Ohia Death Leaves Imprint On Native Culture

Mar 31, 2016

Hālau Hi'iakaināmakalehua practicing hula 'auana in a Manoa gym before flying to Hilo to compete at the Merrie Monarch Festival.
Credit Molly Solomon

Hula’s most prestigious festival Merrie Monarch begins tonight. For more than 50 years, hula hālau from across the islands have descended on Hilo for the three-day competition. But some traditions are being altered this year, in light of a rapidly spreading disease that’s killing Hawai‘i’s ‘ōhi‘a trees. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.

Music fills the empty gym of St Francis School in Mānoa. Dancers line up for one last practice before heading to Hilo to compete in Merrie Monarch. One of their kumu, Robert Keano Ka‘upu, yells out notes as they glide onto the floor.

Credit Flickr / Frank Hamm

It’s the third time Ka‘upu’s hālau will be vying for top honors in the prestigious hula contest. Last year, his soloist for Miss Aloha Hula was decked out in lehua, the bright blossoms that grow on ‘ōhi‘a. This year, he had planned to do the same, up until he heard about the disease striking tens of thousands of ‘ōhi‘a on the Big Island.

“We’re not using lehua and we’re not going into the forest because we don’t want to be a carrier for the fungus,” Ka‘upu explained. “We decided it’s just safer if we stay out.” Like many others, Ka‘upu’s hālau has the word lehua in its name, a symbol for its importance among his dancers and for hula in general. ‘Ōhi‘a lehua is considered one of the kinolau, or physical manifestation, of Laka, the goddess of hula. “Lehua is who we are. It’s who many other hālau are,” said Ka‘upu. “It’s their symbol, their being. It is her —it is hula.”

The red or yellow ohia lehua blossoms are often used as adornments in hula.
Credit Merrie Monarch Festival

“Lehua is always the premier choice flower for hula,” said Kamaka Kukona, kumu hula of Maui’s Halau O Ka Hanu Lehua. Even though Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death hasn’t reached his island, he’s chosen to refrain from using the flower to send a message. “The forest is hurting and we should reflect that,” said Kukona. “We’re going to take a little time out and be mindful, cautious and respectful of the situation. It could be devastating, no matter what island you’re on.”

Kathy Kawelu is one of the organizers for Merrie Monarch. She says judges are aware of the situation this year and will not deduct points for groups that choose to substitute ‘ōhi‘a. “I think it’s understood that this is a dire time,” said Kawelu. “There will be a little more understanding.”

In addition to its environmental role, ‘ōhi‘a plays an important part in Hawaiian history. Its wood was used to create tools and weapons—even the rain in Hilo is named after lehua. “The lehua is the first tree that springs up from a recent lava flow,” said Kalena Silva, a UH Hilo professor who teaches Hawaiian history. “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,” Silva explained. “They, like the lehua, have a kind of resilience, a strength and a grace about them.”

Because of the history, the symbolism and the cultural significance, Silva says the stakes are high for the flower and the tree. “I think the loss of ‘ōhi‘a lehua would almost be like losing a member of your family,” he said. “It’s that important and it has that much meaning.”

While some have called for a kapu on ‘ōhi‘a at this year’s Merrie Monarch, festival organizers say they’re leaving it up to each halau to decide. Traditionally, hula halau return their lei and adornments to the same forest where they collected. But a new protocol this year will involve collection stations for the public and performers to dispose of any lei or decoration that includes ohia lehua. Cultural practitioners and staff with the DLNR will gather them for a special ceremony at the end of Merrie Monarch.

Here are 5 things you can do to prevent the spread of Rapid Ohia Death:

  1. Don’t transport ‘ōhi‘a wood, firewood or posts, especially from an area known to have Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death.
  2. Don’t transport ‘ōhi‘a inter-island. In an effort to keep ‘ōhi‘a from spreading beyond Hawaii Island, a quarantine was set in place by the state’s Department of Agriculture.
  3. Clean your tools. Tools used for cutting ohia trees should be cleaned with 70 percent rubbing alcohol or 10 percent bleach. 
  4. Clean your gear and shoes. To decontaminate shoes, dip soles in 10 percent bleach or 70 percent rubbing alcohol.
  5. Wash your vehicle. Wash the tires and undercarriage, especially after traveling from an area with Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death.