Culture in motion
On most days, the Hawai‘i State Capitol Building stands stoically silent, so empty and cavernous that you can hear the footsteps of hurried legislative assistants patter across the rotunda floor. But on a sunny afternoon in January—on opening day of the legislative session—the Capitol is packed with children, adults, activists and dozens of papa ku‘i ‘ai (large wooden boards used for pounding kalo into poi and pa‘i‘ai). As people take turns at the papa, I watch conversations unfold between strangers, many of them learning to ku‘i ‘ai, or pound kalo, for the first time.
The first Ku‘i at the Capitol took place in 2007, as the Hawaiian community fought to prevent the genetic modification and patenting of kalo (taro). Today, the gathering is equal parts protest and celebration, a demonstration of the strength of community and people power in Hawai‘i. Activists from all over the islands talk about everything from industrial agriculture and demilitarization to Hawaiian independence and food sovereignty. As more people pile in, their collective voice swells. The persistent, syncopated beating of stone on wood rises up into the heart of the rotunda, filling the space with the rhythm of change.
To an outsider, it may seem strange that the act of preparing a gluey, purple starch with a notoriously “acquired” taste can make such a powerful political statement. But over the last few decades, from the lo‘i to the kitchen table, kalo has been embraced as the embodiment of indigenous resurgence in Hawai‘i.
For Maoli (Native Hawaiians), kalo is intrinsically tied to life, history, culture and land. According to the Kumulipo creation chant, kalo, or Hāloa, is big brother to the Hawaiian people. As the story goes, Papa (Earth Mother) and Wākea (Sky Father) gave birth to Ho‘ohōkūkalani, who grew to be a beautiful woman. She became pregnant by Wākea and gave birth to a stillborn child named Hāloanakalaukapalili. He was buried in the earth, and from his body grew the first kalo plant. Ho‘ohōkūkalani later birthed a second son and named him Hāloalaukanaka. The kalo plant fed his younger brother, and it is from this second son that all Hawaiians are descended.
The story of Hāloa teaches that Maoli are in a reciprocal, familial relationship with kalo and the land from which it grows. And indeed, history tells us that the wellbeing of the Hawaiian people is intrinsically tied to the wellbeing of traditional systems of kalo cultivation. As imperialism and westernization deliberately dispossessed kanaka from their lands and lo‘i, the physical and cultural health of the Hawaiian people deteriorated.
Today, the significance of this relationship is appreciated by a growing number of people, and lo‘i are being restored across the islands. Though kalo is no longer the staple that it once was, Hāloa continues to nourish the Hawaiian people in their ongoing struggle for cultural and political resurgence. As kalo becomes more readily available, the practice of ku‘i‘ai is providing another way for kanaka maoli to proudly demonstrate their survival and resistance.
University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa undergraduate student Nicholas Kawela Farrant started to ku‘i in 2013. “At the time, I was making alaia (wooden surfboards) at home out of a desire to learn more about my culture,” says Farrant. “And I was really interested in local food and sustainability, so my interests were already in line with the practice.” When a friend from high school took him to a community ku‘i in Kahalu‘u, Farrant was inspired. “It made a big impact on my life,” he says, “I ended up making my own papa and a few months later I got the idea to start sharing this with people at UH.”
Rather than treating ku‘i as an ancient cultural practice, Farrant sees it as a daily act of resurgence and reclamation—an avenue into a new relationship with our food, and with Hawaiian culture and indigenous knowledge. “Changing our relationship to our food and, by extension, our relationship to ‘āina, is arguably one of the most important things we can do,” he says. Land dispossession and the subsequent colonization of indigenous food systems and diets have long played a key role in the control and assimilation of native peoples. Ku‘i then, is not just a cultural practice, but a deeply political act tied to deeper issues of Hawaiian sovereignty.
Understanding this, Farrant says that ku‘i‘ai is a way of “doing sovereignty” by building sustainable systems for food and community. It is a way to invite people, whether they are Hawaiian or not, to imagine what a decolonized Hawai‘i could look like. With this in mind, Farrant founded Hui Ku‘i‘ai o Mānoa, a club that regularly brings UH students together to pound poi and pa‘i‘ai on campus.
“When we ku‘i on campus, maybe you walk by and don’t say anything, then you walk by a couple more times, and one day you stop and check it out,” says Farrant, reflecting on the hesitation that some students may feel the first time they pick up a pōhaku (poi-pounding stone). “Being persistent and giving ku‘i‘ai a presence at UH and in contemporary society is a way to open people’s minds to a new lifestyle,” he adds.
For Farrant, “doing sovereignty,” means actively and regularly engaging in practices like ku‘i‘ai that challenge the dominant way of being in this world. “We have to learn through our kūpuna and our practitioners, but it’s only really maka hana ke ike—through doing—that you learn that we can reinstate this practice.”
In the spirit of learning through doing, I show up to the UH Mānoa campus on a gusty Friday afternoon in February to make pa‘i‘ai for the first time with Hui Ku‘i‘ai o Mānoa. The club meets on the lawn outside of Bachman Hall, a place that is embedded within a history of mālama Hāloa.
As professor and Hui Ku‘i‘ai faculty adviser Noelani Goodyear-Kaopu‘a recounts in her book The Seeds We Planted, Bachman Hall was the site of a large student action to protest the university’s patenting of kalo cultivars in 2006. Students spontaneously covered themselves in mud from Ka Papa Lo‘i O Kānewai at the university’s Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies and marched down Dole Street to make their voices heard by the administration at Bachman Hall. The demonstrators later built an ahu in the courtyard to leave the university administration with a physical reminder of their presence that day.
