The Return of Lono

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While the United States celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, Native Hawaiians were reasserting our rights and dignity as a people.

Land struggles in places like Kālama Valley, Sand Island, and Kahoʻolawe in the 1970s pushed Kānaka Maoli to challenge assumptions of economic development and our treatment in our own homeland.

These land struggles, along with Native American and Black empowerment movements on the continent, gave rise to a revival of Native Hawaiian culture, language and ʻāina-based values – the Hawaiian Renaissance.

As our people increasingly embraced and articulated aloha ʻāina, the embedded values connected spiritually with the characteristics of the akua, Lono, and the celebration of Makahiki.

Some view Makahiki as simply a season of games and relaxation. However, the Makahiki ceremonies were a recognition of life’s transitions and a reminder of the familial relationship and kuleana we have with the land, ocean, sky, one another, and with all things that live, grow and dwell upon this world.

Lono was the spiritual patron of the arts, healing, vegetation, play, peace, and of holding rulers accountable. He was represented as the akua loa (Makahiki staff) and the gift-bearing canoe.

There is an element of egalitarianism within Lono. Unlike the Kū ceremonies carried out for most of the year everyone, regardless of rank, participated in Lono ceremonies.

When the kapu system was abolished in 1819, Makahiki ceremonies ceased. But in the emerging political awakening and cultural renaissance of the 1970s, prominent kūpuna and cultural practitioners sensed in their naʻau that the growing revival needed a spiritual foundation.

In January 1976, Kahuna Sam Lono and Emma DeFries prepared and made offerings to the ʻāina of Kahoʻolawe for a group of activists who were going to Kahoʻolawe. These activists would be collectively called the “Kahoʻolawe Nine” and included Walter Ritte, Emmett Aluli, Ellen Miles, Karla Villalba, Steve Morse, Kimo Aluli, George Helm, Gail Kawaipuna Prejean, and Ian Lind.

In 1979, Kumu Hula John Kaʻimikaua performed hula associated with the Makahiki for the first time since the 19th century, while Papa Paul Elia offered hoʻokupu to Kahoʻolawe with ancient prayers.

Observance of Makahiki grew as Native Hawaiians increasingly stood up to protect Kahoʻolawe and other sacred lands from devastation. The first Makahiki celebrated on Kahoʻolawe was during the 1981-1982 season.

Armed only with aloha ʻāina and hoʻokupu, members of the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana stood in defiance against the world’s strongest military. They called out for Lono to heal and re-green Kahoʻolawe and for healing from the generational trauma our people have endured.

They brought hoʻokupu which they carried from Hakioawa to Kealaikahiki, the first akua loa since 1819. They invoked the akua to restore Kahoʻolawe’s vegetation and invited communication with Kānaka Maoli in our pursuit of peace, cleansing, and spiritual and physical wellbeing.

This event served as a wake-up call, not just for Hawaiians but also for the general public.

The reestablishment of Makahiki ceremonies is not just a return to cultural practices. The season of Lono was, and is, a spiritual revival manifested through ceremonies reaffirming the familial ties and kuleana between all that is sustained by the land and the ocean as well as the relationship we have with the land and our culture.

Indeed, as we celebrate Makahiki, we are not just celebrating the return of Lono, but the return of who we are as a people. In the words of the late George Helm, “My veins are carrying the blood of a people who understand the sacredness of land and water. This is my culture and no matter how remote the past is, it does not make my culture extinct.”