The Hawaiian Universe in the Parking Lot Thicket

Today I got to accompany my 7th-12th graders to a heiau restoration project. In the discussion amongst us teachers leading up to this excursion, we were warned that "he wahe kane." It's a man place, a makahiki games sight. I didn't know what to expect

As I picked up my walkie-talkie from the front office, the Hawaiian language teacher pulled me to the side with something like: "I na aia ia oe ka wailehua, a'ale pono e komo i ka heiau." I didn't understand-- he had to rephrase. "Ka waihooluu no ka lehua? Ka wai ulaula?" Ah. I finally got it. "Ma'i?" I answered. Monosyllabic and agrammitical,  as usual. He was telling me that, if I or the other women were on our periods, we were supposed to wait and not enter the heiau grounds.  The colorful idiom is "the water of the lehua blossom." Much more poetic than "auntie flow."

We piled all of the non-menstruating students (luckily all of them) into the vans and headed out. We parked behind a third-string tourist restaurant (the kind with airbrushed marlin on the walls and t-shirts for sale). The Kumu Alaka'i (lead teacher) called the students to order and pulled us into a circle for instructions. He said he would go ahead, and when the conch shell sounded twice, we could follow, with the men in front and the women behind. He then slipped into the underbrush. We milled around in the parkinglot for a while-- the boys played with Kendama, the current mad toy craze; the girls demonstrated how to do t-shirt macrame with their school uniforms.

Then the pu sounded, and the boys tromped off into the underbrush. I followed at the end, shepherding the reluctant and clumsy students through the nasty kiawe thorns and dessicated catcus.

We caught up with the group, standing still in the shade of the kiawe brush. The kids began a chant-- the same one they perform to ask permission to enter the taro patch or the garden.

Liuliu wale i ka uka o kaholālele.
Mauka makai o kāpapa lā i…ē
E komo, e komo aku ho‘i au ma loko      
I nā ka pu‘u nui o waho nei lā i…ē….
he anu ē
he anu ē…
he ko‘eko‘e wale nō
a… ē..

Kumu answered from inside with a chant of welcome: "...E ukokomomai me ke aloha, e komo mai me ke aloha."

We came through into a startlingly huge clearing. Three or four acres of stubbly black lava rock-- at first seemingly blank but after a careful look, crumbled corners, slumping towers, leaning walls appear. Foundations, ditches, ponds. Grave markers. Playing grounds. An open expanse completely hidden from view from the parking lot, from the busy public beach across the street, from the neighborhood.

In the center was a large pond-- only there in the winter-- and it was dotted with black and white waterbirds and fringed with jasmine plants. It connects to a spot out in the ocean water half a mile away, beyond the break. Along one side was a tall rock wall, and on the other a deep fishpond, split from its sister in the 1960s for development and no longer full of circulating water.

We stood in a wide circle with the handful of deeply tanned, strikingly tattooed men who were working there that day, planting symbolic plants in each quadrant of the heiau, depending on the god of that quadrant. One tall uncle, in a faded blue button down shirt rolled up above scarred forearms, bashed bluejeans, and haircut growing out past his collar, introduced himself as Nawa'a. I had a sense of dejavu seeing him. He could have been from southern Utah from the Rez, from Idaho from a ranch. His name was Frederick-- I think Frederick Wichman, if my internet sluething after the fact can be trusted.

He began telling us stories. He spun a vision for us-- a line 900 years back-- of chiefs and rulers and gods. I tried to burn the stories and names into my brain as I listened but felt them evaporating like the details of a dream-- the stories were too lush, to world too vivid. Weliweli, Walewale, Ekahihau, Nukumoi, Waiohai, Momakahili...

Pele's older sister (was it Namakaokaha'i?) came to Kauai, and married her women around the islands to establish her supremacy. Then, when she witnessed a man beating his wife, she inhabited the battered woman's body, and slaughtered the husband. But this possession experience broke the woman's mind. The goddess took the woman to the very heiau where we were standing, and taught her to chant. "Us Hawaiians," said Frederick, "we love chanting. We could chant all day and all night." The chanting, after endless days and nights, eventually healed her mind.

The Hawaiians pull the broken people inwards, he explained. Someday, he said, you all will look around and wonder how to heal the mind of someone you love. Remember this story. Heal them with chanting, with hula.

More stories: a dead chief struck by lightening, comes back to life. A year later.

