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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

After the fires, native Hawaiians seek revival through ritual

Crosses in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, stand on Aug. 22, 2023, to mourn the victims of the wildfires. The fire that levelled Lahaina burned so hot that officials say some victims’ bodies were turned to ash and may never be recovered or identified.

By Ruth Graham and Damien Cave

The week after devastating wildfires swept across Maui, Hokulani Holt walked to the center of a grassy courtyard about 12 miles from Lahaina, just over the island’s steep mountains.

A kumu hula, or hula teacher, Holt gathered about 50 listeners into a half-circle, and exhorted them to “lift your voice.” They each held a cup of water, a connection between the body, soul and ‘aina, Hawaiians’ expansive idea of the land. Several men and women blew hollowed-out bamboo pipes called pu ‘ohe, producing a deep, trumpetlike sound. Then, led by Holt’s voice, the group began to chant.

After the country’s deadliest fire in more than a century — at least 115 people have been confirmed dead, with hundreds still missing — practical recovery responses were clicking into place: food distribution, debris cleanup, a visit from the president.

But traditional Hawaiian ceremonies such as the one Holt held are addressing another need that many residents say is crucial: spiritual healing.

Although more than half of the people in the state describe themselves as Christian, and there is a strong Buddhist presence on the islands, in recent decades, traditional Hawaiian spiritual practices have been revived and advanced across the state.

In a survey conducted last year, more than 40% of Native Hawaiians said they interacted with the sea or the ‘aina — an entity sometimes described as a relative who is respected and cared for and who, in turn, cares for the people — for religious or spiritual reasons. Among non-Native Hawaiians, the number was 31%.

“People automatically now expect the kumu hula to form some type of ceremonial situation to address whatever the need is,” said Cody Pueo Pata, a kumu hula and musician who was raised on Maui and still lives there.

Within two days of the fire, he was among the small group of kumu hula who were making plans for the gatherings led by Holt, at the invitation of the nonprofit community health center hosting the events. The midday ceremonies over the course of 10 days started out drawing a few dozen people and grew to as many as 100 in person and more than 80,000 watching a livestream on social media. Oprah Winfrey, who has a home on the island, attended quietly on the last day.

The group’s work included selecting prayers for healing the island’s land and people. That required precision, as they considered which ancestors to address, and what to petition them for.

“What we didn’t want was to call too much rain,” said Keali’i Reichel, a musician who was born in Lahaina. Rain could cause flooding, and wash ashes and debris into the ocean. Instead, he said, “we try to urge moisture, just enough to create regenerative growth.”

He likened the practice of chant to the action of pulling back an arrow from a bow, poised to shoot. Practitioners must be aware of that power and know where to aim it, he said.

The prayer, in English, reads in part:

O Great Lono Residing in the Water —Urge growth, bestir, animate life;Here is the water, water of life, thrive!Grant us clouds, clouds from which life comes, thrive!

Reichel is one of the most prominent recording artists on the islands, known for several bestselling albums of Hawaiian music in the 1990s. But he has also become an ambassador for Hawaiian culture both on and off the islands. He founded a hula school in 1980 and is a longtime kumu hula, a role that goes far beyond choreography and includes responsibilities including passing down knowledge of specific spiritual lineages. More than one-quarter of the state’s residents identify as at least part Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, according to the most recent census.

Revitalizing Lahaina, Reichel said, is “going to take planning, a lot of chanting, a lot of ceremony.”

Lahaina itself is a complex symbol for the way Hawaiian culture and Christianity are layered on the islands, with many residents practicing a blend of beliefs. It was where Christian missionaries established Maui’s first mission in 1823, at the invitation of Queen Keopuolani soon after the dismantling of key parts of the islands’ traditional religious system under King Kamehameha II. A large banyan tree was planted on Front Street in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Christianity on the island, and it was a popular public gathering place downtown. The tree was badly scarred in the fires, and its survival is uncertain.

But many Native Hawaiians in particular see Christian influence as having been deeply damaging. Hula dancing was banned in public places for decades in the 19th century. Temples were destroyed, and use of the Hawaiian language withered.

“Our religion has been denigrated for centuries,” said Marie Alohalani Brown, a professor of Hawaiian religion at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, and a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner. “We’ve been called pagans, heathens, ignorant, naive.”

Nonetheless, Native Hawaiians never stopped practicing their traditional religion, a faith that includes multiple deities and identifies spirits in entities such as the sky and the sea. Its roots stretch back to the Pacific Islanders who most likely landed on Hawaii sometime after 1100 A.D. In the 1970s, a movement known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance” revived many traditional practices that were banned or discouraged in the 19th and early 20th centuries — a pattern also found in Guam and other colonized Pacific islands.

Those who came to the ceremony conducted by Holt welcomed the chance to gather and pray together, rather than at home.

Passing it all on to the next generation also seemed to be a priority. Mothers held infants who stayed silent through the chanting. Toddlers and teenagers quietly paid close attention.

Ceri Zablan, who is 16, said that for many young Hawaiians, the connection between culture, faith and history had become more powerful in recent years. She said she had been baptized Catholic but had gradually moved away from Christianity.

“There are people who kind of choose both,” Zablan said. “For me, this is more important.”

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