Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi Hawaii’s
Back yard

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Molokai event perpetuates
joyous Hawaiian tradition

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven ... A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted ... A time to weep, and a time to laugh ... A time of war, and a time of peace."

Long before the Christian missionaries introduced them to the Bible, the Hawaiians knew the wisdom of those verses in the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. Eight months of the year they labored long and hard fishing, making tapa, tending their taro loi (terraces), thatching their hale (houses), weaving, worshipping their gods, waging war.

Molokai Makahiki Celebration

Place: The field adjacent to the Mitchell Pauole Community Center in Kaunakakai

Time: 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Admission: Free

Call: 808-553-3673


And then they rested. For four consecutive months beginning in October, all work, battles and normal religious services ceased, and special tribute was paid to Lono, the god of the clouds, winds, seas, fertility and agriculture, and patron of the annual harvest.

Called Makahiki, this season was a time of joyous celebration. Flags were hoisted at the heiau (places of worship), a variety of games were played, the hula was performed and everyone -- from makaainana (commoners) to the alii (royalty) -- feasted on poi, fish, breadfruit pudding and kulolo (pudding made of coconut cream and baked or steamed grated taro).

In his authoritative book "Ka Poe Kahiko: The People of Old," historian Samuel Kamakau describes the Makahiki festival as "a time to rest, and a time to make great feasts of commemoration for life and health of the body, and for the help received from the god (Lono). All manual labor was prohibited and ... the people took part in amusements and in sports that strengthened the body."

Students take the haku moa challenge in which they wrestle on one leg while holding their other leg behind them.

SINCE 1981, Molokai residents have gathered each January to observe Ka Molokai Makahiki, the brainchild of longtime friends and Hawaiian cultural activists Walter Ritte, Ron Kimball, John Sabas and Clayton Hee. It started as a small event in Kaunakakai town with only a few traditional Hawaiian games; today it boasts islandwide participation by children and adults in a dozen games followed by an afternoon celebration featuring a poke contest, entertainment and booths selling a variety of ono food. This year's Ka Molokai Makahiki is set for Saturday.

The 7:30 a.m. opening ceremony features traditionally garbed representatives, including children, from each major district on Molokai (Manae, Kaunakakai, Hoolehua and Maunaloa). Then the games begin! Participants are divided into three age categories -- elementary school-age keiki, intermediate school-age kids and adults. Games include moa pahee (dart sliding), hukihuki (tug of war), konane (checkers), uma (hand wrestling), pohaku hooikaika (stone throwing) and oo ihe (hurling spears).

In ulu maika (bowling), a stone disc, usually 3 to 4 inches in diameter, was rolled along a track.

"Sometimes the object was to roll the stone between two pins to test accuracy," says Maria Holmes, who handles publicity for Ka Molokai Makahiki. "Other times, the object was to roll the stone as far as possible. In early times the game was played with slices of green ulu (breadfruit), which is why the game is now known as ulu maika."

According to Holmes, footracing in old Hawaii was a spectacular sport.

"Runners called kukini were chosen and trained to compete," she said. "One of the most famous of the kukini was Kaohele, of Molokai. According to legend, he was so swift, he could run from Kaluaaha on the south shore to Halawa in the east and back -- a distance of 10 miles -- in less time than it took to roast a fish."

Holmes' favorite game is haka moa (chicken fighting). Two players stand on one leg in a circle (now marked by chalk but originally by stones) as they hold their other leg by the ankle behind them. The object of the game is to knock your opponent over or push him out of the circle.

"It's so difficult to stand on one leg while holding back the other, not to mention grabbing onto your opponent's hand and trying to knock him down or push him out of the circle," says Holmes. "To be a skilled haka moa competitor, you must be quick, have strength and be balanced, not to mention staying focused on what your technique and strategy will be."

EDUCATION IS a major aim of the Ka Molokai Makahiki Organization, which puts on the Ka Molokai Makahiki event.

"Being in existence for over two decades, they are beginning to see the second generation of Molokai youths assist with the program," says Holmes. "No one else in the state has a cultural program that has worked with so many youths for such a long period of time."

As one of its projects, the Ka Molokai Makahiki Organization developed a "Puke Makahiki" (literally, "Makahiki Book") resource guide containing photos, diagrams and instructions on how to play each ancient Hawaiian game. The book also includes background information about the Makahiki as well as legends and a chant written by renowned kumu hula John Kaimikaua. State Department of Education teachers statewide use this book and an accompanying video to support their Hawaiian studies curricula.

The Ka Molokai Makahiki Organization also spearheads the planting of flora on Molokai during the four-month Makahiki season. This project was launched five years ago when Wayde Lee, a Ka Molokai Makahiki board member, joined forces with the Nature Conservancy, Alu Like, the Homestead Cattle Association and Molokai's Boy Scout troops to reforest and fence in eroding sections of Puu Luahine (also known as Red Hill), where the only remaining ulu maika course on the island can be found.

Over the years, Ka Molokai Makahiki volunteers have worked with these groups to replant Puu Luahine with pili grass, which the ancient Hawaiians used to thatch their hale; maio (a variety of sweet potato); and wiliwili, a leguminous tree whose light wood made excellent surfboards, canoe outriggers and net floats.

Pondering the significance of Ka Molokai Makahiki, Holmes notes: "In a world dominated by technology, it's great to offer a cultural event that allows us to carry on traditions while teaching and sharing these values with our kids. By being a part of the festivities, young Hawaiians and Hawaiians at heart can embrace an important part of the past and preserve this for generations to come."

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.


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