Published May 19, 2023
Aloha! In this episode, you will hear the story of the Healer Stones of Kapaemahu, learn about their erasure in the age of American imperialism, as well as current efforts to restore the monument to the healer stones - and the story of the mahu - to their rightful place in Hawaiian history.
Who are the mahu? What happened to the healer stones? How are they memorialized today? And what can YOU do to keep their history alive?
Have a listen! Aloha and Mahalo.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack; Kathleen Barker; and Deb Fowler. Tremendous thanks to Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson for their generous support of this podcast episode. Both Kapaemahu and Healer Stones of Kapaemahu are directed by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer & Joe Wilson, and Kanaka Pakipika.
You can also find this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you get your podcasts!
Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
In this season, my colleagues Kathleen Barker and Dinah Mack will introduce you to a few of the characters featured in our Intersections & Connections curriculum and some fascinating - and empowering - backstories.
In this episode, Kathleen will introduce you to the Healer Stones of Kapaemahu, their erasure in the age of American imperialism, and current efforts to restore the monument to the healer stones - and the story of the mahu - to their rightful place in Hawaiian history. Take it away, Kathleen…
When you think of Hawaii, what comes to mind? Beautiful beaches and surfable waves? Pineapples and ukuleles? Or perhaps military history and World War II memorials? How about cultural imperialism and appropriation?
Just off Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii, four large stones stand together, encircled by a short fence … a monument to four extraordinary beings of dual male and female spirit who brought the healing arts from Tahiti to Hawaii long ago. This sacred site is a reminder of Hawaii’s long history of healing and inclusion, yet most tourists walk by it without a second glance - and those who do stop to read the informational plaque don’t get the whole story. What are these stones? What’s their story? And how has that story changed depending on the teller?
The inspiration for this episode is the documentary film, The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu produced in 2022. As we developed this podcast, we were mindful of this quote, which opens the film:
“I want the history of my homeland to be correct. The foreigner shall not teach me the history of my people, I will teach the foreigner.” - S.M. Kamakau, 1865.
First, you’ll hear the story of the Healer Stones … then we’ll unpack the context. Who are the mahu? What happened to the healer stones? How are they memorialized today, and what can YOU do to keep their history alive? You’ll hear excerpts from the documentary in Hawaiian, as well as comments from present-day mahu.
British Captain James Cook is credited with being the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. Americans followed soon after, with Christian missionaries leading the way.
By the late 19th century, Americans were living and doing business in the Kingdom of Hawaii, and even participating in the Hawaiian government. In 1893, a group of Americans were part of a small cabal that overthrew the government and Queen Liliukolani, in favor of annexation to the United States.
Similar to European colonial efforts across the globe, some Americans in Hawaii disparaged and erased native Hawaiian oral traditions and histories in favor of so-called modern ideas and practices. Traditional chants and hula, for example, were described in late nineteenth-century newspapers as “disgraceful” displays of “heathenism.” Such Euro-American views (heavily influenced by missionaries) were particularly dismissive of ideas related to inclusivity that didn’t align with their world view, including concepts of gender diversity. The story of the Mahu – extraordinary individuals of dual male and female spirit, mind and heart, as well as their healer stones were soon overshadowed by imperialist greed and hypocrisy.
The story of the Kapaemahu is known in Hawaiian as a Mo’olelo: a story that is both history and legend, originally passed down orally from generation to generation.
Long ago, four extraordinary individuals voyaged across the ocean from their home in Tahiti to Hawaii. They settled in Ulukou in Waikiki. The visitors were tall and deep in voice, yet gentle and soft-spoken. They were not male nor female. They were mahu, a mixture of both in mind, heart, and spirit.
Indeed, the leader of the group was named Kapaemahu. The Gods favored the four visitors with skill in the science of healing. Kapuni possessed great spiritual power. Kinohi was all seeing. Kahaloa could heal from afar. Kapaemahu healed by laying on hands. They bequeathed their healing wisdom to the people of these islands.
When the healers had completed their work, the people wished to express gratitude for their wondrous cures by erecting a monument in their honor. One moonless night they gathered at Kaimuki, an area famous for its bell rock. They moved four great boulders all the way to Waikiki. As the sun rose, the healers began to transfer their powers to the stones placing idols of mahu under each one.
