Culture Keeper: Kuʻulei Keakealani


Ku‘ulei Keakealani is a Hawaiian speaker and storyteller from the Ka‘ūpūlehu ahupua‘a, as well Ka Pilina Poina ‘Ole Director, incorporating homeland connections, mo‘olelo, Kekaha ahupua‘a and mauka-makai education. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs supports the stewardship of the Ka‘ūpūlehu dryland lama forest through a $172,262 grant to the Hawai‘i Forest Institute.
Keakealani spent some time talking with OHA staff this fall about Ka‘üpülehu. Here are her words, edited for length and clarity:

These are the lands that I declare that I belong to. I was born in Kealakekua, Kona, raised in Pu‘uanahulu and then moved on to Waimea. So it is that pleasant cool uplands had a great part in raising me as well. But this very ahupua‘a Ka‘ūpūlehu, Kaulupulehu Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a to the north, Pu‘uanahulu to the farther north, are the ahupua‘a where for successive generations we have been here. So to me, this declaration of pilina, the connection to place, runs deep, runs wide and particular perhaps to this forest. To the Maulukua, this upland region, to this ‘ulula‘au, this forest. There are those times when I look to the trees themselves and the land itself as being perhaps my greatest teachers.

Look at the ‘ilie‘e and its tendency to have a sticky, mea pipili. Sometime I look at that particular characteristic of the ‘ilie‘e. Is it applicable to me? Can it apply to me? And I think, absolutely. I want my mo‘olelo to cling and to stick. Recitations of mo‘okū‘auhau of the ka‘ao, many things, history. I want that to cling, to remain. I want that to stay, and be pili just as the ‘ilie‘e.

Then I look to the mauā – Aunty Yvonne calls the bumps on the mauā “beauty spots” – it’s a matter of perspective. So to look at that and say to my own self I might have funky bumps maybe flaws, whatever it might be, they’re imperfections but that’s me. And I must learn to love that. Just as the mauä has those bumps. That’s the mauä. So it is applicable to me.

And then to look at the ēlama that is dominant in this region and in this forest. Slow, slow growing. Good things take time. It reminds me of patience. Ho‘omanawanui, what really is that? Am I patient? Can I be more patient? And if I look at tree time, in the eyes of the ēlama, wow, stretch. Stretching the mind to really discover patience. What is ho‘omanawanui? So yes, the forest, many many examples, or la‘ana, that I could relay, convey. They are teachers. They can be teachers. But who sees it in that way? And the nice thing is, there are others. There are others that do see it from that vantage point. And that’s beautiful.

How do you help others understand the stories of this place?
Bring them here. For me to have people get an understanding, a sense of place, you gotta be at the place. I can try to describe the shoreline of Kalaemanō through my words, through things that I say, through emotion, but only when you are there will you know the wind that is going blow or when it changes direction. Did you know its name? When the wind shifted, were you present enough to know that the ‘eka was cut off by the kēhau, or that strong breeze coming in now is the Mumuku? For me that is the best way, to bring people to place to afford anyone the chance and the opportunity to reestablish or reaffirm, confirm your relation, solidify your relation to place, by being in your place, in your landscape. Having the vantage point through the leaves of the ‘a‘ali‘i bush. Having the vantage point of space that kūpuna held.

We should not be such a forgetful people. But I think we have that capacity, the intellect, the capability to be all that we are meant to be. We descend from greatness. Why would we be any less? Uphold those pillars by which we stand that hold us up and be the beacons. Because one day we will become ancestors. So with that ingrained in us, how can we not strive to be great and uphold perhaps the legacy, the heritage that’s left for us to hold tenderly? Kuleana to place is huge.

Do you find that the forest is a place of inspiration for you?
Indeed. This is the inspiration. How can you not be inspired by place, by this breeze that blows and refreshes you, so yes. Inspiration too can come in a doctor’s office. I’ve written many things in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and duties I must tend to. So waiting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office things come forth. Sometimes what transpires or makes its way to the paper helps me process the myriad of emotions. Sometimes it is anger, rage almost, and I gotta write. And then sometimes it’s time of total bliss, happiness and it’s capturing these times of emotion.