60 SECONDS

posted by / Magazine / March 11, 2004

From the strongest god to the smallest pebble, when it comes ancient Hawaiian practices on the North Shore, there’s only one person to ask: Butch Helemano.

You’re considered one of the leading experts of ancient Hawaiian culture on the North Shore, correct?
I maintain several of the ancient archaeological temple sites on the North Shore, I’m their “kahu” or heir religious curator. I also do historical writings exclusively about North Shore pre-contact existence. I’ve done most of the blessings for the Triple Crown for the past decade and I’m also a licensed minister. So I’m one of the minority who still practices our ancient religion as best as we can in modern times.

What are some of the more interesting facts about surfing in pre-contact Hawaii?
Well, basically surfing was a lifestyle and not a sport in ancient times. It was a religious activity practiced not only by those who were barely to walk at a young age to barely able to walk because of old age. It was a way of life. Nowadays a way of life is watching TV and drive cars. There wasn’t very much to do in ancient times so surfing was the number one past time. People would bet their wives, their lives, their children, all they own –the clothes on their back –on their favorite surfers or even on their own surfing prowess. In fact, women, as a matter of fact, were considered in many ways more proficient than men in ancient times.

That old clich about Buzzy Trent and those guys starting surfing on the North Shore? They certainly reopened awareness to it, but this has been going on for centuries here. I have a blood type to the North Shore itself. So it’s been going on for generations.

How many generations does your family go back on the North Shore?
Well I was taught a 28-generation family genealogical name chant. So I know all the males and females of the previous generations of my existence. We call it a “melenoa”, which is a name chant or a birth chant that speaks about your ancestors. This is passed down verbally. Of course, now we have computers so it’s easier to pass on to my children on a floppy disc instead of verbally, which took a lifetime to learn. But they will learn it verbally as well. That must be tough. How many people fluently speak Hawaiian right now?
If you’re talking statewide right now, thousands. If you’re talking 10 to 15 years ago, dozens. There’s been a resurgence of schools where they learn Hawaiian as a mother tongue. Interestingly, Hawaii is the only state that is legally bilingual; Hawaiian is legally recognized as a primary language. I have the longest running native Hawaiian class on the North Shore.

What are some of the more interesting surf stories?
Well, for example, the art of surfing as we know it began with a term called “la la.” Which is to stand and ride across the face of the wave. And this was done for only a few seconds in many cultures around the world, such as Africa, Peru, Tahiti, etc. But when our ancestors arrived in the islands of Hawaii, we were able to use the huge koa trees to make the boards longer and wider, enabling the rider to not only steer with his foot, but to stand up on a wave and ride it for a considerable amount of time. So it was the availability of the wood that made Hawaiians the progenitors of the art we call surfing today.

Any direct correlation between the archeological sites and surfing, like the one above Waimea?
That’s the one I’m the “kahu” or the priest of; that’s called “Pu’u -o- mahuka.” That was an ancient human sacrificial “heiau”. It had nothing to do with surfing, but it did have to do with the political history — warfare for example — and the keeping of time and the seasons. That was the basic use of that temple. And I’ m there weekly maintaining that site and doing tours for schoolchildren and historical groups. I’m the officiate of that particular site for the state. And I maintain it physically.

So that’s where people go up and wrap the lava rocks in leaves . . .
No. Wrapping of lava rocks, unfortunately, is one of the biggest misconceptions. It’s something that me, as a curator, and my volunteers try to diminish. Because our ancestors never, ever wrapped a rock in a “ti” leaf to use as an offering. And by doing so, these people not only destroy the integrity of the physical walls, they teach other people when they see this as they come along. So as a curator we have a hard time maintaining the integrity of the site. Not only with people piling stones on top of each other, making little stone teepees, but also wrapping them in “ti” leaves. And both of those aspects are not cultural practices. Especially when it comes to religion. So we have an education factor that we’re involved in trying to ask the public not to move or pile the stones, and certainly not wrap them in “ti” laves. That distorts the religious practices of the Hawaiian people.

