The Reverend Canon Malcolm Nāea Chun: Hawaiian Historian, Anglican Minister, Healer


“My own interest in the Hawaiian language newspapers began in the early 1970s. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa campus and I enrolled in a course on “reading Hawaiian” taught by Professor Rubellite Kawena (Kinney) Johnson. She introduced us, a handful of the initial group of students interested in a new field of study of Hawaiian Studies. She had an incentive to motivate some of us through a grant she had gotten to publish and translate from the newspapers as part of the American bicentennial celebrations. I spent countless hours pouring over the microfilm in the chilly basement of Hamilton Library’s microfilm room…I tried to look at every Hawaiian language newspaper in that collection and then also viewed others at the Hawaiian Historical Society and the State Library in downtown Honolulu. Much of the articles I thought to be of interest ended up in the bi-centennial book Kukini Ahaʻilono. Some of the other students in the project would later produce their own books based upon materials they found in the Hawaiian language newspapers.”

In his introduction to his 2008 book of translations, Nā Mea Hunahuna o ka Nūhou: Selected Articles from the Hawaiian Language Newspapers, Malcolm Chun described the beginning of academic research into Hawaiian language newspapers and textual archives that was avidly being pursued in the 1970s at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. According to Malcolm’s account, Edith McKinzie and Esther Kiki Mookini both now acknowledged experts in the field of Hawaiian customary knowledge, along with John Kaipo Mahelona, were all, like Malcolm, early students of Kawena Johnson.

Nāea who passed away in January of this year at the young age of 64, was a scholar who devoted much of his life to studying the intellectual life of the lāhui, the genealogies and knowledge of kahuna particularly. His Hawaiian education began when as a toddler, he was hānai to his kūpuna who opened “his eyes to wanting to learn, to see the world in a way different than other people.” As senior class president at ʻIolani School, eighteen year old Nāea invited prominent speakers to lunchtime talks to share their expertise on Hawaiian culture and history. As a student at UH Mānoa he worked with fellow students under Kawena Johnson, and in his curiosity to seek out knowledge he also worked hard to read, interpret and translate Hawaiian language texts.

Nāea was an extraordinary man who could see beyond the surface of things through various layers of substance. He came into my life at various points and different ways. I first glimpsed his photograph in the Star-Bulletin, dressed in period outfit, set beside a larger image of David Malo. In 1987, Chun was still serving his term as the first cultural officer of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs—and I wondered as I collected information on the life of David Malo for my MA thesis, who was this man who greeted visitors as David Malo who answered questions as if he were the great Hawaiian chiefly counselor and historian? Cosplaying the Hawaiian past before historical re-enactments became all the rage in the early twenty-first century.

Malcolm became my distant role model, the first Hawaiian writer I met on the page who was not Mary Kawena Pukui, at a time when noteriety and authority and relationships were still secured through public appearances and print, and not through the ghostly movement of pixels reassembled on smart-phone screens. Perhaps I first saw Nāea at a Hawaiian funeral where as a young woman I stared in wonder at all the proteges of kumu I hoped one day to learn from – Kalani Meineke, Kamuela Chun, Kalani Akana – then, they were the haumāna who attended to kūpuna, nearly always at their sides. I watched in the hopes that I would serve in their place one day.

I know now, after looking back through much of Malcolm’s writing that there were central questions that captivated his mind and ignited his passion: questions about how Hawaiian knowledge was structured and passed on. He exercised intuition like a detective, delving into questions and piecing together answers that took years to reach that feeling of correctness, and he presented his findings in reports, in person, preaching from a pulpit, in prayer, and through his numerous books.

Malcolm’s books focused on Hawaiian scholars and kahuna, Hawaiian health and healing, and Hawaiian history. In addition to these works, Malcolm composed lesser known short historical novels, and special syntheses on Hawaiian spiritual practice. When I started to pore through hundreds of his mentions, writings and interviews in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Advertiser, the work he produced as the first Cultural Officer employed by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, for the Queen Emma trust, as the first representative of Hawaiian Christian Churches, as the Reverend Canon Malcolm Nāea Chun, I saw that he was often the “first” of his station. When I went on an expedition through overstuffed file cabinets for the scripts of his various plays and character sketches for the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society, and as I listened to the eulogies and speeches given at the mass held in his honor at St. Andrewʻs Cathedral, I realized that Malcolm was quite prolific and his interests and relations with people in his various communities, vast.

In an article published by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, September 9, 1989, detailing Emmet Aluli and Palikapu Dedmanʻs fight against geothermal development on religious and cultural grounds, readers learned that Pele Defense Fund leaders sought recognition from mainline religions and congregations on the West Coast. Malcolm, then head of Native Hawaiian Ministry for the Episcopal Church in Hawaiʻi was quoted extensively in the paper,

“Hawaiian Christians and activists or ʻtraditionalists,’” his term, “need to have a ʻmeeting of minds’ because both groups are affected by the same concern. The issue at hand is ʻus’ as a people – how do we continue being a people 100 years from now,”

“ …Yet both Hawaiian Christians and activists need to infuse their cultural values into the larger world view,”

“…Native Hawaiians have to figure out how to “pierce the veil of insensitivity and ignorance” to convey values such as the sacredness of land and of burial places. This difference in cultural values explains why some Hawaiian Christians also revere Pele.”

