Rites of Passage for Adolescent Boys


Photo: David Onoue

By David Onoue

“Hā, hē, hū!” grunted the audience. “Hā, hē, hū, (courage) koa!”

These were the sounds of a breathing exercise echoing through the room and down the hallway at the Hawaiʻi Convention Center during the 2023 IVAT Hawaiʻi Summit held in April.

Liliʻuokalani Trust’s (LT) Kanoa Beair, Kekamaikaikamaikalani Helm, and Makalauna Feliciano spoke on Hoʻokanaka: Rites of Passage and Transitioning to Adulthood for Adolescent Boys.

Beair started the talk by asking those in attendance to stand and participate in a breathing exercise intended to have them feel the “sizzle” or raw energy that comes off the body.

Photo: LT staff and presenters at the 2023 IVAT Hawaiʻi Summit
LT staff and presenters at the 2023 IVAT Hawaiʻi Summit. Front row (l-r): Jessica Conner, Kanoa Beair and Loke Kalama. Back row (l-r): Penn Pantumsinchai, Melissa Data, Kaʻaiʻai Paglinawan, David Ogata, Makalauna Feliciano, Kekama Helm and Justin Santos. – Courtesy Photo

“We call it kū mana and I’m glad you got to feel a little bit of it because that’s what our boys carry around every day,” Beair said.

It’s a feeling that allows you to act and move forward. It gives you strength and focus to be ready. But that’s when this energy is focused. When unfocused, this energy sometimes leads to feelings of confusion and frustration for Native Hawaiian boys.

Helm noted how cultural disconnection makes it difficult for Native Hawaiian boys to find healthy ways to cope. “Without these coping skills, they breakdown [and] our boys turn to drugs, alcohol, higher rates of suicide, undiagnosed mental health, and they eventually end up in our juvenile system,” he said.

To help, LT formed a program for youth with a hale mua (dwelling house exclusively for men) practice in mind to work with boys.

Feliciano explained that culturally, when they were old enough, boys were thrust into the hale mua where men held counsel, and the boys watched and observed. There was a transference of knowledge which happened in this sacred place.

As LT staff began working with young males, they quickly found that many never had healthy mentorship in their lives. Many lacked opportunities to develop themselves into strong standing kanaka.

Based on the wisdom of elders, LT developed frameworks allowing them to learn, build, and practice concepts such as the “5 Cs” of leadership (courage, commitment, competency, compatibility, and character) and the “3 Fs” (fatherhood/family, feed, and fend).

These concepts were championed by former LT Trustee Thomas Kaulukukui, Jr., who put them into practice during his 25-year-career with the Trust.

Youth participating in the program are taught how to care for the ʻāina, the language to be able to access the secrets and knowledge of the kūpuna, and sports such as surfing and paddling so they can care for their heath and use these spaces to cope.

Helm summed up by saying it’s about pilina to the young men. A connection with the external and internal spirit. Connection to Indigenous birth rights, language, resources, moʻolelo, and stories.

“With these connections we give them kūlana (social standing) and kuleana. Responsibility to learn the ways of Hawaiʻi so they can confidently know their role in society,” Helm said.

David Onoue is the manager for communications and marketing at Liliʻuokalani Trust. He was born and raised in Honolulu and holds a master’s degree in magazine, newspaper, & online journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.