Hawaii’s Spirit Guardians

For all the magical powers aumakua are said to possess, the greatest may be their ability to connect human beings and the natural world.

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“Many Hawaiian families have stories that tell them what kind of ‘aumakua they have, what form it takes,” says Hokulani Holt, “but the actual name of it and where it’s from has been lost. I often tell students, if you are out on your surfboard and see a shark barreling towards you, and you have a knowledge that the shark is your ‘aumakua, how do you know that shark is your ‘aumakua? In the past, families would know because they would see the transformation: the kahuna would identify the gray shark with the white tip that lives at Kohala as their ‘aumakua. They’d keep track. In this day and age, that doesn’t continue.

“When our kupuna [elders] who had the practices died, many of them made a conscious choice to take that information to the grave. They had become Christianized. To this very day, many of our kupuna will not talk about ‘aumakua, even if their grandchildren want to know. They’ve been taught since 1830 that it was evil.”

Severing the connection with one’s ‘aumakua has profound implications not just for one’s own life, but for all the generations to follow. “It’s a great loss to the family,” Holt acknowledges. “The grandchildren may want to know their ‘aumakua, but they can’t.” Without the practices, “you lose the connections and places of the past.”

As the living lose their knowledge of the ancestors, the ancestors lose their knowledge of the living.

“Let us say you visit Grandpa Edward often. He knows your voice. He remembers your face. He will answer quickly. If he hasn’t seen you in fifty years, he may not so readily recognize your face or answer your call.”

In traditional culture, the ultimate connection with one’s ancestors came at death, when the ‘aumakua met the spirit of the departed and led it safely over the leina, or leaping place, into the spirit realm. Those whose ties to a caring ‘aumakua had been broken, who had no one to guide them into the spirit realm, literally became lost souls.

That metaphorical disconnection must resonate with contemporary Hawaiians who have spent a generation working to reclaim their culture. If ‘aumakua can be restored to the role they once played in the life of the individual, the family and the community, the healing that follows will be nothing short of magical.

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