He Leo Aloha: A Beloved Voice of Comfort and Rest for the Kupa ʻĀina

Photo: Kuʻulei Perreira-Keawekane
Kuʻulei Perreira-Keawekane
– Photo: Courtesy

By Kuʻulei Perreira-Keawekane

To you who have given your breath to the frontlines of Mauna Kea, Haleakalā, Hakipuʻu, Kalaeloa, Kahuku, Hūnānāniho, Kahoʻolawe, Waikīkī. To the mothers and fathers, the tutus and papas, the sons, daughters, and descendants of kūpuna Hawaiʻi. To you also who sit on the frontlines of healing childhood trauma, neglect, abuse, violence, grief – and also land sales, the rising cost of living, the death of a loved one, the loss of our mother tongue. To you who hold the pain of the commercialization of ʻāina aloha in your bones, and to you, also, who have traded this pain for the comfort and numbness of the void.

We have experienced deep grief for the loss of our land, language, and cultural identity.

Some of us have forgotten how to wrap our lips around the names and place names of our kūpuna, and some of us are tired of being the only ones who know how. This grief has led us to cope by using substances that hurt us, but that also help us to numb this ʻeha. I am writing this to the kuaʻāina who are ready to address the depth of this generational hurt and find a way to the truth of our piko – the wellness of our mauli.

Do you know that word – mauli? It is the ancestral fire within us that we feed and keep lit every time we pray or acknowledge the beauty and mana of the sunrise. It is the warmth we feel when we remember or learn something new about who we are and the land we come from as Hawaiʻi people. Our mauli is the safety we find when we plant a seed or clean a huli. It’s the truth of our cultural identity. Mauli ola is this safety – stabilized and normalized for us in our bodies, our families, workplaces and communities.

In his work, Dr. Keaweʻaimoku Kaholokula shares the four corner posts of mauli ola, or Native Hawaiian Health: Nā Pou Kihi. Our wellness is dependent on Ke Ao ʻŌiwi, Ka Mālama ʻĀina, Ka ʻAi Pono, and Ka Wai Ola – Indigenous space, environmental stewardship, healthy consumption, and social justice.

This means that our illness as Hawaiʻi people is directly related to the ways we are no longer prioritized as stakeholders in the affairs of our place.

Our illness is related to the over-development of our land and the ways we are restricted access in spaces mai uka i kai – from the mountains to the sea. Our illness is related to the relationships that we no longer have to our food and where it comes from, and our illness is related to the ways we are ignored in our fight to attain and restore justice for our land and our people.

When we finally work up the time, space, energy, and courage to get help with our addictions to things like processed food, instant gratification, alcohol, substances, and stress, we ought to understand the kind of help we need – and where to find it. So I am writing this to share the Kanilehua Framework – a cultural and linguistic framework based on the ʻōhiʻa tree – to remind us of the many sources of healing we can call upon when we need it most (see graphic).

Framework Clarity Diagram
Using the ʻōhiʻa tree as a metaphor, the Kanilehua Framework was designed to remind us of the many sources of healing we can call upon when we are in need. – Artwork: Jaki Knaus

Framework Clarity – Long Description

As the ʻōhiʻa grows, when rain falls to the earth and filters through the hard lava rock of our forests, it is collected in an underground drum of water called the pahu moanaliha. Meanwhile, the mole, or taproot of the ʻōhiʻa, literally cracks the rock to access the water in the underground drum. Water travels through the root and feeds the tree as it grows upward. When ʻōhiʻa can’t access water from the ground, it sprouts maʻalewa, aerial roots, that hang from the branches above. The roots that grow from the branches draw from the moisture of the surrounding forest, or the pahu maʻukele. This process models the ways we are able to grow and heal.

The rain represents mauli ola, the underground drum of water represents we who are the culture and language bearers, frontline activists – the people struggling through the “trenches.” The taproot represents the medicine that is accessible directly to us – like prayer, chant, dance, and ʻāina. The aerial roots represent the people we reach for in times of need, and the surrounding moisture represents the professionals, practitioners, and community resources that also support us through our healing.

The purpose of the Kanilehua Framework, then, is to teach us that our healing will come from all different directions. It will require us to deepen our relationships with ourselves and our culture, the people, and the places around us. Doctors and treatment centers can help to guide us on our healing journeys, especially when we suffer from chemical dependency and emotional, physical, or spiritual trauma.

When we dig deep and remember the truth of our pain and where it comes from – where it started, and how it’s related to our illness – it’s a deep work that leads us to the people, places and practices that we’ve always known: ocean, land, play, song, joy, family, rest.

I am grateful to the Hawaiʻi State Department of Health and the Thompson School of Social Work and Public Health at UH Mānoa for sponsoring the creation of the Kanilehua Webinar Series, where kānaka and practitioners come together to learn about this framework in depth.

I invite you to learn more and engage. Ask yourself these questions: What is health and wellness to me? How do I take care of myself when the pressures of being Hawaiian in Hawaiʻi get to be too much? What do I do on a daily basis that pulls me closer to my heritage, my culture and my peace? Who can I rely on for spiritual and emotional support? Am I open to outside help? Am I willing to trust myself and the people who support me?

E kuʻu wahi kulāiwi, now is the time – to reclaim our language, our cultural truth, our wellness, our relationship to our food and ʻāina aloha. Now is the time for us to do the work to heal the trauma that we inherited from our kūpuna by remembering the strength, power, and grace we inherited also. Iwi o kuʻu iwi, koko o kuʻu koko, pili ka moʻo, a mau loa. Your bones are my bones, your blood is my blood, our story is secure – now and forever.

This letter is a kāhea for us to return home, to the peace of our pule and the safety of who we are as a people. Let us heal, let us strengthen our spirits and soften our hearts. Let us find our water, remember our breath, and grow, so that our children come to wellness and rest, so that we continue to come together to the ea of this ʻāina aloha.

Eō mai.

Kuʻulei Perreira- Keawekane is from Panaʻewa, Waiākea and Hilo on Hawaiʻi Island. She is the cultural advisor for the Pacific Health Analytics Collaborative at the Center of Aging at the Thompson School of Social Work and Public Health at UH Mānoa. Through her social media platform on Instagram (@mauli.ola), she facilitates dialogue on native identity, systemic change, generational trauma, and ancestral relations.

Kanilehua Webinar Series

This free webinar series runs from May through July. All completed webinars are archived and may be accessed on-demand. You may also register in advance for upcoming webinars.

  • May 7: Public Health as a Relational Process
    Speaker: Kuʻulei Perreira-Keawekane
  • May 21: Historical Trauma and Wellness
    Speaker: Tiffnie Kakalia
  • June 18: Cultural Resilience and Wellness
    Speaker: Kauila Kealiikanakaoleohaililani
  • July 2: Grace for Givers – Caring for self to sustain the care of others
    Speaker: Hiʻilani Shibata
  • July 16: Community Resources for Rural Health
    Speaker: Dr. Kealoha Fox
  • July 30: Public Health as a Relational Process – Peer Application
    Speaker: Kuʻulei Perreira-Keawekane

To access the Kanilehua Webinar Series, go to:

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or visit: www.hawaii.edu/aging/phac/overdose-data-to-action/od2a-p2p/year-2-webinar-schedule/