Kohemalamalama O Kanaloa: Healing Ceremonies for an Island

by John Stokes

(This article first appeared in the Winter 1992 newsletter of The Tracking Project)

Last August, 300 Hawaiian leaders, kupuna (elders), and supporters of the land gathered on the beach at Hakioawa on the island of Kaho‘olawe to take part in a healing ceremony. The “ceremonies for renewed life” were designed to bring together the minds of those charged with making decisions about the island’s future. Though many of these decision makers were political figures (Governor John Waihee, Senators Inouye, Akaka and others), the ceremony involved a spiritual pledge: “Yes, I will support the Hawaiian cultural heritage and everything that it means to be a kanaka maoli (true Hawaiian). And I will carry this on for the next seven generations.”

At the invitation of Parley Kanaka‘ole, one of the event’s creators, four members of our men’s team—Ed Kanawahienton Benedict (Mohawk Nation), Gale Drapeau (Yankton Dakota), Dave Martine (Diné) and John Stokes—traveled to the event as supporters. Parley had asked if we would stand in the four directions and “guard” the ceremony with prayers.  The ceremonies marked a great turning point in the struggle of the Hawaiian ‘ohana to regain stewardship of this sacred land, which was used until October 1990 as a bombing range by the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and others. Part of restoring Kaho‘olawe, which means “that which is carried away” (referring to the surrounding ocean currents), was to rename it. The ceremony used a legendary reference to the island as Kohemalamalama o Kanaloa, “the place dedicated to Kanaloa,” “the place which gives birth to light.”

A strong rainstorm from the direction of Maui the day before the event signaled a good blessing. Then, on August 22, before the sun rose, some 150 of us purified ourselves in the ocean (an ancient purification called hiu wai) and gathered in a line to face the east and greet the sun with the chant “E ala E.” Later, military helicopters brought in the dignitaries and the kupuna from the other islands. The reading of each leader’s genealogy and the awa ceremony to mark their pledge took place on a 20 by 40 foot mua or heiau built of stone by members of Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) in the months before the ceremony. It is the first heiau to be built in Hawai’i since Kamehameha finished his great war heiau at Puu Kohola on the Big Island 200 years ago.

Petroglyphs on Kaho‘olawe - Historic Hawai'i Foundation

This was followed by the planting of a grove of 400 niu (coconut trees) and 40 ulu (breadfruit trees), dedicated in honor of the late George Helm, Maui activist. As the trees were planted, each one put in place by a man and a woman, chanting and working together, a light rain fell. This gave way to a traditional Hawaiian feast and a performance of the sacred hula.

There was more to this event, but space will not allow. At the point in the ceremony when offerings were given to the heiau, our group was asked by the kahu, or ceremonial leader, to pray on the mua.  Standing in a line, we offered a gift given to us by our friend, Nita, and then prayed, each in our own language. First in Yankton, then Diné (Navajo), Mohawk and English — we each gave our greetings and thanksgiving to the land, the ancestors (Ka poe kahiko) and the people, that past, present and future efforts would lead to this island being returned to the care of the Hawaiian people.

Part of the Navy’s rationale for bombing the island was “…to gain experience operating with allied countries…If we had to go to war, it’s too late to learn to fight alongside your buddies.” Coordinators of the event on Kohemalamalama used similar, but peaceful reasoning. Said Leslie Kuloloio, “It’s a rebirth of ourselves…the beginning of the prayer for all Hawaiians to be together.”

We four from the mainland were greatly honored to be part of this event, and we extend our deepest thanks to Parley Kanaka’ole, his family and the people of Hawai’i for their hospitality, friendship and inspiration. May we always stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, protecting the sacred sites.

John Stokes © 1992

CHECK OUT OUR SCHEDULE OF CLASSES & GATHERINGS