Mark Coleman

First Sunday


Sunday, February 2, 2003


Ruby Johnson draws on her knowledge of anthropology, religion and genealogy to talk about -- and offer surprising insights into -- Hawaiian culture.

to the roots

Choosing a Hawaiian name


Talking with Rubellite "Ruby" Johnson is like speaking with Socrates. Or at least that's how it seemed to me when we met recently for our "First Sunday Conversation."

In keeping with the Socratic method, Johnson frequently turned my questions around to clarify my intent or my level of understanding. It was amusing at times, but still it was always serious, as the issues we were discussing went to the heart of contemporary Hawaiian consciousness. Where did Hawaiians come from? What is their understanding of the cosmos? What traditions color their view of life? What is their modern political standing?

Johnson's stature in the Hawaiian community stems from her intense study and reinterpretation of the epic Hawaiian creation chant, the kumulipo.

Born and raised in a Christian Hawaiian family on Kauai, Johnson also is well known for her work in translating into English many of the early Hawaiian-language newspapers; for helping to establish the Hawaiian Studies program at the University of Hawaii, where she continues to teach; for her work as a genealogist; for her work as an ethno-astronomer in cataloging the Hawaiian names of celestial bodies, so important to Hawaiian ocean navigators; and for her work as an ethno-archaeologist.

Her take on the Hawaii sovereignty issue differs from many local activists. In short, she opposes forming a separate nation for Hawaiians, favoring instead giving them fee title to their homesteads immediately.

In 1983 the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii named Johnson a "Living Treasure of Hawaii" and, lucky for us, she's still sharing her jewels of wisdom today.

"Kamehameha III didn't confine citizenship to native Hawaiians. There was no such concept in the Hawaii constitution. ... It included everybody who came and settled." --Ruby Johnson

Origin of interest

Mark Coleman: How did you get interested in the Hawaiian creation chant, the kumulipo?

Rubellite Johnson: Well, it's something that worked on me over a period of time, but basically I'm more interested in the things it's talking about rather than the sound of it. You see these interesting classifications. If you've done botany, if you've done zoology, you see the taxonomies, it's almost the same. So that got me interested in the classificatory genius of it.

MC: So it's almost like a science text?

RJ: When I started teaching Hawaiian, I found that my students who were coming into the University knew less and less about their environment. For example, the things they eat. They'd never figured out where opihi comes from, but they ate it. So let's say I wanted Hawaiians to see the same thing that Nils Linnaeus saw with botany and Charles Darwin saw with evolution, the theory of relationships. I started trying to explain these things to my students, that the kumulipo is the way, it's here, and I was trying to show them this is the world in this chant.

MC: How would you summarize the creation theory of the chant?

RJ: From this single power of generation, which is male singular, comes everything into concrete being from what is abstract. This is the creator god Kane. He's the one who creates human beings. Of course, there are male and female aspects. Like male is daylight, female is night. But there's only a single deity.

Origin of the kumulipo

MC: When do you think the chant began?

RJ: It's coming down from ages and ages and ages. You just have no idea how old these things are. If you count the number of generations, more than 800, you get to about 26,000 years.

MC: But that takes you beyond even the founding of Hawaii.

RJ: That's right. It's before the Polynesians even settled in West Polynesia.

MC: Do people in other parts of Polynesia have similar creation chants?

RJ: Not like this one. Maybe the closest you could find is the Maori ideas.

MC: Where do you think the Hawaiians came from?

RJ: They came from Polynesia, of course. But where did the Polynesians come from? That's the question.

MC: (Laughter) OK, where did the Polynesians come from?

RJ: OK, let's say that you get the tanged adz, which is Malayo-Polynesian. We find it on the South China coast around 3,000 B.C. That's what the anthropologists and archaeologists have been doing for many, many years, is studying the development of the ax, the hatchet, the adz, the knife and all these things. So where they came from, you could say, is Southeast, South Asia, and then you find them over here.

First recordings

MC: When was the kumulipo first committed to paper?

RJ: The first kumulipo record was by David Malo in the 1830s, but it was just a genealogy. The chant was taken down a lot later. During the time of Kalakaua (1874-1891), he sent his hale naua, his interrogators, to Molokai. So this is all from Molokai priests, chanting, using a knotted cord called a hipu'u. So Kalakaua's hale naua people brought it back to him, and from that Adolf Bastian translated it into German. Then Joseph Rock translated that, from German, into English. In the meantime, Queen Liliuokalani when she was deposed spent her time translating the kumulipo into English.

MC: Have you ever compared those two versions?

