Who Are Na Kupuna?

Like the rest of us, Hawaiian mature, age and die. And there the similarity ends.


This work continues after death. Kupuna transcend their physical mortality. Hence the Hawaiian affection for genealogies and for buried iwi (bones). Here the word “kupuna” begins to turn Western thinking on its head. This is why I drive out to the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua.

The story of the 1989 construction of that beautiful resort is well known in Hawai‘i — the unearthing of iwi of over 1,000 ancestors, the halting of construction, the statewide moral agony, the reinterment of the bones, the relocation of the hotel itself, and the creation of the Hawaiian Burial Council. With that history in mind, I go out to share a meal with Clifford Nae‘ole, the resort’s cultural advisor. We sit next to the lovely seaside lawn covering those resting remains.

“The greatest lessons come after they’re gone,” he says. “That shows you the kupuna are still living.” Clifford is a big man, upbeat in his demeanor. But he speaks with wistful inwardness about his grandfather, a stern, silent taro grower whose recorded lineage goes back to a Hawai‘i Island chief who saved the life of the infant Kamehameha. (“At least twelve generations back to the days of Nae‘ole,” Clifford says. “My grandmother told me my backbone exists simply because of them. Every link is a link to the past.”)

Grandfather asked Clifford to take over the taro patches, but he, as a young man, wanted no part of it. “I went off to see the world. I thought I was invincible!” A dozen years later he came home to find the taro patches weed-choked and spiderwebs in Grandfather’s rubber boots. Dying, the old man said: This could have been yours, but you went away.

“I lost it,” says Clifford. “So what do I do about it now? Make the best for the greater good. When the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ surrender to the ‘we’ and the ‘us’ — therein comes your legacy.”

He looks toward the grassy burial ground. “Na kupuna ka wa kahiko — of the old days — teach us dignity and sanctity. Their greatest lesson came a few hundred years after they died, when they came back up to expose themselves. They’re always teaching.”



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