Küpuna: Keepers of Wisdom

Givers of Spirit

 By Wayne Smith


Almost from the moment of the arrival in the Hawaiian Islands of Captain Cook and his English sailors in 1778, the indigenous culture went into decline. From Cook's journal and log entries and the diaries of his crew, we know that they found a skilled, self-sufficient people living in a highly developed, sophisticated society and culture. They were great navigators and sailors who could travel the uncharted seas between their former homes in the South Pacific and Hawai˙i; skilled farmers who had developed ingenious farming methods and crops that thrived on the rich volcanic soil of the islands; and a people who had developed a viable culture that blended and extended the many cultures from which they had come.


The rapid introduction of foreign people, cultures, ideas, values, trade, religion, and disease, which quickly decimated the island's native population, sent its native culture into decline.


Only a century after Cook's accidental arrival in the islands, Samuel Kamakau, a Hawaiian scholar of the day wrote:


"The people of today are destitute; their clothing and provisions come from foreign lands, and they do not work as their ancestors did.....One cannot find skilled persons who have a deep knowledge of the land; Because of the foreign ways of the race, they have abandoned the works of the ancestors."


In large part, this situation reigned for another 100 years. By the early 1900s, there were few left who understood, much less practiced, the ancient traditions. The language was seldom spoken, partly because the new religions of the missionaries discouraged its use, and partly because laws forbade it being taught in the schools. Hula, the most recognized symbol of the Hawaiian culture, was seldom danced except in tourist hotels or in stylized Hollywood movies. Only in private did a few continue to dance the ancient hula, sing the ancient chants, or practice the ancient arts of healing, farming, navigating, canoe or kapa cloth making, fishing, or family discipline. The culture was nearly dead.


In her book, Voices of Wisdom: Hawaiian Elders Speak, MJ Harden writes in the Introduction:


"Everything Hawaiian seemed of no value, and this once proud nation of people who traced their lineage back to the beginning of time was now at the bottom of the social structure (in their own land). Many of the elders interviewed in this book speak of growing up inferior."


A Culture Revives


Then in the 1970s, closely paralleling the civil rights movement in the rest of the nation, the Hawaiians began a renaissance of their culture. Driven by emotion generated by a great grief for the loss of their culture, land, and pride, many began to reconnect with their past. They began to take hula lessons, learn their ancient language, immerse themselves in their history, and rejoice in the rediscovery of their cultural heritage.


"When the Student is Ready the Teacher will Come"


Into this void of information and understanding stepped the remaining küpuna* (respected elders) who, through their culture's tradition of oral history had kept alive the wisdom of the ancients, to accept their ancestral roles from the old culture as teachers. There was for the first time in decades a large, ready and willing group of students who sought out these few remaining küpuna and kahuna (masters and teachers of specific skills; i.e. taro farmers, canoe makers, etc.) to learn all they could about their distant heritage. Today, after thirty years of recovery, the culture is thriving, thanks to those who sought to preserve the wisdom and become the new küpuna.


 Our mobile culture has grown to pay little attention to the uniqueness and important heritage of the areas between which we move so easily. However, those of us who elect to move to this unique but fragile paradise of Hawaii assume a responsibility unlike moving from Ohio to Texas. This place requires that when we become Hawaiian-by-choice we must also become Hawaiians-at-heart. History shows what will happen if we don't. For this we must look, as the kanaka maoli (aboriginal people) do, to the küpuna for knowledge of the ˙aina (revered land), and na hana ka wä kahiko (traditions) of our host culture to understand and respect its ways.


Today, one of the mainstays of the Hawaiian culture is its reverence and reliance on its küpuna. The generation that preserved the old wisdom is now aging and are considered "living treasures" by the community because of their knowledge and willingness to pass it on to the next generations. Younger members of the communities and families are now stepping forward to take their place in the time honored tradition. As always, the küpuna recognize and select those for whom they become mentors to pass along their wisdom.


The status of kupuna is not something that can be assumed or even aspired to. It is earned and conferred as a natural form of respect given freely by the family and community as a whole.  Küpuna are sought-out for their specific knowledge and wisdom and are traditionally available to all who ask. 


