A group of students works on a mural project under the guidance of 808 Urban. | Nick Smith

A colorful celebration of Hawaiian language resurgence and legendary wordplay

Place Hilo
Text Summit Staff

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the creation of Ka Papahana Kaiapuni (the Department of Education-managed Hawaiian Language Immersion Program), 808 Urban's Living Legacy Series will launch “Ke Kanakolu,” a mural and curriculum-development project that aims to utilize “art as a medium to invigorate Native Hawaiian identity while perpetuating Hawaiian values, language and culture,” according to the project's description.

Ke Kanakolu will begin its first mural on August 21, 2017 in Hilo, Hawai‘i and continue painting nine other murals one-by-one for the next nine months. The mural project will culminate on May 18, 2018 in Hāna, Maui.

“Ke Kanakolu was conceived to raise awareness of the 23 Hawaiian Language Immersion and Charter schools that form Ka Papahana Kaiapuni, as well as the importance of perpetuating Hawaiian language, deepening connection to the ‘āina, and fostering the responsibility of honoring ‘ike kūpuna (ancestral knowledge),” says Ke Kanakolu Project Manager Mahea Akau.

The goal of the project is to inspire and empower change in Hawaiʻi communities. With support from Kamehameha Schools and the Office of Hawaiian Education, the project will also create a baseline evaluation system in language proficiency and curriculum structure that is appropriate and relevant to the Native Hawaiian learner.

“For the Living Legacy Series to be truly effective, the work must continue,” says Akau. “Just as our oral traditions find life through constant retelling, the most effective part of our work is in the process. A Living Legacy Series mural is only a glimpse of the real change happening within each community.”

ʻĀuna Pāheona is a collective of community cultural workers, artists, organizers and volunteers committed to improving the quality of life for our communities through arts programming. The collective strives to integrate the highest levels of artistic innovation with grassroots cultural organizing for systemic, progressive social change. Led by 808 Urban's John “Prime” Hina, ʻĀuna Pāheona will travel to five islands to engage local artists and Hawaiian immersion schools to design and create ten murals inspired by the mo‘olelo of Kalapana from Hawai‘i Island.

“From its inception, ʻĀuna Pāheona has been raising up a new generation of storytellers who are adept in the use of modern visual tools and are empowered by a deep sense of responsibility and privilege,” says Akau.

Within Hawaiian mythology there are many stories that feature a traditional art form and battle of wits known as hoʻopāpā, a term stemming from the play of words back and forth in debate. The common trope in these stories is that of a famous riddler who has defeated all challengers but is finally outwitted and destroyed by an apparently lowly opponent he underestimates. The stakes are often high in such legendary contests, potentially costing the loser his life.

Perhaps the most famous of these legends is the mo‘olelo of Kalapana, a mere boy who bests the most famous riddling chief of Kauaʻi. The powerful riddling chief is backed by skilled practitioners, but the untested youth turns the tables and outmatches their skill with his mastery of language, history and real-world knowledge.

“The mo‘olelo of Kalapana was selected for the tenacity and drive of the protagonist of the story,” Ke Kanakolu Hawaiian Language Director Kamalani Johnson says. “The strife that Kalapana experiences with the loss of his father, Kānepōiki, and in his determination to avenge the will of his father is comparable to the drive in Hawaiian language revitalization efforts.”

There was once a famous family of riddlers living in Kapalaoa on Kauaʻi, the story goes. The parents teach the art of hoʻopāpā to their four children. The brothers Halepāiwi (meaning “house fenced with bones”) and Halepāniho (meaning “house fenced with teeth”) become riddlers for the chief Kalanialiʻiloa of Wailua, and so great is their skill that they are able to outwit all competitors. The sisters marry men of Hawaiʻi Island and leave Kauaʻi to start families. The younger sister, Halepākī, marries Kānepōiki of Kona, to whom she teaches all she knows of hoʻopāpā. They have a son together, named Kalapana.

Kalanialiʻiloa becomes obsessed with mastering hoʻopāpā and the brothers teach the chief who develops great skill in the art form under their tutelage. In honor of his mentors, Kalanialiʻiloa desires to construct a pā niho (tooth enclosure) and pā iwi (bone enclosure) that will serve as a riddling house for his chiefly residence in Wailua. The riddling chief begins challenging other hoʻopāpā practitioners to high stakes battles of wit with death as the penalty for losing. He defeats them all and uses their teeth and bones to build his riddling house.

Kānepōiki hears of this and insists upon traveling to Kauaʻi to challenge the riddling chief and his nine hoʻopāpā masters. His bones, staked upon the outcome, are left bleaching upon the walls of Kalaniali‘iloa's palace before they, too, are added to the riddling house.

Struck with grief and disappointment in the death of his father, Kalapana decides to avenge him and asks his mother to teach him the art of hoʻopāpā. But Halepākī was not able to acquire the entirety of her parents' knowledge of the art before their death, so she sends the boy to her older sister, Kalaoa Puʻumoi, who lived in Hilo, where he becomes proficient in riddling in spite of his youth. He is soon skilled enough to make an attempt at avenging his father's death and follows Kānepōiki's path to Kauaʻi.

At the court of Kalaniali‘iloa, Kalapana is ridiculed by the nine masters of the chief's riddling house because of his unusual appearance. In Kona, he had been laughed at by his playmates as well, because of his fat stomach and short legs. Only the chief's younger brother, Keli‘iokapa‘a, treats him with respect.

