Ka Wai Ola

Mana Moment

In November 2017, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs published Mana Lāhui Kānaka, a multidimensional study of mana: what it is, how to articulate it, and how to access and cultivate it in order to uplift our lāhui. The book shared mana‘o from community contributors, such as Puanani Burgess, on using culture and traditional knowledge as a foundation for how we advance in the world today:


Photo: Puanani Burgess
Puanani Burgess

I’ve been thinking about the issue of mana, and not so much the concept of it, but maybe the expression and the practical application. I want to tell you a story about Aunty Pilahi Paki.

A thousand years ago, I was in law school, and in my second year of law school, I interned for Cynthia Thielen and she was the attorney for the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana. As part of my internship, she assigned me to PKO as their intern so I did research and I wrote and I put together resolutions with and for them. As part of my work, I helped negotiate with the Navy the building of the first halau on Kaho‘olawe.

It was a time when Uncle Harry Mitchell was alive, Uncle Charlie Keau was there, Les Kuloloio, Palikapu Dedman, Skippy Ioane – all of those guys were coming into activism and into their power. They were building the hālau and they got to a place in the building and they got stuck. At the time, my husband and I were taking lessons with Aunty Pilahi Paki – and Aunty Pilahi, as many kūpuna, the time they like to talk is the darkness. We would go to her little house in Kāne‘ohe and it’s midnight and we’re sitting in her tiny house and I bring to her this problem. I explain to her that we’re stuck, we don’t know how to proceed, to finish the building of the hālau.

And she says, “Pua, are you Hawaiian?” I said yes. She said, “When you go outside, can you feel the wind? When you go outside, can you smell the rain? When you put your bare feet on the earth, can you feel the ‘āina?” I said, “Yes, Aunty.”

She said, “That was all your ancestors ever had, what you have. And just like them, for your time, you folks have to figure out what the right chants are, what the right pule are, what the right ceremonies are. If you folks do not figure that out, for your side, in this moment, in this time, then our culture dies. You must basically be courageous. You have to figure out how you pray, how you bring worship and how you bring together all the different parts of what it takes to have a vibrant and living culture.”

When I think of Aunty Pilahi and how she shared mana, and how she passed it on, I’m very grateful to have been her student and to be able to share that story with other people and urge them to find the courage to figure it out all for ourselves and to make sure to pass that mana on and on and on.


Puanani Burgess is a Zen Buddhist priest, poet and community leader, mediator and activist from Wai‘anae, O‘ahu whose work has focused on building the beloved community.