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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 21, 2001

Book review
Kaua'i man tells of lifetime of seeking elders' wisdom

By Ann. M. Sato

Reading "Kahuna of Light" is like trailing along behind Moke Kupihea as he explores the wilds of Kaua'i's uplands.

Herman A. "Moke" Wilson, who writes under the name Moke Kupihea, hopes to encourage exploration of Hawaiian spirituality.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

As he tells it in this unusual spiritual biography, when Kupihea sets off, he generally has a goal — to trace an old path, to find a particular cave, to visit or revisit a place he's been told about.

But there is inevitably mystery and uncertainty, too: Will he find what he is looking for, and when he finds it, will it be what he hoped for or expected?

Moke Kupihea is the pen name of Herman A. "Moke" Wilson of Waimea, Kaua'i, who is descended from the priestly Kupihea line of Kau'ai and O'ahu. The 50-year-old, a draftsman by trade, is well known on Kaua'i as a counterculture sort, and probably well-remembered in Waimea as a somewhat kolohe loner of a boy who raced corrugated tin canoes on the river and once got into trouble with a bunch of others for making midnight raids on the town's stores.

Kupihea tells all these stories on himself in the course of this book, but his aim is not mere biography, and his tone is thoughtful and serious throughout.

Kupihea's concern here is to correct what he says is a widespread misunderstanding of a central concept in Hawaiian spirituality, and also to show how exploration of that spirituality has informed his life and could play a similar role in the lives of others.

He begins in a very Hawaiian way: rather slowly and formally discussing first the less-personal issue of Hawaiian religious beliefs, moving on to recount his genealogy back several generations and finally launching into his life story.

He explains that this is how traditional Hawaiians approach a conversation or an introduction, gently circling the issue, courteously offering background to give the listener context and to establish connection and legitimacy. (Not all that different from today's pidgin interrogatory: "Where you wen' grad?")

It isn't the way a Westerner would do it, and probably isn't what a writing teacher might suggest, because it may turn some readers away who are less-interested in the spiritual than the personal. But those who persist soon find themselves caught up in the rural Kaua'i of the 1950s and '60s, where Kupihea grew up. His recall for detail is enviable, and he is a clear and careful writer (if a little repetitious).

He walks the reader through his grandmother's home as though he'd been there yesterday, when, in fact, the old place at Papalekoa was torn down more than 30 years ago.

"KAHUNA OF LIGHT, THE WORLD OF HAWAIIAN SPIRITUALITY" by Moke Kupihea, Inner Traditions, paper, $16.95.
He takes us along on a typical day of visiting with his mother and Aunties Maile and Maraea, toting a bag of pupu and a jug or two of spirits, hiking to remote homesteads where they would wala'au (talk story) late into the night.

He recalls character after character among the mountain men whom he eagerly sought out in his youth. There was his mother's friend, Willy Kani, who showed him a houseful of treasures rescued from burial sites lest they be pilfered. There were tough old cowboys, fishermen and mountaineers with whom he hunted for pig and goat, caught o'opu in old-style sluice-and-trap ha systems, from whom he learned to manage a proper hukilau, to put on a full-scale lu'au and to recognize the signs on the landscape left by the Hawaiians of old.

He recounts the mo'olelo (stories), 'olelo no'eau (sayings)and the 'oli (chants) he learned from these men and other friends, sitting by campfires or on porches or in people's kitchens.

Through it all, he is offering to the reader what these kupuna (elders) offered to him: a gentle but persistent lesson about the importance of heeding na 'aumakua, the spirits of those who preceded us.

Here is where the misunderstanding comes in: Most people today, including some who are respected Hawaiian cultural specialists, define 'aumakua as family gods or spirits who inhabit particular animals. We have all heard of people who say, "Our family's 'aumakua is the shark." Or the owl. Or the mo'o (lizard). This is, in fact, how 'aumakua is defined in the authoritative Pukui/Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary.

But Kupihea believes this is a misinterpretation. The 'aumakua (ancestral spirit) is being confused with the unihi pili, an uhane (a person's spirit) that has been withdrawn by sorcery from the body of a recently deceased person and pulled into the body of an animal; these animals could then be called on by the sorcerer-priest and his descendants to perform needed tasks.

Kupihea says "ao 'aumakua," "ancestral spirits of light," are spirits that have not been tampered with in this way, but that remain alive so long as their memories are recalled and revered, and the lessons they've shared are spread from generation to generation. There are 'aumakua o ke au, ancestral spirits of the immediate past, such as the grandparents who died within our lifetimes, and 'aumakua o ka po, ancestral spirits of the distant past. These spirits are "our door to spiritual light and power," Kupihea says.

Whether or not Kupihea's interpretation of Hawaiian cosmology is correct, his message is one from which anyone can benefit: Get to know your heritage, he advises, allow the insight of your elders to guide you, seek out the wise ones around you and preserve their knowledge, embody it in your life.

"The ancient people are here today, surviving, and they are within you, waiting to be recognized," he writes. "In recognizing them, you are well on your way to becoming a kahuna for those in the future."