The ceremonies lasted a full moon. Then, knowing that their healing powers were safe in the stones, the mahu vanished.
700 years later… the stones remained a sacred site for centuries. But as the tides of time passed, everything changed. The stones of Kapaemahu were forgotten, even buried under a bowling alley.
The stones have since been recovered but their history is still being suppressed and the fact that the healers were mahu has been erased from the story of Kapaemahu. It’s a great loss. A deep shame. For only when you understand the true history of these stones shall you behold their living power. Life, life, life… long life to the story of Kapaemahu.
The first written record of the mahu comes from Captain William Bligh in the 1780s.
“On my visit this morning to Tynar and his wife I found a person who although I was certain was a man had great marks of effeminacy about him and who lived, observed the same ceremonies and ate as the women did. On asking who he was, she without any hesitation told me he was a friend of hers and of a class of people common in Tahiti called Mahu.”
Although the idea that a person could be both male and female was new to Captain Bligh and Europeans, the concept of duality was a normal part of life for Polynesians.
At the Healer Stones of Kapaemahu exhibit at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, an explanation of Duality reads: “The Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo, traces the origins of life to the combining of paired opposites: light and dark, earth and sky, wet and dry, male and female. The balance of duality permeates all aspects of Polynesian belief and culture across the Great Pacific.”
Knowledge of, and respect for, mahu and the concept of duality were an integral part of Hawaiian culture. Throughout history, the Mahu were revered as talented individuals and transmitters of knowledge.
So how were the healer stones, and their connection to the sacred art of healing, forgotten?
Newsreel: “Queen Liliukolani ruled in Honolulu, destined to become American territory. For Hawaii requested to be taken under the American flag. On the day this occurred the Queen reviewed her native troops. Through Honolulu passed the royal parade with flags of Spain and England blended into the Hawaiian emblem. The Queen, last of a long line of Polynesian rulers signed the abdication that made Hawaii an American possession.”
Contrary to the upbeat tone of newsreels, the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 was devastating for traditional Hawaiian culture. Stories and traditions passed down orally, like those of the kapaemahu, slowly disappeared, especially once instruction in the Hawaiian language was banned in schools in 1896.
As the twentieth century dawned, Hawaii became a popular tourist destination. The first cruise ships arrived in Honolulu in the 1920s! The islands also became a key site for the United States military in the Pacific.
Fortunately, these traditions were not lost entirely, thanks in part to an unexpected discovery. In 1905, while building a house on Waikiki Beach, Archibald Scott Cleghorn discovered the stones, as well as four or five idols. The newspapers reported the discovery of “sacrificial stones and idols” with headlines describing the stones as “relics of a barbarian past.”
Kleghorn’s son-in-law, James Aalapuna Harbottle Boyd, was a military official under the Kingdom of Hawaii, as well as the colonel of Queen Liliukolani’s staff. He recorded the first written version of the kapaemahu tradition in 1906. His narrative made it clear the power of the kapaemahu was inseparable from their dual nature. Boyd’s story was published the following year in the Hawaiian Almanac and Annual. The English version of the almanac published the piece under the title “Tradition of the Wizard Stones of Ka-Pae-Mahu.” The Hawaiian language publication, however, used the title “The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu.”
As the years passed, even these published versions failed to keep the tradition of the kapaemahu at the forefront of Hawaii history and tradition. In 1941, despite a promise from the developer to place the stones in a prominent spot, and protests by native Hawaiians, the neglected stones were actually buried in the foundation of a new bowling alley.
Newsreel: “Aloha means both farewell and greetings and Hawaii bids farewell to forty years of frustration and failure in attempts to win statehood and joyously greets its new status as a full fledged member of the Union.”
“In hours less than the time between breakfast on the mainland and dinner in the islands, you’ll find out for yourself the true meaning of aloha.”
“In the sparkling sunshine of your first Hawaiian morning, Waikiki Beach is just as you always pictured it.”
In the early 1960s, the stones were uncovered when the city of Honolulu tore down the former bowling alley and other buildings to create a beach-front park. Unfortunately, the continued influx of tourists and military personnel, as well their Euro-Christian values and ideas about gender and sexuality, led to increasing disrespect toward the mahu, both living and historical.