Any other practices you’d like to clear up?
That’s one of the biggest. That and that it’s not a cemetery. It was a place of human sacrifice, and innocent people were actually offered to the war god for their bodies to decompose at that particular temple. Today, people go up here and do all types of things, they have weddings up there, they have baptismals up there, they wrap tea leaves for good luck in surfing or business. Where as ancients, you would not want to go anywhere near that site [laughs].

Describe the ceremony.
The first person captured in war was the first person sacrificed at the “heau.” Or in the war temple. They would be clubbed, strangled or drowned, and then their bodies would be drained of the blood, they would be dressed in feathered regalia and offered as an honorary offering to the war god. So blood was never shed within the confines of the temple. Because if blood was spilled within the walls of the temple, it would be considered defiled spiritually and they would build another temple somewhere else.

Lawbreakers such as thieves or adulturers were also sacrificed. Women were killed if they broke the law –if they were caught eating under the same roof with a man, were caught eating coconuts, any red fish of the sea, and even pig –but women were never sacrificed in all of Polynesia; that’s a Hollywood invention. So the throwing of the beautiful maiden in the volcano never happened.

And King Kong wasn’t getting any either.
[laughs] No for sure.

How old do you estimate the site to be?
{{{600}}} to 1000 years old. It was quite a unique site. It had perishable structures like thatched houses, it had a huge tower, and it hade very large sacred images carved out of wood. There were about five or six houses associated with that site.

It’s been a pretty nutty season for weather on the North Shore — flat spells, flooding rains, winds. Were there any rituals to deal with these situations?
Yes, there was the ritual “po hue hue,” which was to bring on waves. There’s a vine on the beach called the po hue hue vine. And the kahuna or the surfer would go to the edge of the water, to the high tide mark, and they would beat the heck out of the sand with the vine while doing an “oli” or chant, which would eventually make the waves rise. And this is the ceremony I perform when I do the blessing for the Triple Crown or other surfing events

So you did that for this year’s event?
Well, I didn’t do it this year. I was in South America. But I’ve done it for the last 10 or 12 years.

So maybe that’s the reason Haleiwa was so flat. Betcha next year they’ll make sure you’re around.
[laughs]

Any others?
And when it’s a stormy sea, it was considered the gods were surfing and the Hawaiians never went in the water. If it was really stormy. What we call washed out today, the Hawaiians didn’t attempt to go surfing, they left it alone for the gods to surf. What about the rain?
We have temples to bring rain. We don’t stop rain because rain is considered to be procreative. It’s considered a blessing. I’ve done about 350 weddings in the past 3 years. A third of ‘em got rained out, people crying about their make-up going all over their face. And I tell the bride and groom, you have to understand that for us this a good sign for you; this means you’re going to be fruitful and multiply. And then they stop crying and stop worrying about their mascara and the $2000 dress and see that some smaller things in life should be appreciated instead of being seen as a detriment to their happiness.

Do you think that’s one of the Hawaiian culture’s inherent lessons?
Well, nature is one of the things that people lose when they urbanize. We consider life — we consider the whole world — to have come from the ocean, not form the rib of Adam and Eve. That’s why the ocean and surfing are so special and spiritual. And that’s why we teach our children not to spit or urinate in the sea and never do anything that would anger the ocean. They’re basic lessons of living in harmony with nature. And unfortunately that’s what people lose in when they put monetary things first. But many surfers who come here to Hawaii — if not all of them — respect the culture of Hawaii and respect the ocean. The tourists may not a-tune themselves to that, but surfers will reach out and find the correct thing to do. And they learn that from our culture here. But because it’s an ocean culture, you expect that type of lifestyle. If it was the middle of Utah with a wave pool, there would be no protocol.

Well, you could still say don’t pee in it though.
[laughs] Yeah, that’s one for sure. Matt Walker

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