), and then to the next opio (youth) generation…cause Hawaiians don’t separate themselves from the environment. We are one, one and the same, and we need each other, and depend on each other, and have this interrelationship with our environment. And that’s why the land is so important … because without the land there would be no life. If we reflect on the story of Haloa and Kalo….The story of how…the Hawaiians got kalo which is taro, which is the Hawaiian staple, from which we make poi, and which is at every Hawaiian meal, and that the story of Haloa teaches us, that if it was not for the premature birth of the firstborn of Wakea…and Papa, that this firstborn that was deformed, was planted in the earth, and from that Kalo grew, and then the next child, which was Haloa and perfect form which became the grandfather for ALL Hawaiians to come afterwards. You need kalo first in order to FEED your people, and that’s why poi is so important. If you make that kind of connection with the earth, and with God, in, in one, in ONE being…Hawaiians are so connected to the heavens, to the earth, to themselves…(Kalo: interview).

  4. For Kalo knowledge “flows through” the kupuna and successive generations almost as if it is an actual entity. She moves from a theme of legacy and healing, directly into the story of Haloa and Kalo, a story about identity through relatedness to the land. This story names taro and land as the feeder (which is the translation for “land” -aina). Kalo lends symbolic significance to the act of eating poi, then she suggests that the legacy which must be passed down is our place in the cosmos, our relationship to aina.Claim 2: Material life centers around the process of reproduction and the universe (including humans) is in a constant state of reproduction. A discourse of reproduction, increase, and abundance permeates language.
  5. Tutu Ohi’a: As I have said we were poor in money, grampa didn’t work. He raised taro, potatoes, cane, chickens, pigs for us to eat. And we always had plenty to eat! But when it came to money, we didn’t have any unless one other gave us some money…. My grandmother and grandfather always had everything we wanted to do. And we lived the Hawaiian way. We, we cooked outside you know. Everything was cooked outside. But in spite of that, the food was good, and simple food, like…taro tops, taro stalks, the taro in the poi (voice gets louder), the sugar cane for us to chew, and EVERY mahealani, mahealani is the full moon, we’d all plant. (Tutu Ohi’a: interview)
  6. Tutu Ohi’a reminisces about extreme abundance without need of money, first pointing to the abundance of the land, later discussing the next generation of Hawaiians. The profusion of plants and the preparation and eating of food permeate Tutu Ohi’a’s stories.Claim 3: A task for every life form in the cosmos (including humans) is guardianship and protection of other species. Relatedness to one another and to the cosmos is a central theme in life.
  7. Tutu Ohi’a: OK. Today, when we say, take care of the land, I don’t think many Hawaiians have that, really. Cause they live in cities, towns, and they live, some of them, live in apartments. No yard…there’s very little…of that. The only way they can get it is by us. Us telling them. Take care. Take care of the land. You know the land feeds us. And the rivers give us water…(Tutu Ohi’a: interview).
  8. Respect and reciprocity between humans, water, and land is the basis of survival in the stories of Aunty Lau and Tutu Ohi’a. They assert the necessity of caring for the land, and the fact that nobody “owns” the land. Their stories offer deeply layered claims about the complex and multi-faceted nature of the human relationship to the aina.Claim 4: Words may be sacred, may fly through the air, may cause life or death. The first element in knowledge is prayer, the articulation with the forces of the cosmos.
  9. Many of Aunty Lau’s stories held private messages for Kalo. Kalo described how she took up Aunty Lau’s stories:

    Kalo: …because we are Hawaiian, the answers that we give to each other, it’s so much more meaningful…. You know, they’re not, just, just surface level. Because when we do things, in the name of our culture, or the fact that we are Hawaiian, it’s not just us that we speak. You know, we speak for our family, you know, we speak for those who came before us, and those that will come after. (Kalo: interview)

  10. Kalo states that the meaningfulness of words emerges not just from content, but from relationships. The idea that words, once uttered, become causative agents, plays a part in stories Tutu Ohi’a tells about her grandmother. Describing how her grandmother healed another kupuna, Tutu Ohi’a says:

    Tutu Ohi’a: So my grandmother would go and sit down, talk with her, and, and then my grandmother would say to her, “You are the cause of your own trouble. You, your mouth has said this, but you didn’t carry out. You just went back on what you said…” …And so the only way you can clear this illness is we pray and ask forgiveness, because God is a forgiving God. So, they would pray, and all of a sudden, this woman gets up, walking around the house…(Tutu Ohi’a: interview).

    Claim 5: History, or social change is a sacred process which may lie outside human agency. Yet the internal origins of change repeat themselves in the larger world.

