Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dem Bones

Nâ iwi kûpuna was the topic of my Fun Fact for this week's hula class. Literally, it means the bones of ancestors. I'd been curious about the significance of bones since sharing with my class what I'd learned about the death of Captain Cook, who met his end on the Big Island in 1799 after answering the islanders' hospitality with hostility. Not the best of manners for an Englishman, especially when his life was at stake, and all over some pilfered nails.

Anyway, when I told what happened to him -- he got roasted, after being killed in a skirmish -- one of my hula sisters asked, "Did they eat him?"

In all my reading on Hawaiian matters, I've never come across any anecdotes about cannibalism. In fact, from what I've learned, after death the flesh on a body was of little interest. It was the bones that held all significance. The traditional belief was that a person's bones were the repository for mana, spiritual power. The greater the chief, the greater the mana, and hence, the greater the importance of the bones.

In the case of a great chief, which is how the Hawaiians viewed Captain Cook, it was important to preserve the mana by taking care of his bones shortly after death. His body was roasted, which made it easier to remove the flesh, and once the bones were stripped they were distributed among important or significant people. The meat from the bones was deposited into the sea. It was usual that the bones of a chief were buried at a secret place, sometimes in a cave or lava tube. That way, the chief's enemies wouldn't be able to benefit from the mana still residing in the bones. The mana was meant to reside in the 'âina, the land, and be received by subsequent generations in the family.

The thigh bones were thought to be particularly powerful. And now I understand why the Hawaiians delivered Captain Cook's thigh to his horrified crew. Surely the Hawaiians thought they were doing the crew a great honor by bestowing the mana-ful thigh upon Cook's ohana, family of sailors. And surely the sailors thought the Hawaiians were performing a grisly and barbaric act.

But the topic of bones has modern significance in Hawai'i. Probably the most significant occurrence was in 1988 when Hawaiians managed to stop construction of the Ritz Carlton on Maui after the ancient bones of about 1,100 people were dug up during construction. This sort of thing had happened time and time again during earlier major construction projects on other islands, but the protests had little effect. However, in the Ritz Carlton case, the hotel heeded the protests and ended up building far from the beach where the burial site was. The site, pictured above and to the right, is once again sacred ground.

Today there are Burial Councils on each island, to make sure any ancient bones disturbed during construction are returned to the earth where they can continue to spread their mana.

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