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  • Kevin Hara

Kanilehua - Finding our Mauli

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

“The lehua is the first tree that springs up from a recent lava flow. It’s for that reason, when we speak in Hawaiian and we speak of people who are skilled, strong, and beloved, they’re often referred to as pua lehua, or lehua flowers. They, like the lehua, have a kind of resilience, a strength and a grace about them.” Kalena Silva, Professor of Hawaiian History

There is a misty rain in Hilo. The Hawaiians call it kanilehua. It is the sacred water that feeds the precious ʻōhiʻa lehua tree. You can see it, and you can hear it, in the rustling of its branches.

The ʻōhiʻa lehua tree was the original logo of Pali Momi Medical Center when it opened in 1989. Endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree (Metrosideros polymorpha) has been a resilient and rejuvenating symbol of Hawaiʻi’s spirit. It is one of the first signs of life to emerge after a lava flow. Metrosideros in Greek means “heart of iron.” Its wood was used for kapa beaters, poi boards, spears, statues, canoes, and housing. Its leaves were used for medicinal tea.

The legend goes that ʻŌhiʻa was a handsome warrior that Pele was fond of. ʻŌhiʻa, however, was devoted to a woman named Lehua. In her anger, Pele changed ʻŌhiʻa into a gnarly tree. Seeing Lehuaʻs despair, the gods transformed her into the treeʻs blossom so they may reside together for eternity. That is why it rains when the flower is picked; the crying of the two lovers becoming separated. The ʻōhiʻa tree and the lehua flower are symbolic of Pali Momi Medical Center and its Medical Staff. They are destined to remain together.

There is another legend of the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree. This legend is situated in ʻAiea, the home of Pali Momi Medical Center. The story is of a man who was captivated by a woman who resided near the pond where the ʻAiea Post Office now stands. He was told that if he was able to find the white lehua in the overseeing Koʻolau Mountain Range, he could have her hand. He went up into the Koʻolaus and was able to find the white lehua blossom. As he descended down the mountain, however, the sun rose over the range and struck him turning him into the Pohaku that now rests at the ʻAiea Post Office site.

The ecosystem has changed and is threatening the survival of the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree. Fungus is infecting and overtaking this tree and leading to its demise, a disease called Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death (ROD.) More than a million trees have succumbed. They deserve all that we can do to help them survive.

The University of Hawaii Thompson School of Social Work and Public Health and the Hawaiʻi Department of Health have sponsored the creation of the Kanilehua Framework which uses the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree as a metaphor to conceptualize the multiple sources of health and healing in Hawaiʻi.

The rain, kanilehua, represents optimal health, our mauli ola. Kuʻulei Perreira-Keawekane defines mauli as “the ancestral fire within us that we feed and keep lit every time we pray or acknowledge the beauty and mana of the sunrise. It is the warmth we feel when we remember or learn something new about who we are and the land we come from as Hawaiʻi people.”

The taproot represents our inner resources that cracks through the lava rock to send roots to the aquifer. The aerial roots are representative of our ohana. The surrounding forest are our healers and community.

We can achieve a situation of optimal health and true wellness through the creation of an environment rich in inner resources, ohana and community. Together we can find our resilience, strength and grace. Together, we can find our kanilehua. Together, we can find our mauli.

Perrreira-Keawekane, K. He Leo Aloha: A Beloved Voice of Comfort and Rest for the Kupa ʻĀina.

University of Hawaii Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health. Pahu Moanaliha.


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