Native Hawaiian māhū are reclaiming their history

In the middle of Waikīkī, Hawai’i’s busiest, most photographed and most traveled neighborhood, there is a monument to Native Hawaiian culture that is also, perhaps, one of our most overlooked. In view, between the ever-popular Duke Kahanamoku statue and the elegant Moana Surfrider Hotel, are four large but otherwise unassuming stones that hold a powerful and misunderstood story.

Known as Nā Pōhaku Ola Kapaemāhū (“the stones of life in Kapaemāhū”), these ancient stones, which have been hallowed in a closed enclosure since 1997, represent four respected healers who were māhū, the Hawaiian word for a person double man and female spirit. However, any ascription to his māhū association is conspicuously absent from the monument’s signage. The omission is not surprising: more than two centuries after Christian missionaries first arrived in the archipelago, many Native Hawaiian stories and traditions continue to be erased and obscured, deemed too distasteful for Western customs.

The moʻolelo (story) of Nā Pōhaku Ola Kapaemāhū, handed down for more than 700 years, recounts the visit of four beloved Tahitians to the shores of O’ahu. Sculptural, courteous and kind, the androgyny of their appearance and demeanor—physically balanced with feminine and masculine manners—was positively received, and they were openly accepted by the natives of the island. The quartet proved to be exceptional in the healing arts and their fame spread among the community with all bodily ailments they cured. Before their departure back to Tahiti, four human-sized blocks were excavated and transported to the beachfront facility where they first set foot to mark and honor their generosity. The story concludes on a moonless night, when the four Māhū healers transfer their names – Kapuni, Kinohi, Kahaloa and Kapaemāhū – and their mana (powers) to the stones, then disappear forever.

This sacred story is the focus Kapaemāhū, an animated short film released in 2020 and narrated by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, herself a prominent kumu (teacher), activist, filmmaker and māhū in Hawai’i. Since transitioning in her early twenties, Wong-Kalu has emerged as a leader within the ongoing intergenerational movement to reclaim the revered role of the Māhū people in Hawaiian culture; a movement that has manifested itself on the screen, in the academic world and in museums, through ceremonies and on the dance floor. Once a term used locally as a playground insult or punchline, māhū has increasingly become a source of power and pride for many in adulthood, in part because of advocates such as Wong-Kalu and the restoration of the complete story of the healer. stones of Kapaemāhū.

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