RJ: Yes. There's a different emphasis for Bastian because Bastian was an anthropologist as well as a historian, so he was looking at the predictive aspect of, say, (Darwin's) origin theories, which looked to him comparable to what he was finding here.

MC: How can there be a different emphasis?

RJ: Let's put it this way: Martha Beckwith -- she was from Vassar -- she translated the kumulipo (in 1951). That's the first one I read, when I was a young kid. I just accepted that she knew what she was doing because she had several Hawaiian informants helping her translate, but they all had different ideas about what the chant's emphasis was. That's where the word "emphasis" comes in. One of her informants was a woman, and she said it has to do with the birth of the human child, and the kumulipo is just an analogy for that. The universe is being born like a human child. The other two informants were males, and they were more interested in the historical factor, which this chant goes into. It goes from origins to migrations to settlement, down to the time of Lono-i-ka-makahiki in the 16th century when he was deified (and whose aumakua or spirit the Hawaiians thought had returned in the form of Captain Cook 200 years later).

The skill of memory

MC: Before it was committed to paper, certain people were charged with remembering all this?

RJ: Absolutely, and if they made a mistake in the recitation, their lives were forfeited. You don't go out and chant as a kahuna at the heiau and dare make a mistake.

MC: How would anyone know?

RJ: They know. You make a mistake and that's it. Face down. This religion is not kind to error. The elementary understanding was that there are some things you must not change or you will destroy the truth of it.

MC: How long would it take to recite the chant?

RJ: Hours, because you've got 2,600 lines, let's say, and as many ancestors whose names are in pairs.

The death of kapus

MC: Do you think if Captain Cook or other Europeans had not arrived, that Hawaii's kapu system (strict religious system including taboos, sexual discrimination and human sacrifice) would have survived?

RJ: Oh yeah, it would have kept going, because, if you'll remember, up until the time of Kamehameha's death (in 1819), all of these rituals were still happening and yet foreigners were coming, right? Up until 1819 the taboo (religious system) was still going, even with all this.

MC: Well, only because of Kamehameha's forcefulness, right? Because once he died, then it was opened up.

RJ: No, no. He was subject to the taboo himself.

MC: But didn't the change come because Liholiho (Kamehameha II) was just too weak to resist Kaahumanu and Keopuolani (Kamehameha's most powerful wives)?

RJ: No, Liholiho was the freedom fighter, you could call him. Liholiho is the one who did not want the taboo to continue. Present-day writers are always using Kaahumanu and Keopuolani because of the emphasis on women, which is OK.

MC: What was Liholiho's motivation then?

RJ: Well, the captains who were on the boats who took the news around and in their writings, they're the ones who say it was Liholiho's decision, with Hewahewa (the chief priest). They leave the women out. They didn't even mention them. And they say that Liholiho made the decision, and all the priests of every island agreed before they even did this. That's what really happened. But the history books don't tell you that.

MC: So the priests wanted to hang out with women? They were tired of eating separately?

RJ: Maybe there were other reasons for Liholiho's, and Hewahewa's, decision. One of the things, I believe, that caused it to move in this direction was to end the number of deaths from the ritual sacrifices, because you needed 21 to 26 men to go down every time they consecrated or built a lua kini, the big heiau. Also, every six months one of the chiefs had to forfeit his eye, for the taboo on fishing when they changed it from the aku to the akule season. That's the ka hoali'i rite, for all those who were descended from Kane. They were all high-ranking chiefs sitting in council and they would ask ka hoali'i, who was the caretaker, who among them has to give up his eyeball, and they do it. They'll say, "You," and that's it. They take it out right there.

MC: Ay yah!

RJ: They did it all the time. That was one of the things about being the alii. It wasn't so easy on them because they had to do it. Every six months they did it.

MC: They just showed that movie "Hawaii" on TV a few weeks ago, and the queen dies, I don't know which one it was, and then her husband jabs his eye out, and he hits his face on the rock until his teeth get knocked out.

RJ: Oh yeah, that was it. You knock out your teeth to show how much you love your uncle or your father. That's part of the funerary process, bereavement.

MC: So you had a lot of people walking around with one eye and no teeth?

RJ: Chiefs!

Not a sovereignty activist

MC: When I first called you, you made a point of telling me that you're not a sovereignty activist.

RJ: I'm not with the majority of Hawaiians who are moving toward secession from the United States. That's where it's going, because once you set up the aboriginal sovereignty, then they will go to the United Nations as a separate, independent nation and vote against the United States, right? That's what will happen. They'll go there and make all this hullabaloo about the U.S. being illegally present, and the United States, if they continue, will be hard pressed in the World Court to admit that it illegally annexed Hawaii and that it has to get out. Ergo, end state of Hawaii. Good-bye state of Hawaii. No more.

