City Might Add Dual-Gender History to Waikiki Monument
In the 1960s when a Waikiki bowling alley was demolished to create more beach, four large boulders were unearthed at the site near where they had been erected to honor four Tahitian healers.
A historical plaque was erected at the stones, which date back more than 500 years and are protected by a fenced enclosure near the Honolulu Police Department substation in Waikiki. But the version of history that recognized these healers as mahu, someone of dual male and female spirit, remained buried even in 1997 when the monument’s signage was last updated.
Some members of the community have asked the city to consider revising the monument’s signage or adding a QR code to provide more information about the mahu aspect of the stones for those who are interested. The movement is an outgrowth of “The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu,” an exhibit at Bishop Museum that runs through Oct. 16.
Joe Wilson, Dean Hamer and Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu helped curate the exhibit for the Kapaemahu project, which also includes an award-winning animated short film, a children’s book published by Penguin Random House, a feature-length PBS documentary film broadcast on Pacific Heartbeat, and school curriculum.
The exhibit, which was planned for about two years and occupies Bishop Museum’s Castle Memorial Hall, has built on other aspects of the Kapaemahu project by starting a community-driven conversation about updating the site as a permanent and unique reminder of Hawaii’s inclusivity.
Wilson said it’s understood that in 1997, when the city fenced Kapaemahu and last updated its signage, “you could not say the word ‘mahu’ in public. It was a derogatory word.”
But now, Wilson said, that’s changed “because people like Hina are reclaiming that word and using it proudly.”
Wong-Kalu said gender fluidity has always been a part of the greater Polynesian and Hawaiian cultures, which “have a place for male and female culture and the space in between.”
She said to be mahu was and is seen as a “gift and a responsibility.”
“There is no written documented evidence that mahu was anything but a normal part of society. We have no evidence prior to the coming of Christian missionaries of whom took the greatest issue with mahu and living that truth,” she said. “Only then do you see that there is a collision between cultures and religious and spiritual beliefs.”
Ian Scheuring, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s spokesperson, said the mayor toured the exhibit and met with the Kapaemahu group afterward about “the desire to have the signs either changed or amended at the existing monument.”
“I would describe that meeting as very educational and very helpful for us to understand that perspective. In the weeks after that meeting, the mayor also met with the cultural caretakers of that monument,” Scheuring said. “They appear to have a different perspective on the history of that monument than the Kapaemahu group does.”
Scheuring said the mayor and his administration are still conducting fact finding on the monument. He said the Kapaemahu group has proposed adding a QR code to the site, and discussions about that idea are ongoing with both parties.
“We are hopeful that we can come to a solution that is amenable for both parties and a solution that makes everyone happy,” Scheuring said.
Support for updating the monument to include the role of mahu in its history has come from the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, state Department of Health, Hawaii Health & Harm Reduction Center, Kanaeokana Kula Hawaii Network, Hawaii LGBT Legacy Foundation, Bishop Museum and other organizations.
CNHA CEO Kuhio Lewis said, “The recent short film ‘The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu’ has touched and inspired audiences around the world with the universal message that everyone has a role in society. CNHA supports enhancing the signage at the Kapaemahu Stones site in Waikiki to include this version of the moolelo (story) alongside others to present a more comprehensive depiction of our Hawaiian culture.”
Brandy Lee, whose work as a mahu performer and entertainer at The Glade nightclub in Chinatown in the 1960s was spotlighted in the gender fluidity portion of the Kapaemahu Stones exhibit, is among the people who support updating the monument.
Lee, now 80, faced significant prejudice as a mahu entertainer in an era where law enforcement required them to wear “I Am a Boy” buttons. Lee said in a letter of support: “Our schools didn’t teach Hawaiian culture or history, and even if they had, they wouldn’t have talked about a subject with the word ‘mahu’ with it. But I wish they had. Knowing about those stones that recognize and honor people like me might have made me feel like I had a place and was deserving of dignity and respect, things that were sorely lacking in my youth.
“For the sake of current and future generations, I hope things will change and that this important wahi pana (legendary place) will be clearly marked, for all to see, as a remembrance of all the good that mahu bring to Hawaii and the world. It deserves to be recognized.”
But members of Na Haumana Laau Lapaau o Papa Auwae, or NHLLOPA, who have served as kahu, or guardians, of the monument for nearly 25 years, said in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that they “cannot support the alteration of this sanctified historic object and area with its specific cultural instructions and spiritual requirements.”
“The many honorable kupuna who sanctified the wording, articulated a commonality of the moolelo (story) of healing, kinship and spiritual significance that has survived centuries of change,” NHLLOPA said. “Like many moolelo, it has several valid ancient versions yet to be reconciled, including those of our Tahitian ohana from whose shores, and teachings the seers originated.”
The kahu added: “We have been working with the city on the best way to provide further information that can be accessed by the visiting public, without disrupting the deep spiritual significance within the boundaries of the area.
“Care for protocol, the needs of the site itself, and safety contribute to a careful balance of pono and needs to be maintained, with aloha.”
Hamer said the story of the healing stones was mostly passed down through oral transmission. However, in 1906, he said, James Alapuna Harbottle Boyd’s written manuscript “Tradition of the Wizard Stones of Ka-Pae-Mahu” said the healers’ “ways and great physique were overshadowed by their low, soft speech, and they became as one with those they came in contact with.”
Boyd also said that the healers “were unsexed, by nature, and their habits coincided with their womanly seeming, although manly in stature and general bearing.”
Hamer said historians view Boyd as a particularly strong source as he was the son-in-law of Archibald Cleghorn, who owned the Waikiki property where the stones were at that time. He said Cleghorn’s wife, Princess Likelike, and daughter, Princess Ka‘iulani, were said to have revered the stones.
Wilson said the stones have just as much importance in today’s society.
“We believe it is possibly, and likely, the only monument in the world to celebrate the very idea of gender-fluid beings being recognized as heroes in their society,” he said. “You often now will see memorials to transgender people who have been killed whose lives have been cut short because of violence and bigotry. This stands separate and apart from that understanding. This is a wonderful and beautiful manifestation that has yet to be recognized in its fullness.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
See story on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser site here.