Native Hawaiian Māhū Are Reclaiming Their History
In the middle of Waikīkī, Hawai‘i’s most crowded, most photographed, most highly trafficked neighborhood, there is a monument to Native Hawaiian culture that is also, perhaps, one of our most overlooked. In plain view, between the ever popular Duke Kahanamoku statue and elegant Moana Surfrider hotel, are four large, but otherwise unassuming stones that hold a powerful and misunderstood history.
Known as Ka Pōhaku Kahuna Kapaemāhū (“the healer stones of Kapaemāhū”), these ancient stones, which have been sanctified in a fenced enclosure since 1997, represent four respected healers who were māhū, the Hawaiian word for a person of dual male and female spirit. Any ascription to their māhū association, however, is glaringly absent from the monument’s signage. The omission isn’t surprising: More than two centuries after Christian missionaries first arrived in the archipelago, many Native Hawaiian histories and traditions continue to be erased and obscured, deemed too unpalatable for Western mores.
The mo’olelo (story) of Ka Pōhaku Kahuna Kapaemāhū, passed down over 700 years, retells the visit of four beloved Tahitians to O‘ahu’s shores. Statuesque, courteous, and kind, the androgyny of their appearance and demeanor—poised physiques with feminine and masculine manners—was positively received, and they were openly embraced by the island’s native people. The quartet proved to be exceptional in the healing arts and their fame spread among the community with every bodily ailment they cured. Preceding their departure back to Tahiti, four human-sized boulders were quarried and transported to the beachfront premises on which they first set foot to mark and honor their generosity. The story concludes on a moonless night, when the four māhū healers transfer their names — Kapuni, Kinohi, Kahaloa, and Kapaemāhū — and their mana (powers) to the stones, then vanish forever.
This sacred history is the focus of Kapaemāhū, an animated short film released in 2020 and narrated by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, herself a prominent kumu (teacher), activist, filmmaker, and māhū in Hawai‘i. Since transitioning in her early twenties, Wong-Kalu has emerged as a leader within the ongoing, intergenerational movement to reclaim the revered role of māhū people in Hawaiian culture; a movement that has manifested on screen, in academia and museums, through ceremonies, and on the dance floor. What was once a term used locally as either a playground slur or a punchline, māhū has increasingly become a source of power and pride for many in adulthood, in part due to advocates like Wong-Kalu and the restoration of the complete story of the healer stones of Kapaemāhū.
“Hawai‘i is still a largely non-Hawaiian place to me,” Wong-Kalu says, and part of rectifying this is returning māhū to the broad and inclusive meaning that the term held in precontact Hawai‘i. “To be māhū is a blessing,” reminds Wong-Kalu. “To be māhū is greater than the gender binary—male, female, those are the ordinary people. I can see the world from two different sides, I can do things from two different sides. And so can a lot of other māhū.”
When Wong-Kalu was growing up in the ’80s, the word “māhū” was largely used as a transphobic and homophobic slur — the healing associations of māhū people not just forgotten, but replaced by nasty Western stigmas against gender variance. But artists and advocates like Wong-Kalu have made it their mission to change that.
Following more than a decade straddling nonprofit community organizing and the public education system — in the 2000s, she co-founded Kūlia Na Mamo, a Native Hawaiian- and transgender-led health organization, and served as the cultural director of Hālau Lōkahi, a charter school with a Native curriculum — Wong-Kalu was the eponymous subject of the 2014 feature documentary Kumu Hina. The film, directed by filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, was celebrated for introducing māhū as an Indigenous paradigm to mainstream audiences across the U.S. and globe. Hamer, Wilson, and Wong-Kalu struck up a creative collaboration. The three went on to direct 2017’s Leitis in Waiting and 2019’s Lady Eva, two documentaries about the struggles of the fakaleitī transgender community in Tonga, before creating the Oscar short-listed Kapaemāhū together in 2020.
This past summer, Wong-Kalu’s lapidary voiceover also echoed through Honolulu’s Bishop Museum. There, Kapaemāhū screened for thousands of visitors in a four-month-long exhibition, The Healer Stones of Kapaemāhū, which the trio also curated. In concert with the film, the exhibition itself reoriented the stones at the center of an exploration around the past and present interpretations of māhū in Hawai‘i, and similar gender expressions found across Pasifika cultures. Visitors were greeted by a 3D-printed replica of the Waikīkī stone site and museum artifacts that drew attention to Native Hawaiian healing practices in which the four māhū were skilled, such as lomilomi (massage) and lāʻau lapaʻau (plant-based medicine). Although the exhibition is now closed, anyone online can now view it via a virtual tour.
Now that māhū isn’t as readily weaponized or experienced from a place of shame, a major part of its reclamation today requires detangling its definition from Western notions of gender identity, and LGBTQ+ Native Hawaiian artists are doing much of that work.