At first he is commanded to stay outside the riddling house. He replies that his opponents must, then, remain within the house. Realizing that this will be inconvenient, Kalaniali‘iloa agrees to let him enter the house, which is divided into two parts, one end finished neatly for the chief and his friends, the other left rough for the contestant. The purpose of this set up is to humiliate the challenger, putting him in a weaker state of mind before he faces the masters of the riddling house.

But Kalapana carries a calabash in which he carries grass which he spreads out to sleep on, a block of wiliwili wood for a pillow, certain dried fish with punning names, fire sticks, fire stones, kindling wood, bundles of cooked meat, ʻawa root, a wooden dish, an ʻawa dipper and strainer, a water gourd, a feather holder, fish cords, a black beach stone, a smooth pebble, a stone hatchet and additional loincloths, all of which he employs to prevent being shamed before the superior luxuries enjoyed by his competitor. By spreading down his grass and mats and taking out fire, food and drink, he makes himself so comfortable that Kalaniali‘iloa is compelled to begin the contest without reveling in Kalapana's discomfort.

Kalapana outwits and defeats the nine masters who are each hacked to pieces according to the terms of the bet. Only Kalaniali‘iloa remains. The chief attempts to trick and fool Kalapana and confuse him with wordplay. But Kalapana's wit, tenacity, knowledge of the winds, rains, plants, songs and ʻai that were unknown to Kalanialiʻiloa, and his love for his land and family, allows him to prevail. Kalaniali‘iloa is defeated and meets his end as well, and his friendly younger brother is made chief in place of the riddler king. Kalapana returns to Hawai‘i without lowering the sail of his canoe once from the moment he leaves Kauaʻi to the moment he lands in Kona.

The art of hoʻopāpā consists of betting on ones ability to solve a riddle, or of merely playing with language in a way to entangle the opponent with contradictory and seemingly impossible meanings. Puns were delighted in as a way of outmatching an opponent in wit. Taunts had to be met with ever more bitter gibes. In other variations, one series of objects of a kind must be matched with another; or a proposed object must be met with another that is analogous in every detail or that is its antithesis: a spider web matched with the dodder vine; or a kukui nut with a sea urchin as it is cracked and eaten with thumb and fingers, a pinch of salt added. The exact word order of the opponent must be followed, which the challenger must be able to apply equally well to the parallel he has chosen. Real knowledge is necessary for such a trying mental contest.

The challenger must be prepared to match his opponent in material ways as well, and for this purpose the riddler carried a calabash of the type used for traveling in which was stored objects that could be matched and punned with. A famous riddler in the court of Keawenuia‘umi (Keawe the Great), Kuapaka‘a, was said to have carried the bones of the wind ancestors in his calabash and knew how to summon each by name.

In one story, the riddler Pīkoiaka‘alalā boasts about his ability to shoot rats with bow and arrow—a favorite betting sport of chiefs on Hawai‘i Island—and wins at hoʻopāpā by punning on the word rat (ʻiole). He is said to have hit an old woman and claimed to have “hit a rat” because the descriptor haumakaʻiole (eyes like a rat) was used to describe the aged. Then he shoots at the topmost batten in the house, called kuaʻiole (back of the rat), and again scores a point.

A different folktale tells of an uprising against a ruling chief. According to tradition, while the chief and his rival are engaged in a game of konane (Hawaiian checkers)—using the language of the game—the rival's kahu (attendant) declares that he knows a move by which his master can “win the game.” When the chief and his rival, the kahu's master, both give permission for him to “make the move,” the kahu slays the chief not only in the game of konane, but in that of politics as well.

An example of the full riddling match from the Kalapana legend shows the child challenger playing upon the word “hua,” which refers to an offspring or fruiting. The rounding of the tuber or rootstock of the food plant is matched with the rounded egg of the fish or bird, the fruit of a tree with the rounded shapes of sun, moon and stars in the heavens.

The riddlers chant:

The moon of Kaulua,
The moon that bore the first breadfruit of Lanai, . . .
The fruit of the taro swells down below,
The fruit of the sweet potato swells down below,
The fruit of the yam swells down below,
The fruit of the pia swells down below,
The fruit of the ape swells down below,
Down, down, down to Milu and below that!

The boy answers:

The moon of Kaulua,
The moon that gave birth to the great turtle and placed it,
The fruit of the seaweed swells below,
The egg (hua) of the fish swells below,
The egg of the turtle swells below,
The egg of the chicken swells below,
(At) the foundation of the house of Milu below,
The foundation of the house of Milu, laid below, below, away below.

The men then name the fruits that ripen above ground: banana, breadfruit, mountain apple and a half dozen others, and conclude:

The coconut (niu) puts forth fruit above,
Up to the flying clouds and above that.

The boy answers:

Kaulua is the moon,
The moon gives birth to a great turtle,
At Poniulua (punning on the word coconut) on Lanai is my fruit,
The fruit is the sun that hangs above,
The fruit is the moon that hangs above,
The fruit is the stars that hang above,
The fruit is the cloud that hangs above,
The fruit is the wind that hangs above,
The fruit is the lightning that hangs above,
Up, up above the flying clouds and above that!

The boy continues:

There it is, there it is,
There hangs the great wind cloud,
The south wind is blowing,
The wind that goes roughly,
Beating the leaves of the trees,
Pushing against the trunks of the trees,
Making them fall below,
The trunk, the branches,
The leaves, the fruit,
Brushed off till they lie bruised and fallen below,
The breadfruit bears fruit above,
Struck by the south wind it falls below. . . .

After enumerating all the other plants with fruit above ground which falls below he cries, “Eh! The men are defeated for lack of fruit that hangs above. Struck by the south wind it falls below. I have defeated you!” Thus, the hero avenges his father's death and puts an end to the riddling chief's bloody sport.


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