In 1999, Kauai kumu hula Kehaulani Kekua and her hula school, Halau Palaihiwa O Kaipuwai, joined other halau, native Hawaiian families and organizations throughout the state for a 24-hour prayer ceremony aimed at raising awareness about traditional Hawaiian cultural practices and the proper care of sacred places. Chants and hula were offered every hour on the hour at several of those sites, including Limahuli Garden and Preserve in north Kauai.
"We experienced many wonderful signs in nature, including flocks of koae (tropic birds), iwa (frigate birds) and owls that circled overhead during different hours," Kekua said of that vigil. "The most amazing experience for me was seeing the rare red punohuula mists that spread over the ocean before us. Auspicious winds and rains appeared when we chanted or danced about them, including a gentle yet phenomenal wind that closed our midnight ceremony. The paths up to the flat plateau that we established as our ceremonial ground were lined with torches. I think it was the first time in hundreds of years that the valley appeared this way. It was magical."
Kekua has returned to Limahuli many times since then. A respected Hawaiian cultural authority, she has created and implemented a training program in Hawaiian protocols for the garden’s staff; presented lectures to support its educational efforts; held workshops for the community on Hawaiian culture, native practices and native plants; and taken her halau there for retreats and service projects, including removing invasive and alien vegetation and planting palapalai, maile, ohia lehua and other native species associated with hula.
IF YOU GO …
On Saturday, Kekua and her halau will share moolelo (stories), chants and dances about the ahupuaa (land division) of Haena, where Limahuli Garden is located, at the first of four Moolelo Under the Moon presentations planned this summer.
"In 2009, we came up with the idea of marrying our vision of Limahuli Garden and Preserve being a puuhonua (place of refuge) for the living Hawaiian culture with our dream of having moonlight events," said Director Kawika Winter.
"Limahuli Valley is utterly breathtaking in the moonlight, and for years my staff and I have been trying to develop an appropriate program to highlight its natural beauty and cultural history in that context. Moolelo Under the Moon was born to perpetuate the traditions of chant, dance, song and storytelling in the manner in which they were meant to be — on the aina (land), embraced by nature."
The series is held once a month on the Saturday evening preceding the full moon. "It is designed for our community and to perpetuate our native culture," Winter said. "For visitors, it’s a rare opportunity to mingle with local people and to experience truly authentic Hawaiian culture."
Haena has shaped and guided the tradition and practice of hula since ancient times. Students — most of whom were of alii (royal) status — were specially chosen to study at Ka Ulu A Paoa, a religious institution that demanded excellence in chant; dance; and memorization and delivery of epic oral traditions about migrations, genealogies, historic events, ceremonies, rituals and more. Ka Ulu A Paoa’s students were disciples of hula who were committed to strict taboos for the duration of their arduous training.
Makana, the 1,600-foot mountain near Haena Point, was one of only two places in Hawaii where oahi, firebrand-throwing ceremonies, were performed for special occasions (the other was Kamaile, the summit of a precipice in Nualolo on the Napali coast). These occasions included the graduation of alii from Ka Ulu a Paoa. Blazing shafts of light, dry wood were hurled from atop Makana. The wind carried the shafts out to sea, where spectators in canoes caught some of them.
Many tales about Hawaiian deities, including Pele, the volcano goddess, and her younger sister, Hiiaka, are set in Haena. Halau Palaihiwa O Kaipuwai will bring several of these legends to life during their Moolelo Under the Moon presentation.
"Hula is about becoming one with the natural world and transporting yourself AND your audience into the milieu of the moolelo and its characters," Kekua said. "I emphasize the importance of developing an intimate understanding about the places that we dance and chant about, and learning about the details that are part of the mele (songs)."
To achieve this, Kekua often takes her halau on huakai, cultural excursions to sacred and storied sites. These trips usually last at least two days, allowing the dancers time to absorb information and to forge the spiritual connection that enables them to portray the mele from "deep within their naau (gut), which Hawaiians perceive as the emotion center of the body," Kekua said. "When we perform in the actual setting of chants and dances, as we will be doing at Moolelo Under the Moon, that performance is even more powerful and inspiring."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.