Who Are Na Kupuna?

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

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There’s a Buddha in Al Lagunero’s living room, a standing figure, gilt and mirrored, with hands extended, one palm up, the other down. Al stands next to the statue, striking the same pose. “Look for the gateways,” he says. “That’s where you will find the kupuna.”

Al has been named a master maoli (native) artist. More tacitly, he is sought for his skills as a master of pule or “prayer.” He speaks in the language of symbols, and he goofs around like a kid. The combination can knock you over with a feather.

He has prepared a list of English words suggested by “kupuna.” Among them are gate, gateway, path, doorway, source, above, below, returning, and (again) gate. He has drawn several pages of symbols, very petroglyph-ish, that gain complexity as they progress  — simple gatelike representations, then a strand of ribs (Cliff Nae‘ole: “My backbone exists because of them”), then a tree with its roots in the heavens, then a spiral and nature’s greater complexities. He goes outside and returns with a single fern leaf, a simple frond with lobes like a strand of ribs. “This is kupuna of this property,” says Al. “The name for this fern is kupukupu.”

The natural world is full of kupuna. In the forest you can find the oldest tree—that is kupuna. Certain stars are kupuna to certain mountains, the mountains likewise to the lowlands. The mountain known as Mauna Kea is properly called Mauna A-Wakea, Wakea being the sky-god progenitor of all humanity; therefore, Mauna Kea is kupuna to us all. Al suggests that I could see these things if I go into the forest and look, pay attention, listen, listen, and when I notice something, say, “Hello! Who are you?”

I had mentioned the term “hulu kupuna,” the elder precious as a feather. “Hulu” means feather. As I rise to leave, gathering my kupukupu frond and the sketches, Al says, “I could never be kupuna. I’m too kolohe [rascal].” We head out the front door and look down the flight of steps — very long steps like a strand of ribs — and there it is. A single black feather lying sideways, wedged by its edge into a lumber seam. Al picks it up, hands it to me, and we laugh.

The fern frond. The feather. The strand of ribs. I think I might be getting somewhere.

I decide to take Al Lagunero’s challenge and go find a kupuna for myself.

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