In the week after the devastating fires that swept through Maui, Hōkūlani Holt walked to the center of a grassy area just beyond the island’s steep mountains and 12 miles from Lahaina, the town hardest hit by the fire.
As a kumu hula, or hula teacher, Holt gathered about 50 listeners in a semicircle and urged them to “raise your voices.” Each held a glass of water—a connection between body, soul, and ʻāina, Hawaiians’ expansive concept of the earth. Several men and women blew hollow bamboo tubes called pū ʻohe, producing a deep trumpet-like sound. Then, led by Holt’s voice, the group began to sing.
After the deadliest fire in the country in more than a century —at least 115 deaths have been confirmed, and hundreds of people are still missing—, practical measures began to be taken: distribution of food, cleaning up rubble, visit of the president.
But traditional Hawaiian ceremonies, like the one performed by Holt, are addressing another need that many locals consider crucial: spiritual healing.
Although more than half of people in the state describe themselves as Christian and there is a strong Buddhist presence on the islands, traditional spiritual practices have been revived and advanced across the state in recent decades.
In a survey conducted last year, more than 40 percent of native Hawaiians said they interact with the sea or the ʻāina — an entity described as a kin who is respected and cared for and who in turn cares for people — for religious reasons. or spiritual. Among non-native Hawaiians, the number was 31%.
“Now people automatically expect the kumu hula to do ceremonies to address any kind of need,” said Cody Pueo Pata, a kumu hula and musician raised in Maui.
Two days after the fire, he was among the small group making plans for meetings led by Holt at the invitation of the nonprofit community health center that hosted the events. The ceremonies, which took place at noon over the course of 10 days, began to attract a few dozen people and grew to up to 100 in person and over 80,000 who watched via a live stream on social media. Oprah Winfrey, who has a home on the island, quietly attended on the final day.
The group’s work included a selection of prayers to heal the land and people of the island. This required precision as they considered which ancestors to approach and what to ask for.
“What we didn’t want was to draw too much rain,” said Keali’i Reichel, a musician from Lahaina. A storm could cause flooding and wash ash and debris into the ocean. Instead, he said, “we try to encourage just enough moisture to create regenerative growth.”
He compared the practice of chanting to drawing an arrow from a bow, ready to be fired. Practitioners must be aware of this power and know where to direct it, he said.
The prayer, in Portuguese, says:
O Great Lono who lives in the Water —
Encourage growth, move, enliven life;
Here is water, water of life, prosper!
Grant us clouds, clouds from which life comes, prosper!
In addition to being one of the islands’ most prominent artists, known for some of the best-selling Hawaiian music albums of the 1990s, Reichel has also become an ambassador for Hawaiian culture both inside and outside the islands. He founded a hula school in 1980 and has been a long-time kumu hula, a role that goes far beyond choreography and includes responsibilities such as imparting knowledge of specific spiritual lineages. More than a quarter of the state’s residents identify as at least partially native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders, according to the most recent census.
Revitalising Lahaina, Reichel said, “is going to take planning, a lot of singing, a lot of ceremony.”
Lahaina itself is a complex symbol of the way Hawaiian culture and Christianity are intertwined on the islands, where many residents practice a mix of beliefs. This is where Christian missionaries established Maui’s first mission, in 1823, at the invitation of Queen Keōpūolani shortly after the dismantling of key parts of the islands’ traditional religious system under King Kamehameha II.
In 1873, a large banyan tree was planted on Front Street to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Christianity on the island. The site has become a popular meeting place in the center of the city, but the tree was badly damaged by the fire, and its survival is uncertain.
Many native Hawaiians, however, see the Christian influence as deeply harmful. Hula dancing was banned in public places for decades in the 19th century. Temples were destroyed and the use of the Hawaiian language withered.
“Our religion has been under attack for centuries,” said Marie Alohalani Brown, a professor of Hawaiian religion at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and a native Hawaiian. “We were called pagans, ignorant, naive”. However, this group never stopped practicing their traditional religion, a faith that includes multiple gods and identifies spirits in entities such as the sky and the sea.
Its roots go back to the Pacific Island peoples who likely arrived in Hawaii after 1100 AD In the 1970s, a movement known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance” revived many traditional practices that were banned or discouraged in the 19th and 20th centuries, a pattern also found in Guam and other colonized Pacific islands.
Those who attended the ceremony conducted by Holt welcomed the opportunity to gather and pray together rather than at home.
Passing all of that on to the next generation also seemed to be a priority. Mothers held babies who remained still during the singing. Small children and teenagers listened silently.
Ceri Zablan, 16, said that for many young Hawaiians, the connection between culture, faith and history has become more powerful in recent years. She said she was baptized Catholic but gradually drifted away from Christianity.
“There are people who kind of choose both,” Zablan said. “For me, that’s more important.”