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BEST ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT REPORTING 2016, Hawai‘i Publishers Association

BEST ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT REPORTING 2016, Society for Professional Journalists - Hawai’i Chapter 

From a Hill on Moloka'i


For 25 years, the Ka Hula Piko festival has brought Hawai’i’s indigenous dance back to its source. 


The lichen-covered kukui branches bend at right angles, making them look like so many human limbs reaching into the air. Kukui symbolizes enlightenment,  and this old grove is particularly hallowed. It’s the legendary burial site of Lanikāula, a sixteenth-century kahuna nui (high priest) said to be Moloka‘i’s most powerful sorcerer and prophet. There’s no better place  to inaugurate this year’s festival, given its theme: Kū nā kāula iwi. Firm are the upright expert prophets  of Moloka‘i.


Festival host and kumu (teacher) Elsie Ryder lays down the rules. People are free to take pictures, but not kukui nuts. “No nut stealing,” she says, half-jokingly. “You signed the waiver, so the ranch is not liable if anything happens to you because you snuck a nut.” The grove’s caretaker, Uncle Bobby Alcain, adds, “We’re here today to give, not to take. Whenever you take something from a special place,” he says, “it always comes with kuleana.” Responsibility. 

Ryder taps her pahu (drum) and the dances begin. First a young woman, Uakea Tafaoimalo, enacts the  story of two sea turtles: The female was famous for  laying her eggs across the channel on Lāna‘i’s Polihua  beach, but the male was ill-tempered and lost a flipper  to two human warriors. Both turtles transformed into small islands, which can be seen just offshore. When Tafaoimalo sways and lifts her head, it’s uncanny how much she resembles a turtle surfacing to breathe. Her dance is followed by a kalo-planting hula. Two energetic men mime building a kalo lo‘i (taro patch), striking tall percussive sticks in rhythmic unison. For the final dance, they invite eight other men, including Uncle Bobby and kumu Ryder’s son, to join them. 

The ten men stand stoically as Ryder describes what  they’re about to perform. It’s a wänana (prophecy) first  uttered in 1819, when Queen Ka‘ahumanu converted to Christianity and ended the ancient religion, the kapu system. She sent warriors to shut down all of the heiau (temples) across the Islands. When her agents came to Pāku‘i Heiau—not far from where we’re gathered today—the resident priests saw that they were outnumbered. A few hid the ki‘i (sacred images) in caves, while the others made a brave show of defiance. They registered their protest with this mock battle and chant.

“Hā‘ule ka lewa! Hā‘ule ka lani!” The ten dancers shake their fists and bellow the words. “Hā‘ule,” means to fall. The chant warns that when the Hawaiian  gods fall, so will the people. It foretells the Hawaiians’ separation from their land, language and traditions. The dancers squat and hiss, their fingers clenched, their faces a mix of ferocity and humility. But it’s the second half of the chant that carries the real drama. It predicts a rising up, a “hō‘ala” of the commoners. The farmers, those with dirty feet, will rise up and revive the culture and restore the land. “Hō‘ala ka lepo pōpolo!” The dancers shout and stamp the earth.

“Now is the time when this prophecy will be fulfilled,” says Ryder once the hula is finished. It takes me a moment to absorb this astonishing, accurate statement. Here are regular local guys—fathers, sons and brothers, farmers and fishermen—breathing life into a noble and nearly lost history. How did priests two hundred years ago know this would come to pass? Looking around, I’m not the only one with chicken skin.

The island of Moloka‘i is sometimes referred to as Moloka‘i Pule O‘o, the place of powerful  prayer, an epithet that rings true on many levels. The  rural isle claims not one but two saints canonized for  performing miracles—and Catholicism is hardly the dominant spiritual path here. At least a dozen churches  of different denominations line the road leading from the island’s tiny airport into Kaunakakai. Beneath it  all run deep undercurrents of the ancient, indigenous religion. People tell stories of kāhuna nui, high priests  who could see the future in a bowl of water and command the weather. And hula, known worldwide as a fetching dance form, is also a profound spiritual practice. It’s said to have been born here, on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific. 

