The Bishop Museum revisits the history of Tahitian gender-fluid healers

More than 500 years ago, Hawaiians placed four rocks on a beach in Waikiki to honor visitors to the court of the King of Tahiti who healed the sick. They were “mahu,” which in Hawaiian language and culture refers to a person with a male and female dual-spirit and a mixture of gender traits.

The stones were neglected for many years as Christian missionaries and other Western colonizers suppressed the mahu’s role in Hawaiian society. At one point a bowling alley was built on the rocks.

Officials have restored the stones several times since the 1960s, but information plaques installed next to them have omitted references to the mahu.

The stones and the story of the four healers are now featured in an exhibit at the Bishop Museum. The exhibition highlights the deep roots of gender fluidity in Polynesia.

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu is mahu and one of the curators of the exhibition. She said the healers were revered for their skill and hopes their story will show the children of Hawaii that “true Hawaiian culture” is not judgmental against those “who have elements of duality.”

“They were respected and honored because people knew their male and female duality made them even more powerful healers,” Wong-Kalu said.

Kapaemahu was the leader of the four healers, and the exhibit is called “The Healing Stones of Kapaemahu”. Their history was passed down orally, like all Hawaiian stories, until a written language was developed in the 1800s.

But Hawaiians have been discouraged from talking about mahu. DeSoto Brown, Bishop Museum historian and lead curator of the exhibit, said Christian missionaries who arrived in 1820 forbade anything that deviated from the “clearly defined roles and presentation” of male and female genders.

The earliest known written account of mahu healers is a 1906 manuscript by James Alapuna Harbottle Boyd, the son-in-law of Archibald Cleghorn, who owned the Waikiki property where the stones were at the time. Cleghorn’s wife, Princess Likelike, and daughter, Princess Ka’iulani, were known to place limu and offer prayers on the stones when swimming.

Boyd’s manuscript “Tradition of the Wizard Stones of Ka-Pae-Mahu” stated that the Hawaiian people loved healers for their “tall stature, courtly manners, and benevolent manners”, and their remedies became famous across Oahu .

“Their manners and excellent physique were overshadowed by their low, sweet speech, and they became one with those they came into contact with,” Boyd wrote. “They were not gendered, by nature, and their habits coincided with their feminine appearance, though manly in stature and general bearing.”

When it was time for the healers to leave, four boulders were brought back from the Kaimuki area. Two were placed where the healers’ hut was, and the others where they bathed in the ocean. Idols indicating the double spirit of the healers were placed under each stone.

Many Hawaiians grew up unfamiliar with the Hawaiian concepts of mahu or stones because the American businessmen who overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 banned the teaching of the Hawaiian language in schools and discouraged speaking it in communities. houses. Generations of Hawaiians have lost their connection to cultural traditions.

Wong-Kalu, 50, said as a child she was made to believe “mahu” was a pejorative word. She remembers being among those who sat on the stones and draped towels over them after swimming, oblivious to their significance.

Mahu are akin to “two-spirit people” common in many Native American cultures, Wong-Kalu said, adding that there are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual elements to being a mahu. The representation of masculine and feminine depends on the person, she said.

“In Hawaii, you could really exist in the middle,” she said.

The stones were nearly lost just before the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported that the boulders would be blasted or removed after a developer leased the Cleghorn property to build a bowling alley.

Following an outcry, plans emerged for a concrete walkway between the stones. But the developer instead built on them.

The stones were discovered two decades later when the city demolished buildings to build a public beach park. The elders recalled the history of the stones and urged that they remain. The city agreed and created a plaque that mentioned the Tahitian healers but said nothing about them being mahu.

In 1997, the city fenced off the stones and dedicated a new plaque. He didn’t refer to mahu either.

In both periods, waves of homophobia and transphobia swept through Honolulu. In the 1960s, a new state law banned cross-dressing, and police forced dragsters to wear buttons saying “I’m a boy.” Three decades later, there was backlash in Hawaii and nationally when the Hawaii Supreme Court sided with same-sex couples seeking the right to marry.

The Bishop Museum exhibit, on display until October 16, tells that story and features artifacts such as massage sticks and a medicine pestle that healers are said to have used centuries ago. Island concepts of gender fluidity are explored through stories like that of King Kamehameha III and his lover.

A map shows terms used in Polynesia for those who do not identify as male or female, including “fa’afafine” in Samoa and “leiti” in Tonga.

Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson helped organize the exhibit and hope it will inspire the town to tell the full story of the mahu at the site of the stones.

Ian Scheuring, spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, said the city is looking into the matter and local leaders plan to meet with members of the LGBTQ and Native Hawaiian communities to learn how they can help tell the story. “true and complete” healers. .

Tatiana Kalaniopua Young, a native Hawaiian anthropologist, mahu and director of the Hawaii LGBT Legacy Foundation, said the story of the stones and the healers helped her family understand that they weren’t “this strange creature that comes out of Standard”. And that in a Hawaiian sense, she was part of the norm.

“It gave me a sense of belonging and purpose as a mahu, and it made me really proud to be a lanaka maoli, or native Hawaiian,” she said.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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