Native Hawaiian māhū are reclaiming their history

In the middle of Waikīkī, In Hawai’i’s busiest, most photographed, and busiest neighborhood is a monument to Native Hawaiian culture that may also be one of our most overlooked. Between the ever-popular Duke Kahanamoku statue and the elegant Moana Surfrider Hotel are four large but otherwise unassuming stones that hold a powerful and misunderstood history.

Known as Nā Pōhaku Ola Kapaemāhū (“the Stones of Life in Kapaemāhū”), these ancient stones, dedicated in a fenced enclosure since 1997, represent four distinguished healers who were māhū, the Hawaiian word for a person with double male and female spirit. However, any attribution to their māhū association is conspicuously absent from the memorial’s signage. The omission is not surprising: More than two centuries after Christian missionaries first arrived on the archipelago, many Native Hawaiian histories and traditions continue to be erased and obscured, deemed too uncomfortable for Western mores.

The Moʻolelo (story) of Nā Pōhaku Ola Kapaemāhū, passed down for 700 years, recounts the visit of four beloved Tahitians to the shores of O’ahu. Statuesque, polite and friendly, the androgyny of their appearance and demeanor – balanced bodies with feminine and masculine manners – was well received, and they were openly embraced by the island’s indigenous people. The quartet proved exceptional in the healing arts and their fame spread throughout the community with each physical ailment they cured. Before their departure for Tahiti, four human-sized boulders were dismantled and transported to the beachfront properties where they first set foot, to witness and honor their generosity. The story ends on a moonless night when the four māhū healers transfer their names – Kapuni, Kinohi, Kahaloa, and Kapaemāhū – and their mana (powers) onto the stones, and then vanish forever.

This sacred story is central Kapaemāhu, an animated short released in 2020 and narrated by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, herself a prominent kumu (teacher), activist, filmmaker, and māhū in Hawaii. Since her transition in her early twenties, Wong-Kalu has emerged as a leader within the ongoing intergenerational movement to reclaim the revered role of the māhū in Hawaiian culture. a movement that has manifested itself 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 punchline, māhū has increasingly become a source of power and pride for many in adulthood, partly due to proponents like Wong-Kalu and the restoration of the full story the healer’s stones from Kapaemāhū.