Hawaiian he‘e hōlua traditions

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This article was written in collaboration with 84° and Sunny


Tom “Pōhaku” Stone is a Native Hawaiian surfer who is also credited with revitalizing the sport of he‘e hōlua (Hawaiian sledding). Native Hawaiians are increasingly seeking to reconnect with and reclaim ancestral knowledge and traditions. Pōhaku is one of the many pivotal people in this process of cultural reclamation; his expertise is specific to the art and craft of carving the implements used in two extreme but related traditional sports – papahōlua, the Hawaiian sled, and papahe‘enalu the surfboard.

He‘e hōlua is a traditional Hawaiian sport that requires riders to lie on a long wooden sled and maintain their balance as they hurtle, face first down a hillside. In an interview, Pōhaku explains his journey of reclaiming the knowledge and traditions surrounding he‘e hōlua.

“When I first embraced hōlua 25 years ago, it was because I remembered the stories my grandfather told me. When I started looking into it, researching it, asking questions, no one knew what I was talking about. It was in ‘94 that I constructed my first sled. When we took it to Upolu and actually rode it, that led me on an unexpected journey.

“There was a significant part of our culture that seemed to be oki (cut) and removed from history; and that was the significant roles that women played in traditional sports. When I started looking at mele, oli and nūpepa they all spoke of the same thing, how important this practice was. It was so significant that the missionaries were busy trying to remove it because it placed the importance of the female before the male. And they didn’t like that at all. What I realized is, it is the coming of Pele that brings the sport to Hawai‘i. At the time it wasn’t a sport, it was more of a ritual to honor the women of our islands. Hōlua was a way of worshiping females and those places that represent the female; because without the female there’s no life, life ends.

“To me that was so important, that I embraced hōlua and committed myself 100 percent to carry on the knowledge and traditions.

“I hope to leave behind other individuals that will embrace hōlua and carry it on. The idea is that they understand the histories behind it. By embracing that, you embrace your past. You should never be ashamed of yourself. If you embrace who you really are, the rest is easy.

“We need to embrace traditions of old and not lose them. It’s a way for us to be able to survive economically, spiritually, physically. Going back to hōlua, he‘enalu, those are all sports meant to strengthen us to endure hardships. If we carry those on today, we can overcome a lot of the problems we have in our island society as natives.”

> On Feb. 3, 2018, Pōhaku will provide the brave of heart the opportunity to experience the thrill of riding a hōlua sled down a rocky slope at the annual Makahiki Kuilima celebration hosted by Samuel Kamakau Laboratory Public Charter School. This is one of the few public events where community members can take part in the traditional sport of he‘e hōlua. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is proud to support Makahiki Kuilima through an ‘Ahahui Grant to perpetuate Hawaiian culture and traditional sports.