Aha Awa

I've lived in Hawaii for nearly nine years, but I still am a malihini-- a newcomer. The more I learn, the more I feel like a waterbug, barely skittering across the surface of cultural waters. This week, partaking of awa as part of ka hoomakaukau i na pukana-- preparing our graduates-- I was reminded of how shallow my knowledge really is.

I've only participated in three Aha Awa-- or Awa ceremonies-- one every year for my students' graduations. The first year I understood maybe one in three words in Hawaiian, and the next year three of four-- this year was the first that I understood everything that was said, which freed me up to be puzzled by the bigger questions.

This is what happened.

We met at noon. It was scorching. The Alakai-- the charismatic Kumu Kaina, who left the school last year to farm full time, set up under a tarp-tent ready for graduation the next day. He and his kokua--- or assistant-- Anakala Keaka, Kumu Kanani's partner, spread out the tools for the ceremony. The order is particular and my memory is terrible, but: a woven lauhala matt. Several sea shells. Empty half-coconut shells for serving the awa. A small wooden basin of clean water. Another basin of water to make the awa. A small muslin packet of the awa itself.

The participants gathered-- the three graduating seniors, a handful of parents, the principal, present and former teachers. The men sat to the right of the alakai, and the women to the left, with the graduates immediately to either side of him.

He then explained that this aha gathering was "noa," not "kapu"-- a distinction that later I was told was a relief to many of the participants, because apparently kapu ceremonies can lead to strange and disturbing events, like when people call on ancestors to be present and participate ("Even though I told them that Auntie never like be called!!") I found this image charming but was corrected-- NO, it's a big deal. If you call on somebody but they don't want to be there, they have no place to be afterwards, and will affix themselves to you, or to your unsuspecting children. (I also, incidentally, learned that centipedes are the "kinolau" or bodily form of Satan, and that if you find one where it shouldn't be, then someone is jealous of you.) He explained how aha awa are in honor of people, and that the power of the sun beating down on us was the piko of wakea, pouring mana onto us. The dignity and solemnity of his attitude cast a net over the gathering-- demarcated the space as ritual-space. Yes, silver tarp, yes zip ties, yes sweat-stains-- but the ritual space limns the participants with the sounds, the words, the sights, the tastes, the smells of the ceremony.

Kumu Kaina began with a chant Ka Wai a Kane, which invokes the god Kane and his waters in all their domains-- in the rising and setting sun, in the mountain and the sea, in the air and below the earth. Then he chanted a Kawa chant that invokes Lono and officially begins the awa gathering.

Then the Alakai took the muslin bag of awa and massaged it in the bowl of water. The first bowl he presented to the Kokua, who knelt on one knee, received it with both hands, and took it far away out of sight to offer to the gods, the aumakua, the ancestors. When he returned, he presented the cup back to the alakai, again with bowed head and two hands. The alakai rinsed the coconut cup in the clean water, swirled a clean cup in the bowl of gray-green murky awa, and again, two-handed, passed to the kneeling kokua, who knelt again before the first guest after the graduates. The first guest inclined her head, and accepted the awa with both hands. Holding the shiny wet coconut cup in two hands, she gave her thoughts and well-wishes to the seniors, told them of her insights into their strengths and their challenges, and admonished them to carry on with what they've begun. Then she daintily dipped her fingers into the bowl, and sprinkled a few drops before her onto the ground, to her side, and behind her over her shoulder, muttering, "E na kupuna, na aumakua, na akua..." And then drained the cup to the dregs. The last few gritty drops she poured respectfully into the grass before returning, head inclined, the empty bowl to the kokua, who received it on his knees.

And thus around the circle. Rinse, swirl, kneel, present, accept, sprinkle, speech, drink, return... again and again. I noticed little variations. Some people didn't sprinkle. Some did three times, only once. Some drained their cup, others didn't. Most people spoke before they partook, some didn't.

Last of all the graduates themselves spoke, addressed their parents, cried.

I was moved by the speeches-- and by the blessedness of these kids to be addressed so intensely and beautifully in this circle. It reminded me of a laying on of hands from my own religious tradition-- a transformative space where difficult and wonderful things can be said and heard that otherwise have no place.

I was able to thank my students for teaching me-- especially my one boy, who warmed my stoney cold heart by calling me his haole mom. He told me a few weeks ago at a senior farewell night (more high-school culture rather than high-Hawaiian culture-- slideshows and skits and roasts and tearful tributes and potluck) that, yes it hurts to open your heart up to love, but it's a good thing. His words knocked me sideways-- it's true. It hurts to love other people. But you still should. I got to thank him for his wisdom.

And how lucky are these kids? To be pulled apart from all the press and nonsense of high school, and told by a lifetime of their teachers why they are treasured-- what an amazing gift.


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