  11. Aunty Lau: …So, until they learn how to love (Hawaiians won’t get self- determination)….And I think that’s what’s wrong with our Hawaiian people…a lot of it is jealousy too. Yeah. Instead of helping, yeah? Coming together. Like they say, lokahi. Be together, all in one. (Aunty Lau: interview)
  12. Aunty Lau speaks of the lesson of love which must be learned in order to move forward. Aunty Lau and Tutu Ohi’a share the idea that getting back humility and Hawaiian practices and values would lead away from divisiveness towards collective responsibility towards one another, and eventually towards self- determination. For them, inner spiritual integrity and ethical actions are essential to a Hawaiian future.Claim 6: Ways of knowing are not based on fragmented categories, or the limits of one’s own senses. Humans are genealogically located within this discourse, in a circle of relatedness of all earth-creatures and manifestations.
  13. Tutu Ohi’a and Aunty Lau often describe knowledge as emanating from places other than one’s conscious, waking senses. In Tutu Ohi’a’s story about her grandmother healing, dreams are a way of gaining knowledge:

    Tutu Ohi’a: And she’d say, “We’re going over there, to that house, to see that kupuna. She’s not well.” And I said, “How do you know?” And she’d say, “Because I had a dream last night.” So sure enough, when we get to that place, this kupuna is in bed. (Tutu Ohi’a: interview)

  14. Tutu Ohi’a speaks of Noelani, her daughter, in terms of knowledge and spirituality:

    Tutu Ohi’a: You know, I read someplace, lately, I don’t know what place I saw that, the Hawaiian spirit was the ha. It was their breath. Yeah. It was the breath. (silence) I was SO surprised to see that. And I thought…. OH my, that’s where Noelani has been. Noelani has gone way down, into the culture…many of us are only on the surface.

  15. Aunty Lau and Tutu Ohi’a use stories, often long and intricate, to make a point. These stories are often tied up with their relationship to Kalo as knowledge is passed down to Kalo, who describes that sense of relatedness:

    Kalo: …its a circle of love and that’s why the lei in the Hawaiian culture is so important because when you give someone a lei it’s an enclosure…the lei is always closed, never open because it’s an encircling of that connectedness within the Hawaiian ohana (family) within the Hawaiian society, and within the Hawaiian culture and values. (Kalo: interview)

  16. When the kupuna tell the stories of their kupuna to the younger generations, they connect generations of Hawaiians, forming an ancestry of experience. A phrase I heard often was “My kupuna told me, and now I’m telling you.” Knowledge flows through these narratives and becomes embodied in the identities of the listeners. In the assertions, patterns, sequences and shifts of the narratives we find a powerful cosmology and compelling philosophies/practices of knowledge.Dismembering the Genealogy of Knowledge
  17. Formal schooling has had a devastating impact on Hawaiian knowledge systems. The everyday stories of elders, and their lessons have been whittled away as “schooling” has displaced “learning” in indigenous communities. Tutu Ohi’a remembers living with her grandparents, a common practice among Hawaiians. She says she came home from school one day to tell her grandparents that it was wrong to eat out of the same poi bowl. The reason, she had learned in school, had to do with germs. They agreed to eat out of separate bowls. Tutu Ohi’a later told them it was wrong to eat the poi with their fingers: they needed to use spoons. They agreed. Finally, Tutu Ohi’a came home from school and told them they needed to get “good china,” because the school teacher might visit, and she did not want to be embarrassed. They again complied. Tutu pauses, then says of her grandparents:

    Tutu Ohi’a: …They respected so much. They respected land, respected the trees. They respected the air. Everything. Water. Everything that gave life to them. And to me, I lived that life as a child. (voice shakes) And I didn’t appreciate it. Because I was aiming to be…American. And to, you know, to do things like an American. Because we were going to school then. You see, and, it took many many years for me to realize that I had the BEST of, of the, of the culture. (Tutu Ohi’a: interview)

  18. This story symbolically describes a gradual disconnection. Through it we can begin to understand how schooling dismembered the genealogical contexts of knowledge in the ohana (family), marginalizing the kupuna. Tutu Ohi’a and Aunty Lau also tell stories in which schooling is a tool for recuperating what has been lost. They are both active in a programme where kupuna tell stories and teach Hawaiian culture in the schools. During fieldwork, I heard profound concern voiced about displacement of oral tradition by mainland style (Western) schooling. Programmes where community people, particularly kupuna, recuperate voice and space in the schools are seen as helping to heal this crisis.
  19. How can we bring elders and their stories into the schools? Their stories offer universal lessons that the world community needs. These lessons lodge not only in the head, but in the soul. Teacher educators and graduate students in education need to devise “Oral Narrative Projects” within which indigenous and non-indigenous students work in teams, collecting, interpreting, and sustaining these narratives. Practising teachers in indigenous communities, in all communities, need to bring elders and their stories into their classrooms, helping students to find bridges between orality and written text, indigenous and non-indigenous experience. These narratives must not be merely appropriated as peripheral add-ons or entertainment – these lessons must be learned.
  20. These stories construct an earth-human relationship, where earth is a presence and a voice, and humans must listen. In this respect we are again reminded that these lessons are universal and imperative. They are not just relevant to the Hawaiian experience, but to the future of our collective life on this planet. In one of Tutu Ohi’a most compelling stories, she unthinkingly plucks a plant from the earth without asking permission. The plant yanks her back. She falls, breaking her arm. Her story calls forth the unthinking, global rupture of the earth-human relationship. Many kupuna represent the last living generation of “earth-competents,” the last generation to live in a particular way in relation to the earth, and to construct earth in a particular way, in their talk.
  21. We cannot afford to engage in global dis-regard for their stories, admonitions, and advice, and a resultant global silencing of the voice of the earth. We live that silence, as species are eliminated, land is despoiled, oceans are defiled. The stories of kupuna represent “fixing rituals” which have the potential to break that silence, to move us onto the right path, get us into our “right minds.” We must find ways to collect, take up, re-member and live these stories, these lessons. As we approach the end of a millennia, who will use this knowledge, who will pass down this ancestry of experience?


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