Malcolm could reconfigure relationships when efficacious, beyond the colonial binaries that presently shape our behavior: Maoli vs. Haole, Christianity vs. tradition, science vs. custom. His words, spoken nearly thirty years ago continue to be relevant and from this vantage point—prescient. Do we not as a community still grapple with the same issues regarding sacred land and burial places, issues that Nāea and people of his generation suggested solutions for, three decades ago? In his quest for remembering and healing Hawaiian people, I see a grain of irritation—the conundrum facing us presently as we remember and simultaneously forget the past as digital mediums supply us with a false sense of secure “knowing.” The paradox is challenging. How can we remember the past and make peace with it’s trauma? What was Malcolm challenging us to think when he asked us to consider the knowledge and lineages of Kahuna?

Malcolm’s work in the Anglican church also furthered his interest in addressing the health of Hawaiian people. Malcolm was the chairman of the first modern effort to revitalize the Hawaiian Bible in response to the injunction of kūpuna at Lunalilo home saying that a lack of Bibles hindered the ability of families to communicate using the Hawaiian language and to pass on traditions. Malcolm was also a fierce advocate for increasing the number of ordained Native Hawaiian ministers, and he helped to fortify the global indigenous church from Indigenous Canada to Hawaiʻi to Aotearoa.

A member of his church community, MʻLiss Moore, recalls that Malcolm’s “ordination was the most joyful I have ever been to, with Malcolm’s supporters coming from Native American tribes, Aotearoa, all over the Pacific.

The most moving thing was when the three Hawaiian kahu showed up—Reverend Merseberg, Reverend Kaʻupu, and Revered Kaina. Their collective mana was so strong. I will never forget that day. But for Malcolm, it took years of butting heads and rallying the vocal support of kūpuna of the Hawaiian service (like my mom) to become that pioneer.”

In addition to serving his church community, Malcolm gave guidance to fellow writers. According to a fond rememberance penned by Makana Risser Chai, “As haole newcomer to Hawaiʻi 20 years ago, I was profoundly grateful and humbled that he took me under his wing, mentored me, read my manuscripts, and gave me much advice and encouragement. He was particularly keen for me to publish my book on Huna is not Hawaiian. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was gentle in correcting my mistakes. He exemplified how Pukui described the people of old: the dart of criticism was wrapped in velvet, so you felt inspired to work harder and do better.”

Several people during the service and in their email correspondence to me noted Malcolm’s “wicked sense of humor.” He was not one to mince words, according to Chai, “Malcolm also did not go along with the politics of the crowd. He spoke up if he disagreed with others in leadership positions. He was disparaged by many of them…I believe he was happiest when he was writing and researching.”

I realized while researching his life that any attempt to understand Nāea through his books—the avenue through which most people are familiar with his work, would supply only a partial understanding of this man and his work, and the pressing subjects to which he devoted his time, his energy, and his spirit. Malcolm wanted the lāhui to thrive in a particular kind of way, as kānaka maoli people who live in relation to our past. He wanted our knowledge of spirituality, health and healing to be practiced out of custom and tradition and it seemed that he wished for us as a people to heal past our trauma, to grow away from our oppression, and our guilt about not knowing things, and to flourish. And although many people may have found his personal style of speaking to be brusque and at times overly critical, looking back on his work, I see now how large was his concern and his affection for the lāhui. How strong his confidence in our ability to become familiar with our ʻike and grow secure in our own seeking, and I believe that his aloha for our future capacity was not misplaced.

Malcolm spoke about his life in the 2017 podcast, Leo Kupa. “In everything I did I worked for our people trying to do something good for them from the time of university to the time all the way till just passed when I was Canon Pastor at Saint Andrew’s Cathedral but somehow I got caught into an interest in Native Hawaiian Healing practices and medicine and lāʻau lapaʻau…and I was given the opportunities along the way to do translations of Hawaiian texts, manuscripts and published texts that no one had translated before and as the manuscripts accumulated, I began to realize that I was privileged to see before me a pretty good history of the development of lāʻau lapaʻau or more technically the, lāʻau hāhā and how it developed all the way, well, almost until today in its practice and changes. And by those translations and publications, [I was] able to share with our people and the world that we have had a deep history documented, recorded for generations to come, about our practices and what we do. [And] it gives us a privilege that very few indigenous people have about our culture, but more specifically about our healing practices.”

Writing the life of an esteemed person like Mr. Chun is nearly impossible for I could not easily fit his life into the frame of “great man” history. This is not possible because he was not just a “great man,” but because when I looked through many of the words he left us in print, his own writings and interviews, and how he oriented himself in relation to others, it became nearly impossible to disentangle him from the ties that bound him to the lāhui and the role he marked out for himself as an advisor—one who sought to understand and interpret Hawaiian cultural knowledge for a broader, intergenerational Hawaiian community including those that came before, those now living and those yet to be born.

“My kūpuna instilled in me at least an appreciation for plants, for the world around you, how you grow things, how you take care of them, and how you look at the world very differently from other people…and I think that that was really was a great gift, one that perhaps with smart phones and with technology we forget the power of observation, the power of listening, the power of being able to be still – those things were really skills, and they are skills that through the translations and becoming maʻa mau – you know, accustomed – to the jargon, the language, the practice of healing, they are very important skills, and they are things that need to be retaught to our own people.”