Kapaemahu Exhibit Prompts Call to Update Signage at Waikīkī
An exhibit at Bishop Museum is bringing attention to the once-forgotten story about four māhū (people of dual male and female spirit) who brought healing arts from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi.
Titled, “The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu,” the exhibit is based on the handwritten manuscript of a moʻolelo “Ka Pōhaku Kahuna Kapaemahu” that was passed down through the family of Queen Liliʻuokalani and eventually published in 1907 in the Hawaiian Almanac.
In the original story, the dual male and female traits of the healers were an essential component of their power. Before leaving Hawaiʻi, they transferred their powers to four large stones as a permanent reminder of their gifts.
After years of neglect, the stones are now protected as a City and County of Honolulu monument at Kūhiō Beach. However, over time, external influences have altered the story and obscured the nature of the healers. Today, the signage at the site does not mention that the healers were māhū or that their duality was intrinsic to their healing abilities.
This obvious omission highlights the ongoing struggle for acceptance and inclusion of gender diversity in Hawaiʻi, inspiring efforts by advocates and supporters to have the signage at the Kapaemahu monument corrected.
Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement CEO Kūhiō Lewis is one such advocate. “The current informational plaques at the Kapaemahu site tell part of the history, but critical elements of the moʻolelo passed down by our kūpuna were omitted,” Lewis said. “This censorship does harm to those whose existence it erases, to the Kānaka MaoIi whose histories it suppresses, and to the residents and visitors who lose the opportunity to learn about Hawaiʻi’s long traditions of diversity and inclusion.”
Hawaiʻi Health and Harm Reduction Center is a nonprofit public health organization that includes the Kuaʻana transgender health project. The center’s director, Heather Lusk, notes that, “although māhū have a long history as community caregivers in Native Hawaiian and other Pasifika cultures, their role has been under appreciated and even ignored over the past century plus. Information about these stones should be historically accurate and reflective of the important cultural role māhū played in Native Hawaiian society.”
Elizabeth Char is director of the Hawaiʻi State Department of Health. She adds that Hawaiʻi’s sexual and gender minorities have unique health experiences and needs and often face barriers to acceptance and belonging that profoundly affect their overall health and wellbeing. “Updating historical information at what might be the world’s only public monument to the important role that māhū played in Indigenous culture could have transformative and beneficial impacts on those who visit this prominent site,” Char said.
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu is a curator of the exhibit and co-director of the Kapaemahu project. “Our kuleana has been to continue this tradition by restoring this inspiring moʻolelo and making it accessible in every way we can,” she said. “Whether through the exhibition, animated film, documentary or the children’s book that have emerged, we have endeavored to stay true to the moʻolelo and to tell it in our own language from a kānaka perspective.”
Another advocate is Mālia Sanders, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NaHHA). “The 1990s were simply ‘not ready’ to receive what it meant to be māhū and how the story of these healers are an integral part of the fabric of society of the ancient and modern Native Hawaiian people,” said Sanders. “Today we are privileged to have access to 21st century technologies and mediums which allow us to do justice to the retelling of cultural stories.”
NaHHA was founded by scholar and author George Kanahele who proposed that the stones be designated as a wahi pana in his 1994 book, Restoring Hawaiianness to Waikīkī. In 1997, the stones were restored, elevated and protected behind a fence through a project led by venerated kūpuna and traditional healer Papa Henry Auwae.
At a March meeting of the Commission on Culture and the Arts, a proposal to replace the existing signage was met with resistance from representatives of a group who help to maintain the stones.
Proposals to update the information at the stones are currently with Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for the City and County of Honolulu to show both its respect for Hawaiian history and culture and its support for modern concepts of diversity and inclusion” said Wong-Kalu.
Honoring the story of Kapaemahu is especially important to the local LGBTQ+ community whose members continue to experience prejudice and discrimination. Brandy Lee, who was an entertainer in the 1960s, had to wear an “I Am a Boy” button to avoid arrest. “Back then, we didn’t know anything about the stones of Kapaemahu in Waikīkī. 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 sorely lacking in my youth.”
The Board of Directors of the Hawaiʻi LGBT Legacy Foundation said in a statement that updating the Kapaemahu signage will, “ensure that we [do] not actively participate in the erasure of māhū from our history; honor and affirm the incredible role māhū play in both historical and modern day Hawaiʻi; and serve as a catalyst for other mo‘olelo that may have been sanitized inadvertently through time or for more insidious reasons.”
Adds Lewis, “When any part of our past is erased, for whatever reason, future possibilities are removed. It is time to assure that our public monuments in Hawaiʻi, including the stones of Kapaemahu, are a site of inspiration and opportunity for the next generation.”
See article on the Ka Wai Ola News site HERE.
The Kapaemahu exhibition at Bishop Museum is open through October 16. In addition to advocacy for updating signage at the stones, plans for the Kapaemahu project include a display of the centerpiece banners and replica stones at the Hawaiʻi Convention Center; teacher workshops with the Kanaeokana educational network and Kamehameha Schools to help educators apply the lessons of the moʻolelo of Kapaemahu in classrooms; and an augmented reality application that will allow viewers to learn more about the stones. For more information or to help end the erasure of māhū from Hawaiian history go to: www.kapaemahu.com.