In the eyes of the government, the mahu had become a problem that needed solving. In 1962, existing state legislation intended to curb disorderly conduct was amended to prohibit cross-dressing and therefore prevent mahu and transgender individuals from intentionally deceiving others about their gender. Mahu performers in Honolulu’s night clubs were even forced to wear buttons that proclaimed “I Am A Boy” in order to avoid fines or arrest. This so-called “intent to deceive” clause remained on the books until 1972.
Public monuments, markers, and memorials are powerful symbols of who and what a community values. Unfortunately, the markers placed at the site of the healer stones still do not reflect a culturally or historically accurate portrait of Kapaemahu.
When the stones were uncovered in 1963, Hawaiian educator and scholar Mary Kawena Pukui led the effort to preserve them. The informational plaque placed with the stones in the new Kuhio Beach Park introduced the “wizard stones” by explaining that, “Hawaiian legend says these stones were placed here in tribute to four soothsayers….” There was no mention of the mahu or their dual nature. Given the moral panic and the laws of the time, it’s not surprising that the memorial would shy away from any mention of gender fluidity.
In 1980, the stones were moved about 50 feet to make way for a public restroom. Once again, media reports describing the history of the stones misrepresented the kapaemahu, only this time they were described as two males, and two females.
Newsreel: “As described by Madame Pele devotee Leatrice Ballesteros, the spirits are Kapaemahu, a healer and male, Kahaloa a beneficent female, Kapuni, an evil male and Kinohi, a female who brings blessings to homes.”
In this case, the inaccurate information was promoted through a 1980 newspaper article by Leatrice Ballesteros, a Filipino medium who claimed to have a special relationship with Hawaii deity Madame Pele. Ballesteros had no Hawaiian ancestry or knowledge of Hawaiian language or culture, yet her ideas spread widely.
All of these false narratives beg the question: who gets to tell the story of the kapaemahu?
Attempts to revive a more accurate depiction of the kapaemahu received a boost with the 1993 publication of George Kanahele’s pamphlet, “Restoring Hawaiianness to Waikiki.” Kanahele, a tourism booster, proposed to revive all aspects of Hawaiian life, culture, language, traditions, and economy. Although some of his ideas were deemed controversial by native Hawaiian activists, among his proposals was one to designate the healer stones as a historic and honored place.
The stones were eventually restored and rededicated in 1997, thanks to the efforts of Papa Henry Auwae, a traditional healer from the big island of Hawaii. With funding from the Queen Emma Foundation, the stones were placed on a new foundation at Koheo Beach, along with a stone altar, and surrounded by medicinal plants and herbs. The site also includes a small stone from the healers’ home in Tahiti.
The site was dedicated with much fanfare, and the ceremony was even broadcast on the local news! Despite the renewed attention, the plaque placed at the site in 1997, which remains there to this day, is still inaccurate. Called the “Stones of Life”, there is no mention of the healers’ identity as mahu. Misinterpretation or conflation of the term mahu with the term “gay” demonstrates the lingering effects of colonialism in 21st-century Hawaii. A centuries-long tradition of appreciation and respect for gender diversity is still being erased, thanks to 200 years of continued Euro-American cultural imperialism.
Tha Kapaemahu show us that being Hawaiian means uniting the male and female.
According to contemporary mahu Lynette Kahekili Paglinawan, to be Mahu in Hawaiian society is to recognize that in each person there is a male and a female spirit. They argue that Mahu were made to feel ashamed of themselves as other, non-Polynesian worldviews were integrated into Hawaiian culture. Mahu were not allowed to recognize their own duality.
Today the healer stones occupy a protected location in the heart of Waikiki Beach. For those who know their history and understand their meaning, the stones are a permanent reminder of the skills and accomplishments of the four mahu healers. Efforts are underway to correct the informational plaques at the site to ensure that they are historically and culturally accurate. You can continue to tell the story of the mahu by sharing this podcast. Go to our show notes to learn how you can take action to ensure mahu are restored to their rightful place in history.
Kathleen Barker is History UnErased’s program director and is a library and information specialist and public historian with 20 years of experience as a museum and library educator.
This podcast is funded by the New York City Council. It was developed by History UnErased and produced and edited by Dinah Mack, History UnErased’s youth equity program director.
Tremendous thanks to Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson for their generous support of this podcast episode. Both Kapaemahu and Healer Stones of Kapaemahu are directed by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer & Joe Wilson, and Kanaka Pakipika.
Our theme music is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thanks for listening.