The 2016 Ka Hula Piko festival marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event, which celebrates hula’s sacred origins. It is also the tenth anniversary of the passing of its founder, John Ka‘imikaua, who was by all accounts a remarkable human being. The story of how he came by his ‘ike (knowledge) reads like a page out of Native Hawaiian historian David Malo’s Hawaiian Antiquities. It goes like this:  

In 1972 Ka‘imikaua was 14 years old. He lived in ‘Aiea, on O‘ahu, where his grandparents encouraged him to cultivate a Hawaiian garden. One day he  noticed a rare variety of tī plant growing in someone’s yard. He asked the owner, a 92-year-old Hawaiian  woman, for a cutting. This was the sign she’d been waiting for. “Are you interested in learning the old  ways?” She asked the boy. “Very much so,” he replied. Her name was Kawahinekapuheleikapōkāne, “the sacred woman traveling on the night of the god Kāne.”  No last name. She was, she said, descended from Moloka‘i’s high priests and had been praying for someone to pass her knowledge onto. 

Young Ka‘imikaua was already six feet tall and more than three hundred pounds, but even he looked up to his teacher, who stood six-foot-four. Kawahine (for short) had white hair, dark skin, piercing eyes. She could dance with feminine grace or masculine ferocity and alter her voice to mimic the ocean or the wind. Over three years she shared an inheritance of hula knowledge from Moloka‘i dating back to 900 CE.  Ka‘imikaua memorized 156 chants, many of them more than a thousand lines long. 

This exchange was all the more remarkable considering its context. In the early 1970s, indigenous Hawaiian culture was at its lowest ebb. There were few native speakers. The Merrie Monarch hula competition was in its infancy; men didn’t yet compete. The voyaging canoe replica Hōkūle‘a had yet to sail and spark a renaissance of Polynesian navigation. Kawahine belonged to a vanishing world. She was born kapu, sacred or untouchable, and she lived according to the old laws. She never married. She told  Ka‘imikaua that when she died she would take the kapu with her, and everything she taught him would be noa, free. Two years after she passed, her devout student opened his own school, Hālau Hula o Ku-kuna‘okalā, at the age of 19.

I learned all this from a documentary produced by the Native Hawaiian nonprofit Alu Like in 1985 and screened the first night of the festival. It’s now day two, and I’m riding in a car with Pualani and Janelle Ka‘imikaua, John’s mother and sister. Back in 1977 Pualani learned from a newspaper article that her teenage son had become a kumu. She was appalled. Pualani’s grandfather had been one of the last kāhuna nui; as caretaker for Leleiwi fishpond on Hawai‘i Island, it was said that he could summon fish and control the elements. He could curse people to death. But Pualani herself is Mormon, and she felt wary of  the old-time religion. “It was not what I wanted my  children to be involved in,” she says. “I refused to support John.” Pualani was of the generation of Hawaiians who had been denied their heritage. Her parents spoke the native language but didn’t teach her.  She didn’t use her Hawaiian name in school. She fought with her son over his preoccupation with arcane Hawaiian rites for a year. But one night, she says, “My father came to me in a dream. He said I needed to help John and support him.” 

So she went with him to Moloka‘i. Ka‘imikaua showed his mother all of the places that Kawahine had  revealed to him. Using the chants as maps, he began uncovering forgotten sacred sites. He found Lanikāula’s kukui grove, the aged trees all but buried in  cane grass. He explored the seemingly empty expanses  of Moloka‘i Ranch with its owner, Phil Spalding. When  a pueo, a Hawaiian owl, swooped down to hover by their car, they followed it. It led them to Pu‘unānā, the hilltop where it’s said the Hawaiian deities Kapo and Laka danced the first hula steps. 

Ka‘imikaua brought his students here. They built an altar, or lele, and a large raised platform, or pā, to  serve as a hula stage. That’s where we’re headed now.  As we bound over the rocky landscape in four-wheel drive, I do the math. To learn 156 chants over three years, Ka‘imikaua would’ve had to memorize one per week. Without a break. While attending high school. How is this possible? John’s sister, Janelle shrugs. “If it’s something that you love, you remember it.”

Love is the operative word here. Ka‘imikaua’s deep  love of hula and ancient tradition radiated from him. His first haumāna (students) were young Hawaiians like himself, who were captivated by his encyclopedic  knowledge and his passionate commitment to bringing  it to life. They practiced in Farrington High School’s gym on O‘ahu. He didn’t charge a fee, but he was selective about whom he allowed to join the hālau (school). Four decades later, three of his original haumāna now lead Hālau Hula o Kukuna‘okalā in his stead: Elsie Ryder, Sulu Tafaoimalo and Mel Enos. Their deep affection for their former kumu is evident in everything they do. Ka‘imikaua may have left his

body at age forty-seven in 2006, but his spirit is very much alive at Ka Hula Piko.

