An Herbal Renaissance: Hawaiian style

Learn about traditional Hawaiin healing with herbs

| March/April 1999

  • Sprouting 'olena
  • Noni fruit
  • Kukui nut
  • Awapuhi
  • Susan Strawn Bailey

•  Six Hawaiian Herbs  

As the sun rises off the eastern coast of Maui, a double-hulled sailing canoe named Hokule'a slowly cruises into Hana Bay. After weighing anchor, a group of tattooed warriors from Hawaii’s Big Island comes ashore to face a group of warriors from Maui. Tension fills the air as one of the men from Maui levels a spear and hurls it at the chest of the first visitor to step on the sand. But, deftly catching the spear by the shaft, the Big Island warrior escapes harm and plunges the spear into the beach. Immediately, the atmosphere changes—warriors from both camps sit down together, forming a circle on the beach, and pass around a coconut bowl filled with an extract of 'awa, known on the mainland as kava-kava. The participants become, as the time-honored kava ritual suggests, immersed in feelings of friendship and “aloha spirit.” They will spend several days feasting, storytelling, singing, and dancing the hula, all part of this ancient ceremony, until it is time for the visitors to depart for their home island to the south.

Although this scene may appear to be an exotic image from the distant past, it occurred recently at the Taro Festival in Hana, Maui. Part of a resurgence in traditional Polynesian cultural practices, the 'awa celebration is a proud demonstration by native Hawaiians that their ancient culture is intact. This revival has spread to other practices, including education ­­(in “immersion schools,” for example, where students and teachers converse exclusively in native Hawaiian) and land ownership—some ancestral homelands and ­sacred areas have been returned to descendants of the original Hawaiians.

The 'awa festival is only one sign of another important aspect of Hawaii’s cultural renaissance—the revival of traditional herbal medicine, or la'au lapa'au, as it is called in Hawaiian. Along with other aspects of Hawaiian culture, this ancient healing art was driven underground for a century after the death in 1891 of David Kala–kaua, the last king of Hawaii. But during the 1980s, a small group of elder la'au lapa'au practitioners decided that they needed to share much of their knowledge to prevent its being lost forever. Led by “Uncle” Harry Mitchell and “Papa” Kawika Ka'alakea, this group formed Kahuna La'au Lapa'au o Maui—Respected Elders Practicing Herbal Medicine on Maui—to teach others about traditional healing practices. As a result, Hawaiian herbal medicine has attracted a new generation of ­students, which gives hope for the survival of la'au lapa'au.

Past meets future

Over the centuries, aspiring Hawaiian herbalists began their studies as children. Often, they went into the mountains for years at a time so that they could study plants intensively, with the guidance of older teachers. This education could take from fifteen to twenty years, and the level of medical expertise achieved was likely equal or superior to that of physicians in other parts of the world during the nineteenth century. After achieving a high level of competence in the art, the practitioner would be considered a kahuna, a title reserved for the priestly or professional classes.

The medical kahuna included herbalists, or kahuna la'au lapa'au; masseurs, or kahuna lomilomi; surgeons, or kahuna hoholua; and obstetricians, or kahuna ho'ohanau. Although much of their knowledge has been lost, some information has survived what are known as the dark years of colonization, when indigenous culture was suppressed. Some kahuna still actively practice Hawaiian medicine, but most herbal therapy in the islands is done within the family. Many of the medicines are also foods, and the herbs that belong to the Hawaiian pharmacopoeia usually grow abundantly. Out of more than 300 plants, a half-dozen are among the more important medicines still in use.

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