“The slippery slope is simply saying that māhū equals queer,” says Ākea Kahikina, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) playwright who centers māhū characters in his work. That there isn’t a word with a clear equivalent to “identity” in the Hawaiian language, Kahikina says, is a fundamental illustration of how Hawaiians see the world. “It’s not about us, we [humans] are not the center of the universe. Whereas in a Western society, it’s not unusual to hear the likes of ‘Hi, I I.D. as this, my pronouns are that, I, I, I,’ all the neon signs pointing to ‘me, me, me.’ There’s really a big disconnect between queer and māhū.”
Kahikina contends Hawaiians are more interested in the ʻāina (land) one comes from and the kūpuna (ancestors) a person is a product of as a means of building relation. “We can identify with letters in the colonial queer umbrella,” he says, “but māhū is separate from that because it has a different genealogy of thought. To be māhū is to know what māhū meant before you, or to know the māhū before you.”
That sentiment resonates with Tiare Ribeaux, a Kanaka Maoli filmmaker, who explores the settler-colonial impacts on Hawai‘i’s people and lands in her work. Of all the genderqueer terms, nonbinary felt the most available to Ribeaux, but “it never seemed to fit either,” Ribeaux admits. “A tactic of colonization is to diminish our spirituality.”
While Ribeaux has identified with gender fluidity all her life, her engagement with the term māhū came about more cautiously, mainly because of its narrow misuse as a concept reserved exclusively for transgender Native Hawaiian women. Ribeaux cites a lineage of cultural practitioners — Kumu Hina, hula teacher Auliʻi Mitchell, chanter Kaumakaiwa Kanakaʻole — for not just reaffirming the term’s gender expansiveness, but for prioritizing its duty to “be a bridge between male and female in society with a desire to balance energies.” That requirement, she says, unlocked the Indigenous element that has helped lead her into her māhū-ness. “Gender on its face has always felt performative to me, but māhū is beyond gender,” Ribeaux says, feeling the term grants her an ability to focus on how her art practice translates in actions toward the lāhui (Hawaiian nation) instead of being preoccupied with gender identification. “Māhū is a way of being. There’s a freedom in that.”
On a July night, beneath a waxing crescent moon, a younger generation in Honolulu put the role of māhū into contemporary use. Instagram flyers with the word “māhū” in super-bold type and neon Pantone declared a hotly anticipated dance party welcoming Hawai‘i’s gender diverse community to “show up as their full selves.” For the attending māhū that the event aimed to center, it was a chance to fully embody what the label meant to them.
For the party’s co-organizer Kaliko Aiu, a trans and Kanaka Maoli choreographer, their understanding of māhū first emerged out of dialogues with Indigenous elders. “It’s something that’s shifted as I listen to more people,” they say. Aiu recalled an eye-opening discussion where Kumu Hina framed Western constructs of gender as centered on the individual, whereas in a Hawaiian worldview “being māhū is about your kuleana (responsibility) to the people around you.” While Aiu understood that māhū can occupy a space that is neither wahine (woman) nor kane (man) and specific to being a “third gender,” the lightbulb moment of aligning with māhū from a Native perspective was in adopting the term not as a singular identity but a community role, where one is recognized by their actions rather than a label. “Culturally, the people who held this third space were healers, artists, practitioners, teachers.”
Aiu, then, views their role as someone who fosters conversations and creates opportunities for community engagement — “organizing space and bodies in space,” as they put it — for the next generation of queer Pasifika in Hawai‘i. In 2021, they co-founded Ka Hoʻokino Hālāwai, a multidisciplinary arts collective for projects related to gender. This past summer, the group hosted their first in a series of inclusive dance parties on O‘ahu called Māhū Mix. Inspired by BIPOC nightlife collectives on the American continent like Bubble_T and Papi Juice, the parties were born out of yearning for “a nightlife space for Pasifika, Black, and brown folks that are put on by people who have their care and interest in mind,” they say. At these events, māhū, two-spirit, and transgender people always attend for free, and their safety is prioritized.
Activating an arena where Hawai‘i’s queer folk can “let loose and have fun, too is so necessary,” Aiu says, “and that has a healing quality.” In doing this type of work, they have started to embrace the term “māhū” for themself, adding, “I’ve finally found and resonated with a term where I feel at home.”
While the islands’ māhū continue to reclaim these ancestral roles, finding community remains something of a timeless practice. At the Bishop Museum exhibit, there was another film featuring Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu titled Country Māhū — also co-directed by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson — of a quieter, more vérité variety. Playing on a small video loop, across the hall from where Kapaemāhū was being screened, the clip documents a visit by Wong-Kalu to friends Paʻula Chandler and the late Dana Kauaʻi ʻIki, two māhū living a backcountry lifestyle on Kaua‘i. They hug each other in a yard where boars graze beneath the shade of a kukui tree.
Then, outfitted in pareos, with hair twisted into loose buns, Chandler dances a hula as Wong-Kalu chants and Kauaʻi ʻIki drums an age-old beat. It’s a hula for Hiʻiaka, a female kupua, or shapeshifter. “These are my friends who helped to ground me and center me and remind me of how to just be happy existing in my life as I am,” Wong-Kalu says in the clip, her voice sliding into a restive note. “It’s part of the magic around traditional māhū.”