Manokalanipo and the great peace. When an army from the other 6 islands attacked, Kukona, the head chief, lured them inland while his own fleet destroyed their ships. Rather than slaughter them, he had them enter a treaty that ensured "kahua" or the great peace for 250 years, until Kamehameha the first, in his attempt to unite all of the islands into a monarchy, smashes three generations of warriors onto the shores of Kauai. Finally Liholiho, his son, enters a tentative treaty with the Kauai chiefs in the 19th century, even though this eventually leads to the Queen Regent, Kaahumanu the great and terrible, conducting a 2 year slaughter of Kauai chiefs.

All of these stories left impressions, vivid images on my mind's eye. But I would need to hear them every day, day after to day, to etch them onto my bones, and the imprint them onto my eyes, so that every surface I see on this island would be inscribed with them.

Frederick/Nawa'a also demonstrated a tool that initially seemed, merely, Leonardo-level clever and useful. It is a Hawaiian fire starter. It is made of two straight sticks and a length of twine. On stick penetrates the other, and a weight wraps and unwraps the string around in order to spin the wood quickly enough to start a spark.

But this tool is is not only for fire: it is also an effective world map, an analogy, a calendar, and star chart. To use the fire starter as a compass, you point one end of the base stick at the north star, and the other end at the southern cross. Then the cross stick you point at the rising sun. Then, as you rotate the cross-stick around, it will describe the arc of the sun across the sky. And as the year progresses, your cross-stick will move further north and south till the solstice.

Rotating the cross stick in the motion of the sun creates a cylindrical heaven above a linear earth. But the cross-stick also creates quadrants.

"It's simple!" said Frederick. He pointed at one quadrant, half an inch off to the left of his oriented firestick. "Here is Tahiti. Here is Rapa Nui. Here is Ao Tearoa." Orient yourself with your stars and the sun and your fire sticks and you can't help but get to the right quadrant of the world.

So the Hawaiians, pre-globe, envisioned the world as a tapered cylinder, rather than a sphere? I am captivated by this; by the bone jarring otherness and complex beauty of this description of reality.

"To understand celestial navigation and the celestial directions-- forget about TRUE North or Magnetic North, just think celestial north!-- remember the story of Maui." Frederick told the story of the demi-god Maui's capture of the sun as it crossed the sky. "Maui's story is a metaphor for navigation!"

I waggled my eyebrows at my students. See? Metaphors? I didn't make that word up. Also-- these grand myths are more than stories. They are atlases.

This idea nails me to the wall. Nanene. Goosebumps.

Frederick guided us over the ragged black stones, cautioning us all to not disturb a single one. Until the entire area has been described by laser and GPS, we don't want to budge a single thing.

"And here," he gestured with his wide wingspan, "Is a pa hale. See?" I saw rocks. Rubble. Lichen. Cactus. Purslane. But he gestured at two squarish rocks at right angles.  "Here's a pole. Here's a wall. Here's the door. Do you see it?"

Suddenly the ghost image of a small house appeared: stick poles, ti leaves, coconut ropes. Tall, steeply sloped roof. The dramatic central posts, like a high capital H.

Our guide stepped into the imaginary space. "Here is the path And here is the door. And these are small houses, yeah? But they buried their family inside their houses, under the floor. This is a small island, we're all related. You could have ancestors under these stones."

He gestured to the door. "The ancestors had a place inside the house: the space to the left of the door. There was a low platform. So think of that-- the ancestors are with you. Be mindful of what you do, what you say, especially-- yeah. Especially in that spot, to the left of the door."

My students-- roiling hormones, ungainly teenagers-- were silent for two hours, listening to these stories, listening to the call of the waterbirds, and the clanking of the recycling bin in the parkinglot, on the other side of the kiawe thorn thicket.


  1. Wow. Words fail me. Thank-you for transporting me into a sacred space through your writing.

  2. I love, love, love tales from the island. Your job is equal parts inspiring and hysterical. I attended a field trip with my 7 yr. old here on the east coast. We went to see the play Seussical the Musical. And my point of sharing is that it makes me wonder. Did we neglect to protect, pass on or realize the profoundness that came before us. Or do we simply not care enough to see it. Are we, on the mainland, simply to young yet to look back?
    I miss the feeling of connectedness to the land I enjoyed on Kauai, the land could quite literally fill me up. (if that makes sense) I look around myself in my new space and I can't find anything to hold on to,

  3. Whoops, RANDY Wichman was his name! Frederich is his father, the author.


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