The Sacred Spine

The dragons of Hawaiian lore inhabit island waters — sometimes as protective deities, sometimes as shapeshifting threats. To those who understand the culture, these mo‘o are more than myth.


Did the mighty lizard goddess merely retreat to another one of her haunts, or did she and the other moʻo vanish forever?

Shirley Ann Kahaʻi believes that Kihawahine still exists. Soft spoken yet passionate, Kahaʻi is the director of Friends of Mokuʻula, the nonprofit responsible for breathing life back into Mokuʻula. Archaeological assessments confirm that the once-magnificent royal residence lies largely intact underground. The Friends hope to rewind 100-plus years of neglect, restoring the site’s original structures, fishponds, and natural springs.

Across the street from this hallowed spot, Kahaʻi’s office is decorated with relics that hint of Mokuʻula’s former glory: stone carvings, lizard images, yellow kapa. “You know,” she says with a smile, “according to the Chinese calendar, 2012 is the year of the water dragon.”

Perhaps it is time for the moʻo to resurface, to once again defend precious sources of fresh water and to symbolize the unbroken line from the genesis of Hawaiian history to the present. The ancestors remain, even if they’ve been forgotten. When Kahaʻi took the job at Mokuʻula several years ago, she was surprised to discover she had intimate ties to its resident water dragon. Flipping through the pages of Tales of the Night Rainbow, Kahaʻi found her father’s name. As it happens, she is related to the book’s author, which means. . . .

“Kihawahine is my family ʻaumakua as well,” she says.

She experienced a magical confirmation of this connection while visiting her friend Apela Colorado. Colorado is married to master carver Keola Sequeira, and their home is filled with sacred images — including statues and drums dedicated to Kihawahine. Colorado and Kahaʻi were sitting in the living room, discussing Kahaʻi’s work at Mokuʻula, when they heard a thumping sound down the hall. “Do you know what that is?” Colorado asked. Kahaʻi shrugged. Colorado led her friend into her husband’s statuary. On a wood cabinet sat Kihawahine’s large drum.

It was beating on its own.



  1. Hello, many years ago I dreamt of a lizard/dog creature swimming in clear light blue water near a light sandy beach. I’ve been looking for a resource that describes the creature for a while. So glad you wrote this article. Thanks for sharing.


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