Kapaemahu: A Lost Story Found

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Kapaemahu Producers (L-R) Dean Hamer, Hina Wong-Kalu, Joe Wilson. – Photo: Courtesy of Ford Foundation

A journey to Raiatea and the discovery of a handwritten manuscript from 1906 in a forgotten box of papers at UH Mānoa’s Hamilton Library has resulted in the creation of Kapaemahu, an animated short film that was selected to premier at the 19th Annual Tribeca Film Festival as part of a program curated by renowned actress Whoopi Goldberg.

Kapaemahu is the mo‘olelo of four healers who voyaged from Tahiti to Hawai‘i in the 15th century. The healers were mahu; neither male nor female but a mixture of both in mind, heart and spirit. Kapaemahu is a passion project of Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a kumu, cultural practioner and OHA Community Advocate who understands the power that stories have to shape cultural narratives.

According to the mo‘olelo, the healers settled in Waikīkī and were beloved by the people there for their gentle ways and miraculous cures. When it came time for them to depart, the people memorialized them by placing four great stones near their dwelling place. The healers then transferred their names and healing powers to the stones and vanished.

This duality of male and female spirit was highly revered in traditional Polynesian culture, but religious, political and cultural influences in Hawai‘i during the 19th and 20th centuries led to the suppression of this aspect of the mo‘olelo and may be one reason why the story itself was nearly lost.

Kapaemahu festival still “child with lei”. – Photo: Courtesy of Kanaka Pakipika

The stones remained a wahi pana for centuries, until 1905 when they were excavated from the Waikīkī Beach property of Princess Likelike and her husband, Governor Archibald Scott Cleghorn. The legend of Nā Pōhaku Ola Kapaemahu was subsequently conveyed to Thrum’s Hawaiian Almanac by noted cultural expert James Harbottle Boyd, Cleghorn’s son-in-law and a confidant of Queen Lili‘uokalani.

During the 20th century the stones underwent varying degrees of neglect. They were buried under a bowling alley in 1941, recovered in the 1960s, and, after being unattended for many years, restored in a 1997 dedication ceremony on Waikīkī Beach near the Police Station. But despite carrying the name “Kapaemahu,” which noted scholar Mary Kawena Pukui translated as “the row of mahu,” the fact of the healers’ gender duality was omitted from the public record.

Upon her discovery of the manuscript in 2015, Wong-Kalu was determined to bring the mo‘olelo back from obscurity and share it with the world. “As Kānaka we need to be active participants in telling our own stories in our own way,” said Wong-Kalu, director and narrator of the film. To do this she partnered with Hawai‘i-based filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, Oscar-nominated animator Daniel Sousa, and Pacific Islanders in Communications who co-produced the film. Intensive archival research, interviews with cultural experts, and a trip to the healers’ home on Raiatea informed the team’s creative approach.

The resulting film is a lyrical masterpiece. The animation employs a textured, hand-painted style of art rooted in Polynesian visual culture, with designs and palettes informed by the traditional art forms of tapa-making and lauhala weaving. The mo‘olelo is narrated using the Ni‘ihau dialect, which is the only form of Hawaiian that has been continuously spoken since before Western contact and the closest to the language of Tahiti that would have been spoken by the healers. This gives viewers an opportunity to hear the mo‘olelo of Kapaemahu as it might have been originally shared.

Since the arrival of foreigners in Hawai‘i, Kānaka Maoli culture has been under duress. Despite this, many aspects of traditional life, such as hula and navigation, have been successfully reclaimed and preserved. But other aspects, including language, healing practices and respect for gender diversity are still in progress. Mo‘olelo like Kapaemahu offer insight into traditional culture and thought, and the way that Hawaiian narratives have been, and continue to be, shaped by contemporary social and political forces.

“In telling this story I hope that people will understand that what some people call legends are actually elements of our history,” said Wong-Kalu. “The stones of Kapaemahu are more than a tourist site. They are an insight into our Pacific understandings of male and female, life and healing, and the spiritual connections between us all.”

In addition to being an official selection of the Tribeca Film Festival, Kapaemahu is the subject of a feature-length PBS documentary currently in production, and will be the centerpiece of a major exhibition at the Bishop Museum exploring the contemporary history of Nā Pōhaku Ola Kapaemahu and related themes. The exhibition is scheduled to open in Spring 2022.