Ka’opulupulu: Kahuna Nui

Just one uncomfortable fact kept intruding: the Hawaiians continued to steal. They were determined and ingenious thieves, and an occasional exemplary whipping did nothing to stop them. (Gavan Daws, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, 1968: 14)”

“Once the sailors [i.e., Captain James Cook’s crew] got torches in their hands they did not want to stop. They set the whole village afire, including several huts belonging to the King’s [Kamehameha] friends, the priests of Lono, and as the natives fled they chased them, shooting some and bayoneting others. When it was over they cut off two heads and took them back to the ships as trophies. (Ibid: 23)”

At Satellite City Hall, where one goes to renew auto registrations and pay traffic debts at Ala Moana Shopping Center, a traditional Hawaiian art installation resides behind long lines of American marines, several Micronesian toddlers playing freeze tag, and Kanankas waiting for Bureau of Motor Vehicle workers to call their number. One part of the art installation tells the story of an 18th century Hawaiian priest named Ka’opulupulu . His portrait puts a troubled past within the exhibition of the present.

Ka'opulupulu, artist anonymous, mobile phone picture of print, Satellite City Hall, Honolulu, Hi 31st March 2009
Ka'opulupulu, artist anonymous, mobile phone picture of print, Satellite City Hall, Honolulu, Hi 31st March 2009

The story beneath the image takes place 5 years before the arrival of Captain James Cook, as the political arms of Maui and O’ahu negotiate local autonomy in favor of inter-island, and later, national sovereignty.

“Around 1773, when Kahahana ruled O’ahu, Ka’opulupulu, a kahuna nui (chanter priest) and prophet advised against making a gift of the lands of Kualoa, O’ahu to the ruler’s uncle, Kahekili, Chief of Maui. The prophet said “oh Chief, if you give away these things your authority will be lost, and you will cease to be ruler.”

            Ka’opulupulu told the ruler that it would be wrong to cede to another the national emblems of sovereignty and independence. (Had Kahahana obtained the Kingdom by conquest, he could do as he liked, but he had been chosen to rule by the O’ahu  chiefs.)

            The prophet argued “To Kualoa belong the sacred drums of Kapahu’ulu, and the spring of Ka’ahu’ula, the sacred hill of Kauakahi-A-Kaho’owaha. The surrender of the ivory that drifts ashore (Palaoa-pae) would be a disrespect to the gods, relinquishing power to Kahekili.

            Kahekili was intent on destroying the prophet’s influence, and so declared Ka’opulupulu a traitor. The ruler’s argument was that if the prophet was willing to die, the gods would avenge him by bringing death to his murderers, and overthrowing the rule of the chief who had condemned him.

            Both Ka’opulupulu and his son agreed to die. The kahuna nui was killed at the edge of the sea at Pu’uloa about 1782, his son at Wai’anae.

            It is interesting to note that Ka’opulupulu also prophesied that white men would become rulers, the native population would live landless like fishes of the sea, the line of chiefs would come to an end, and a stubborn generation would succeed them who would cause the native race to dwindle.”

This Satellite City Hall exhibition was part of a larger project to include the Kahuna nui (priest/chanter) into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame. Inducted in 2000, the exact same historical anecdote of Ka’opulupulu appears here. The connection seems to lie in the similarity between exhibitions and canons, music and voice, melodies and the rhythms of chants. But for me, Ka’opulupulu’s story, further explored in the writings of 19th century by Hawaiian scholar Samuel Kamakau (see Ruling Chiefs or Ka Po’e O Kahiko) is that of faith and death. The moral of the story is that “both Ka’opulupulu and his son agreed to die.” Why? Because they believed, beyond the limitations of a temporal life, and beyond the significance of their own deaths, in the destination of their prophecy.  Their are other contemporary signs of the Kahuna nui of the past, like Ka’opulupulu, for example in the 4 large bell-shaped 15th century kahuna stones that sit beside the police state at Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. People say the stones were moved when the Hyatt Regency hotel was built. Several bronze plaques surround the stones, each telling some part of the story behind them, in Hawaiian and English, about Tahitian kahunas who performed miraculous abilities throughout the islands of Hawai’i. Before they left, hundreds of years ago, they transferred their mana (power) into the stones over a period of intense fasting. 

I ka `olelo no ke ola; I ka `olelo no ka make

(In the Word is Life; in the Word is Death)

“Much as Kamehameha had benefited from his experience with Westerners, he was by no means ready to abandon his own gods. Several of his foreign visitors talked to him about the superior merits of the Christian God, and late in his reign he heard that the chiefs of Tahiti had become Christians, but in this as in most other matters Kamehameha was a practical man. As he said to one haole, he would need good evidence of the power of this god: if the Christian would jump off a cliff Kamehameha would watch to see if his god saved him. (Gavan Daws 1968: 54)”

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