On the Big Island, they say that new-comers either “get” the island, or Pele chews them up and spits them back to the mainland. Lots of new residents pack up and leave because they don’t understand this environment. I have no intention of being one of them, so I’m taking a Hawaiian Culture Class. (See Scheurell does the hula, posted 9/30/14.) The focus of this particular 10 week session is Laka, Goddess of Hula and the forest.
Our teacher, Lanakila Mangauil, is a respected teacher, Hawaiian chanter, community speaker, and heart-felt activist. He was raised with nature, playing and working outdoors, learning what plants to eat or use as medicine, where they’re found, and when they’re in season. Yet he discovered that peers just a few years younger didn’t have that same exposure, and he feared the loss of this knowledge and these practices.
So Lanakila taught Hawaiian culture and language in our local school for years. But he realized that for the culture to spread, for the knowledge of the old ways to be retained, he needed to reach not just the children, but their parents. This continuing series of classes is one way he is reaching older generation(s).
Two weeks ago, we learned to braid ti leaves into lei using the Hilo-style braid and holding the end with our toes. He explained that originally this braid had nothing to do with hula; it was used to make rope. Of course, now if we need rope, we buy it. So to keep the knowledge of this braid, Hawaiians adapted its uses and it now has a place with hula to adorn the dancer. This was our reason to learn it.
After the lesson, we had to make four kupe‘e, hula wrist and ankle adornments, using brown (already dead) ti leaves. Each kupe‘e needs to wind around the wrist or ankle four times. This was homework; we had to find the time and resources ourselves. Luckily, I have lots of ti in my yard and I haven’t cleaned up the debris in a while. (Sometimes being untidy is a virtue.) We will wear these kupe‘e as we hula from now until the end of the class in early November. But I did more than make hula adornments; I learned about plants in my own yard, made something with my own hands and toes, and enjoyed the methodical meditative practice.
Lanakila also takes us on field trips. Our first all-day trip was to Kalopa State Park, just a few miles from Honoka‘a. There we chanted to Laka, asking for her protection and permission to enter her world. Besides the spiritual aspects of chanting, Lanakila explained that it was also practical. When we enter a new environment, we need to assess it and take stock of potential hazards. Chanting gives us the time to observe and listen. And chanting gives wild animals (like 400 pound boars) a chance to leave the area before we enter.
At the park, we practiced our hula surrounded by nature, barefoot as usual, but on uneven ground. It was a whole new experience. Afterwards we took to the trails, and studied the old growth forest – the only remaining patch on the Hamakua Coast. Lanakila pointed out the native ferns and trees, weaving in related stories about the gods. He also showed us invasive species, some of them literally strangling the native trees, like the strangler fig.
Then after a picnic lunch, we went after the invasives with shovels and bare hands, pulling them out by the roots. Since I did not trust my ability to grab the right plants, I picked up guava fruit that might otherwise sprout or become parasitic on our native species. Julia and I pulled out three garbage bags full. We were lucky to have high clouds, or maybe that was Laka protecting us from frying in the sun.
By mid-afternoon, the clouds settled onto the land and a beautiful fog surrounded us. As we left, I recalled being here one other time with friends. We had wandered around but didn’t enter the homogeneous (to my eye) rainforest. Today, as I scanned the plants in view, I realized that I knew quite a few by name. Now, I can return and feel at home in Laka’s world.
The culture class is roughly half locals and half transplants like me. One day in class, someone asked Lanakila about teaching Hawaiian traditions to the haoles (white newcomers). He replied, “I can’t wait for (the local people) to wake up. I have to teach anyone who will listen or we’ll lose it all.”
I have every reason to believe that he will be successful with his mission to save old traditions. His name, Lanakila, means triumphant, victorious.
For other essays about Diane’s Hawaiian Hula Class see:
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