I join Farrant and a small group of students under the shade of a towering tree next to Bachman Hall, where they are already busy gently scraping layers of dark earth and soft flesh from corms of kalo. ‘Ākamu Po‘oloa, a Hawaiian studies major, notices my awkward attempts to mimic my neighbor’s work and chimes in: “You gotta use the backside of the knife and get down to where the meat turns light.” I continue, gratefully, and watch as another young man joins the group and receives the same subtle welcome.
We continue to clean and, as we each work our way through our pile of kalo, we talk. Jabez Meulemans just moved to Hawai‘i from Wisconsin for graduate school and had pounded pa‘i‘ai for the first time at the Ku‘i at the Capitol. Andy Hayashi, from Pālolo, is in the process of making his own papa. Po‘oloa and I had graduated from the same high school.
When it’s time to ku‘i, Farrant helps me to pick a pōhaku and to get set up at the papa. The stone is heavier than I had expected, and I struggle to break apart firm chunks of kalo. Farrant watches intently, interjecting here and there with guidance. “Try not to add too much water,” he says, as I wet my pōhaku to keep it slick. “Now you can scrape the kalo off the board and fold it over to make sure it’s nice and smooth,” Farrant says as the kalo gradually changes consistency. Slowly, my hand begins to settle into the curves of the stone, and I learn to roll my wrist to coax the kalo into a thin layer on the papa.
Eventually, as the pounding of my pōhaku falls into the same rhythm as the others, our conversation continues. It turns out that sitting together in the shade, hands occupied by ku‘i and minds free from distraction, we've created a fertile environment for discussion.
Our pounding remains constant as Hayashi recounts the story of Papa and Wākea, and Meulemans tells us about life in Wisconsin. “Ninety-five percent of our farmland is corn and soybean,” he says. “These kinds of practices are important because they reject the industrialization of our food.”
Po‘oloa agrees, noting a common thread with the story of Hawai‘i’s dependence on monocrop agriculture. But for him, the significance of ku‘i‘ai is also personal. He admits, “I grew up in a community where my Hawaiian culture was marginalized and erased. I don’t think I ever saw a kalo plant until I was maybe in my late teens.” While he speaks, I watch as he skillfully folds over a massive mound of thick, smooth pa‘i‘ai. Without looking up from his work, he adds, “This is an important way for me to connect to my culture now.”
Sharing Knowledge, Sharing Pa‘i‘ai
On the other side of the island, at Ka Waihona O Ka Na‘auao Charter School in Nānākuli, a generation of keiki is growing up not only knowing what kalo looks like, but also understanding what it means to the Hawaiian people, how to cultivate it and how to prepare it.
Ku‘i‘ai is incorporated into the curriculum at Ka Waihona, and the school even has a dryland kalo bed. Now, through an after-school program called Nā Kama O Ka ‘Āina, students are extending this knowledge by making their own papa ku‘i‘ai. As teacher Michael Sarmiento says, “Kalo plays an important role in helping students to understand the values of their ancestors.” Instead of falling victim to the myth that Hawaiian culture is a thing of the past, he says, “I want them to grow through their own culture, and understand that they are the Hawaiians, and the knowledge of their ancestors is still alive and relevant.”
Sarmiento’s own experience building a papa ku‘i‘ai with his family taught him the significance of these kinds of practices. “I wasn’t always the most culturally exposed person, but building a papa gave me a pathway into my own culture and gave me a stronger connection to my ancestors and to my family.”
When UH’s Program for Afterschool Literacy Support approached Nā Kama O Ka ‘Āina with some slabs of monkeypod wood, Sarmiento saw an opportunity to give the keiki of Ka Waihona a chance to share in this experience and build a board that they could take home to their families. Forgoing the use of power tools, Sarmiento is guiding students through the long process of carving their papa with ko‘i (a traditional carving tool).
“What is exciting to me is seeing the kids grow along with their boards,” Sarmiento says. “We ask our keiki, ‘how is the board shaping you,’ and ‘what is it telling you about yourself and your values?’”
Kennedy Hanohano, an eighth grader in the Na Kama O Ka ‘Āina program, seems to have taken all of this to heart. When she talks about her papa ku‘i‘ai, her voice quiets and she speaks thoughtfully and deliberately, in a manner far beyond her years. “When we first chose our boards, our teachers told us that we should see ourselves in it, because the board is a reflection of us. The board has to find you.” She ended up with one of the largest and darkest pieces of wood. “My teachers said the darker the wood the harder it is to chisel out, so that makes my job harder, but I think that shows that I have a lot to work on in my own life.”
Carving the papa, even more so than ku‘i‘ai, is a time of reflection. With ko‘i in hand, Hanohano and her classmates are working to create something that they can pass down to their own children. “It’s much more than grabbing a hammer and a chisel and pounding at a piece of wood. I guess you could say it’s my legacy,” she says.
Importantly, kalo-based knowledge is empowering a new generation to not only stop the ever-rising tide of cultural erasure, but to actually reverse it as they take knowledge—and often fresh pa‘i‘ai—home to their parents and grandparents.
Hanohano says, “Since the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani, two or three generations of my family didn’t get to learn about our culture. So it was lost to us for a while.” The cadence of her words slows, as she adds, “They didn’t get to practice the culture because of the changes that were going on in our society. So now that I have this opportunity, I’m not just learning for myself, I’m learning for my parents and grandparents, and for my children and their children.”
She pauses, as though she is reflecting on the weight of these words as they hang in the air. And in that short moment of silence, I cannot help but think back to that day at the Capitol, when quiet was replaced with the sound of pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai—the sound of the people—echoing up into the belly of the building, like footsteps marching toward a better future.