The Friday morning ho‘okupu (offering) ceremony is invitation-only. In the past, before 

Ka‘imikaua’s death, as many as eight hundred people would attend this event, which started at 3 a.m. Native American tribes came from Canada and Māori clans from Aotearoa (New Zealand). In the predawn darkness, hula pilgrims would gather en masse, carrying torches in a procession that wound its way up to the summit. It was so quiet that people could hear the tide lapping on the shore below and axis deer barking in the distance. Silhouetted dancers summoned the rising sun.

How magical that must have been. But today is no disappointment: The view from Pu‘unänä is magnificent. Moloka‘i’s jeweled coastline shimmers, a multi-colored mosaic of fringing reefs and fishponds. From  this vantage, it’s easy to see why Ryder calls Moloka‘i the piko (navel) of the archipelago. The neighboring  islands of Lāna‘i, Maui and even little Molokini float on the frosted horizon. There’s a stillness to this landscape that seems impossible given how exposed it is. The wind leans in close, like a relative whispering in my ear.

The assemblage of local and visiting hālau is impressive. The Hula o Kukuna‘okalā dancers wear hand-stamped kīhei (capes) and stiff kukui leaves woven into crowns. Other groups wear kūpe‘e (sea snail) shells and thick, fringed garlands of palapalai fern. Before proceeding up to the pā, everyone forms a circle to pule (pray). Dancers of all ages and sizes are represented, from toddlers and willowy preteens to kūpuna (elders) and boys in their malo (loincloths). The girls tie one another’s braids back with strips of ti leaf. In the sea of dark hair (and a few gray hairs), 

the redheads and blondes stand out, representing the diversity of modern Native Hawaiians. 

After a prayer announcing our intentions and asking  for blessing, we pass through a gate. Cameras and shoes stay behind. This is consecrated ground, the spot where hula came to life. Some pause at a large pōhaku, a stone camouflaged with orange and green lichen. A man asks his daughter, “Do you see the woman’s face?” Ka‘imikaua found this boulder with discernible human features; it’s said to be a manifestation of Kapo. 

Various historians describe Kapo as the elder sister  of Pele, the volcano goddess. She reportedly could change shape at will and had a detachable vagina that she once threw as a decoy to help Pele escape the amorous attention of Kamapua‘a, the pig god. She is said to have entered into a tree in the poisonwood grove here on Moloka‘i. Some say she gave birth to Laka. Others say she and Laka are different aspects of the same goddess. According to Ka‘imikaua, Kapo and Laka were living, breathing women, two sisters who were deified over time. Around one thousand years ago, Kapo taught her younger sister to dance hula here at Pu‘unänä. Laka excelled at the art and traveled from island to island, sharing it with the Hawaiian people. Kapo grew jealous of her sister’s fame and turned to sorcery. To this day, she’s credited with obstructing hula students— but she’s still treated with considerable respect.

We’re here today to honor her and the entire line- age of hula teachers. Slowly everyone settles into the  shade of a tent facing the stone platform. We sit in silence for a long time. No one fidgets—not even the  small keiki squeezed in beside their parents. Finally, Liko Hoe blows a conch shell and begins to chant. He was among the dancers who performed the kalo-planting hula on the festival’s first day. He and his two brothers studied under Ka‘imikaua, and his family has been coming to Ka Hula Piko since it started. Today he chants with a melodic high pitch, almost keening.  This style of vocalization is meant to praise and uplift  the land. Two young girls dressed in green pā‘ū (skirts) with waist-long hair ascend onto the pā. With their backs to the crowd, they dance to the sonorous beat of Ryder’s drum.

One by one, each hālau is invited up to the lele. They present gifts appropriate for the hula deities: spiky hala pepe branches, sprigs of ‘ōlapa with berries,  fragrant maile lei and bundles wrapped in tī. Then they offer their dance. The choreographies are intimate and pious, far less flashy than what you’d see in public lū‘au or competitions. The dancers converse with departed ancestors and future children, each movement an expression of devotion. 