˙A˙ohe pau ka ˙ike i ka halau hookahi


All knowledge is not found in one school



Maui is blessed with a great number of küpuna or "living treasures" who are recognized and revered by the Hawaiian community and deeply respected by Hawaiians-at-heart.. They reside in every part of the island and enrich their communities by their very presence. Like the kähuna who have mastered a specific skill, küpuna often have mastered several and approach them from a deeply spiritual base and with a greater  understanding of their role in the larger context of the society.


Living Treasures


One of Maui's "living treasures" is Aunty Mahilani Poepoe. Her forte' is knowing the genealogy and history of the island peoples and, as in the ancient days when all history was held in the memories of the küpuna, being able to recite it on demand. This breadth and depth of knowledge of history makes her an invaluable resource for placing everything from personal arguments to community or island issues into a context which often makes solutions easier to come by. Because her knowledge is so far-reaching and includes all of the Polynesian peoples of the Pacific, she was recently called to New Zealand to participate in the resolution of critical issues facing the Maori, that countries indigenous people. By adding her perspective, she was able to facilitate agreements and understandings that helped preserve the integrity of the Maori culture.


Aunty Poepoe is acutely aware that the world is changing and that the roots of her ancient past which she carries into the twenty-first century is critical to the survival of the Hawaiian and to all the peoples of the planet. She often talks of the need for the highly evolved life concept of Aloha to be communicated to all. Aloha, in her view, is the distilled essence of thousands of years of evolution and a key factor in developing a sustainable society, not only in Hawaii and the Pacific, but in every nation around the globe.


Because her knowledge and wisdom gained from the crucible of experience  encompasses many parts of the ancient religions and spiritual teachings, Aunty Poepoe is able to instruct and influence her younger students in the enactment of contemporary rituals. Recently she, along with her protégé', Leiohu Ryder, performed a ritual cleansing and rededication of a Wailuku cemetery which had fallen into disrepair and was threatened by encroaching developments. The ritual of chant (mea oli), hula and offering (mo hai) delivered the revitalized sacred place back to the people of the community.


Aunty Pua Lindsey is another of Maui's "living treasures." From her Lahaina home she dispenses Aloha to all who come to her door. Aunty Pua is dedicated to the spiritual and physical well being of her immediate family and the extended community as a whole. She is the matriarch of her family, delivering Aloha to three generations siblings, children, and grandchildren. Her talent for loving is known to all who meet her.


The ancient wisdom upon which she has focused is healing. She is an herbal practitioner or la˙au lapa˙au.


For hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years, before contact with the West, Hawaiian and other Polynesian cultures were based on the harmonious interdependence of all the components of nature, man included. The medical arts, or healing practices, concerned themselves with maintaining this harmony.


Aunty Pua has a deep understanding of this harmony. She views it as a basic component of the Aloha Spirit which she both demonstrates and teaches in every aspect of her life.


Aunty Pua has also instilled her love of the Hawaiian culture in her family and many who come to her for her healing wisdom depart acknowledging the value and importance of the wisdom she has gained and dispenses with such ease.


These are but two of our "living treasures" who lovingly carry in their hearts and minds the essence of a culture which reaches far into the past. They are all uniquely dedicated to preserving, evolving, and passing on their wisdom to the next generation so that it may be kept alive to lend its power to the growing body of wisdom we all, Hawaiians-by-choice, Hawaiians-at-heart, and human beings in general, will need to preserve our global culture.


Keepers of wisdom: Givers of Spirit


In her book, Voices of Wisdom: Hawaiian Elders Speak, MJ Harden  closes the Introduction with profound reverence for today's aging küpuna by stating: ......"these are people who have led lives that matter; and what matters most to them is to keep lit the flame of a culture that nearly died. It is through their efforts that Hawaiian traditions will live into the twenty-first century. They prompted more than a cultural rebirth, they inspired a revival of spirit."


Cultural traditions form the foundation of a people's identity. Thanks to the küpuna, these traditions were not lost and are alive and well, and the valued wisdom of the past can continue to be instilled in generations of Hawaiians still to come. REM


*Küpuna is the plural/kupuna is the singular in the Hawaiian language.



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