MC: That's the logic of it all, but do you really think that's going to happen?

RJ: I believe it.

MC: But that's the history of conquest. I mean, it's all illegal.

RJ: What conquest?

MC: America illegally annexing Hawaii.

RJ: How did it illegally annex Hawaii?

MC: No, you said Hawaii was illegally annexed.

RJ: No, that's what they say.

MC: That's what they say, right. So whether they're right or wrong, even using their own words, it's like, so what, right? Because all countries that are taken over are taken over "illegally." That's the nature of conquest.

RJ: Holy smoke. There you go: "Taken over."

MC: Well, what was it? It was annexed, right?

RJ: Yeah, right. It was annexed. How?

MC: I'm not sure. You're enlightening me.

RJ: Well, then, you have to know the definition of a citizen under the 1848 Mahele law. Kamehameha III didn't confine citizenship to native Hawaiians. There was no such concept in the Hawaii constitution nor in the Great Mahele. If you study the constitution, you'll see that the citizen is not confined to native blood Hawaiian. It included everybody who came and settled. And that's what he said: "Na kanaka e noho ana i ka 'aina" -- You can claim the land you're living on.

MC: Well then, what happened in 1898 that everyone's so upset about?

RJ: Yeah, what happened in 1898?

MC: Somehow we became a territory of the U.S.

RJ: Well, Kamehameha III wanted to annex it as a state of the Union.

MC: He did?

RJ: Absolutely. In 1853 he asked the United States to send him a consul.

MC: And the U.S. refused at that time?

RJ: No, David Gregg came. He advised the king on how to work that out, but he also kept saying the U.S. Constitution does not allow annexation of a foreign state, but he was wrong, because of how Texas was annexed. In the case of Hawaii, the annexation of 1898 included, did it not, the ceding of public lands? For what purpose? Do you remember?

MC: No.

RJ: See, you haven't even read the documents.

MC: No, I haven't.

RJ: Well, the United States said, Look, you want us to pay off this debt of $4 million, because the monarchy had initially borrowed up to $2-3 million from Lloyd's of London. So who owned the place if they didn't pay it back? The company that loaned them the money, which by that time was the U.S. Postal Savings Bank?

MC: I guess.

RJ: OK. That's what happened. The United States said, OK, we'll pay off this debt, but then you have to cede all the public lands. So when you take over somebody else's debt and you pay for somebody else's house, what have you done? Do they still own it?

MC: No.

RJ: No they don't. Does that answer you?

MC: Well ...

RJ: It's not just annexation by law. It's annexation by cancellation of a debt, which amounted to purchase. Now you take that to the World Court. That's how it's going to come out. They're just waiting for all these facts to present themselves.


The art of choosing
a child's Hawaiian name

MC: You may remember that you helped me name my children, way back when. You said there were different kinds of Hawaiian names. For example, my daughter's name is Melenani'ikeawakea.

RJ: Beautiful song of the afternoon.

MC: Yeah, she was born at noon.

RJ: That's when it's an event name, because it's connected with her birthday. It's history, but it's also commemorative.

MC: What other kinds of names are there?

RJ: The night name is different. You get a message from the beyond, whether it's in the form of a dream or a voice or some other what we call ho'ailona or sign.

MC: That's why we named my son Jeremy, because his mother had such a dream. But his middle name is Kekela.

RJ: That means high in position, high in achievement, high in the sky.

MC: I thought it meant "The light that shines the farthest."

RJ: Maybe. (Laughter)

MC: I think I got that from you. It was the name of one of the nurses out at Kahuku, where he was born. I checked with you to see if it could apply to either sex.

RJ: Well that's a chiefess: Kekelanui. That's Kamehameha's grandmother.

MC: What do you think about names like Kawika, which supposedly means David? Or Keoki, for George?

RJ: Oh, that's nice, because then you can incorporate some other languages just by appropriating the sound translations.

MC: But does Kawika really mean David? Does it have a meaning?

RJ: Not in the Hawaiian. It's just David. Like Washington is Wakinekona.

MC: So before Europeans came, there was no word "kawika"?

RJ: No. They borrowed it.

MC: What other kinds of names are there?

RJ: You have inoa kapakapa, nicknames; ho'omana'o, remembered names; then we have another one called inoa kuamuamu, "muttering" or negative names. Let's say somebody criticizes you, and it casts a negative impression. So you name the child that because it reverses the energy. So some people you give names to protect.

Mark Coleman's conversations with people who have had an impact on our community appear on the first Sunday of every month. If you have a comment or suggestion, please send it to

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