Papahana Kālai Papa Me Pōhaku Kuʻi ʻAi


Perpetuating culture, strengthening ʻohana with board, stone and kalo

Mailelauliʻi Vickery, executive director of the nonprofit Hui Mālama O Ke Kai (HMKF), has seen how a simple board and stone can strengthen family ties and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture. HMKF’s mission is “to cultivate leadership and identity through…aloha, pono, ʻonipaʻa and mālama,” and the popular Papahana Kālai Papa Me Pōhaku Kuʻi ʻAi (“board and stone” workshop) is one way that goal is being achieved with great success.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) awarded HMKF a two-year grant of $99,840 to support the workshop, which teaches participants how to make their own papa kuʻi ʻai (kalo board) and pōhaku kuʻi ʻai (kalo pounder) and inspires them to perpetuate the practice of kuʻi kalo (pounding taro/making poi). Since it launched a decade ago, it and HMKF’s kuʻi kalo program (see sidebar), have served nearly 1,000 people.

Photo: Earl Kawaʻa of Molokaʻi, demonstrates kuʻi kalo technique
Cultural practitioner and the creator of the Board and Stone workshops, Earl Kawaʻa of Molokaʻi, demonstrates kuʻi kalo technique.

Earl Kawaʻa, a Hawaiian resource specialist at Kamehameha Schools who was honored as a Living Treasure of Hawaiʻi in 2019, has been involved with Papahana Kālai Papa Me Pōhaku Kuʻi ʻAi from early on.

Kawaʻa grew up in Hālawa Valley on Molokaʻi during the 1940s and 1950s, one of about two dozen known fluent speakers of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi on the island at the time. In those days, just about every family there owned at least two poi boards and several stones. Everyone ate poi every day, and kuʻi kalo was a responsibility they assumed at a young age.

That has changed with the times — a reality that deeply concerns Kawaʻa — but, partnered with HMKF, he is committed to keeping the tradition of kuʻi kalo and crafting papa kuʻi ʻai and pōhaku kuʻi ʻai alive.

HMKF provides Papahana Kālai Papa Me Pōhaku Kuʻi ʻAi “apprentices,” as participants are regarded, with a slab of roughly cut wood. After learning about gathering protocol and practices and characteristics to look for in stones, they select their pōhaku. Over the course of 13 weeks, under the watchful eye of Kawaʻa and his alakaʻi, they use files, chisels, sandpaper and koʻi (adze) they have made to shape their board and stone. All the work is done by hand as it was in ancient times.

The program also builds pilina with Hāloa (and, in essence, kalo) and underscores the importance of reciprocal relationships.

“The papa and pōkahu are used specifically in the making of meaʻai,” Vickery said. “Understanding the food source, the cultural significance and the pilina with Hāloa and kalo is understanding the interconnectedness of ourselves with our resources, our surroundings, the ʻāina, the elements and mea kanu and other living things. It is a give-and-receive relationship that needs to be acknowledged, maintained and respected.”

Bonds between husband and wife and parents and children are also bolstered as they work closely together on their papa kuʻi ʻai (one per family) and pōhaku kuʻi ʻai (as many as they would like to make). The boards and stones they fashion are theirs to keep, to be welcomed and cared for as cherished new members of their ʻohana. As such, it is appropriate to name them.

“Some names are familial, some come from dreams or signs or are meant to honor a significant event,” Vickery said. “When a name is given, a connection is made, history is preserved, someone or something is honored or perhaps a story is told and remembered.”

She considers it a privilege to witness the growth that Papahana Kālai Papa Me Pōhaku Kuʻi ʻAi apprentices undergo in just three months. For many of them, the workshop yields the first board and stone for their family in generations.

“A spiritual and emotional reconnect sometimes happens to childhood memories or stories they were told but never experienced themselves,” Vickery said. “It can be healing; it is a connection to things that were altered or severed by the historical atrocities we have endured as kānaka.”

Participants are expected to share what they’ve learned. “Cultural knowledge is a foundational part of the program,” Vickery said. “By strengthening the relationship between kānaka and ʻike kūpuna, we strengthen the lāhui. By fostering this pilina of identity and an understanding of our kūpuna and ourselves, we perpetuate cultural practices and grow practitioners.”

Papahana Kālai Papa Me Pōhaku Kuʻi ʻAi Worshops

The Papahana Kālai Papa Me Pōhaku Kuʻi ʻAi workshop is scheduled to begin in May. An orientation is tentatively set for May 10 and 11 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Hui Mālama O Ke Kai’s (HMKF’s) campus, 41-477 Hīhīmanu Street in Waimānalo. Thirteen weekly evening classes will follow from May 18 through July 13. A hōʻike is set for July 15.

You can also learn how to prepare paʻi ʻai (pounded taro) with papa and pōhaku at 12 E Kuʻi Kākou events. Plans call for each ʻohana to receive two to three pounds of kalo, and you can keep all the paʻi ʻai that you make. You do not have to complete the Papahana Kālai Papa Me Pōhaku Kuʻi ʻAi workshop to sign up for E Kuʻi Kākou. If you don’t have a board and stone, you can borrow them from HMKF.

Prior to the pandemic, E Kuʻi Kākou was held at HMKF. During the height of the pandemic, it was a “drive-through” – families picked up kalo and implements, if needed, at HMKF and made paʻi ʻai at home. This year, some events will be in person; the rest as a drive-through.

HMKF provides instruction and materials for Papahana Kālai Papa Me Pōhaku Kuʻi ʻAi and E Kuʻi Kākou, which are open to everyone free of charge. Enrollment will be online once dates have been announced via email, social media and HMKF’s website in early April.

For details about these and other HMKF programs, call (808) 259-2030, email or visit