This potent weekend of hula communion wraps up with a big ho‘olaule‘a (party) on Saturday. Most of the island attends— as well as many visitors. When Ka Hula Piko started in 1991, it was a collabo-ration between Ka‘imikaua and the Moloka‘i Visitors Association. From the beginning, the festival was meant to be a culturally and economically rejuvenating  force for Moloka‘i. The annual influx of visitors gives residents an opportunity to make some extra income. By 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, vendors have set up on the wide lawn of the Kualapu‘u Recreational Center,  selling pareos, shell earrings, wood carvings, shave ice  and my favorite: plates of breadfruit, fried weke 

(goatfish) and pāpio (trevally). 

People relax in the shade of a giant monkeypod tree. Visiting hula dancers take the stage, followed by  bands playing a mix of old Hawaiian ballads and reggae tunes. The list of entertainers includes local stars: Grammy-nominated singer Raiatea Helm and Pōmaika‘i Lyman, the granddaughter of beloved fal- setto singer Genoa Keawe. Lyman wears an incredible crown made with tight clusters of hinahina, a silver succulent found on Moloka‘i’s beach dunes. Meanwhile the Hula o Kukuna‘okalā gang is sequestered inside the community center, busy selling t-shirts and making fresh kukui-leaf lei for their performance at the end of the day. 

I sit with Mel Enos, who reflects on his years with  the hālau. He was 15 when he met Ka‘imikaua. “My  football coach at ‘Aiea High School asked if I was interested in dancing ancient hula,” he says.“ I was  influenced by what I had seen on TV, Robert Cazimero  doing ku‘i, the stamping step. It looked so powerful, so sharp.” So he gave it a try. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he laughs. He became one of Ka‘imikaua’s primary students. During the 1980s, he traveled with the hälau to other islands, the Mainland and Aotearoa, performing and offering hula workshops.  “I just loved dancing, more than anything,” says Enos. “Because of John’s storytelling ability, he could really draw people in. My job was to portray his story. We were the picture that he painted with his words. We brought that to life.”

When a hula practitioner of this caliber talks about  bringing things to life, it pays to listen. Enos remem-bers an occasion in 1994, when the local news channel KHON wanted to film some dancers at Pāku‘i Heiau. The film crew had a fixed idea of where they wanted to shoot. “I said, ‘No, we have to chant here, on the second tier,’” says Enos. The crew insisted on the first site. “After five or six tries, our voices were hoarse. But after they broke the cameras down we did the chant again, where I wanted to.” The difference was dramatic, he says. He could hear the voices of his ancestors joining in. “It wasn’t five of us, but five thousand.” When Enos returned to the truck where 

Ka‘imikaua was waiting, he didn’t have to explain. Ka‘imikaua, too, had heard the difference and knew what happened.

Enos and the other hālau leaders rely on intuition  when planning Ka Hula Piko each year. They pray for the theme to reveal itself. Through these themes and their associated symbols, they investigate esoteric aspects of hula philosophy. Posters from past years are on display in the community center. After I peruse the collection, I wish I could have attended every single year. Especially fascinating is the poster depicting Pahukai, a little known kupua (demigod) who bears the head of a stingray and legs of a man. 

I spend part of the afternoon making traditional Hawaiian musical instruments with Liko Hoe’s father,  Calvin Hoe. We sit at a picnic bench sanding hau (tree hibiscus) branches down into smooth kāla‘au, percussive sticks. Liko tells me how fortunate he feels to have had one-on-one time with Ka‘imikaua. “John was exceptional,” he says. “He carried a lot, but we can all carry a little bit. Part of his legacy is connecting  us to our küpuna. What they saw and felt was impor-tant, they danced that. When we dance that today, the connection is made. We need that … not just on Moloka‘i or in Hawai‘i, but throughout the world. John’s vision was universal.”

He leaves to join Hālau Hula o Kukuna‘okalā for the last performance of the day. The audience watches reprisals of the turtle and kalo-building dances with rapt attention. A mother and daughter perform a mesmerizing owl dance, and the entire hālau dances a final piece together. Afterward, in the spirit of the festival’s prophetic theme, I ask Ryder what she sees for the future of the hālau. “Our responsibility is to continue on,” she says, “whether we have thirty, three hundred or just one person. When John met Kawahine,  it was just her. One person was enough.” 

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