Hawaii’s Spirit Guardians

For all the magical powers aumakua are said to possess, the greatest may be their ability to connect human beings and the natural world.

Story by Rita Goldman  |  Photography by Jack Jeffrey

pueoPueo is one of my ‘aumakua,” says Keli‘i Tau‘a, claiming the Hawaiian short-eared owl as one of his family’s guardian spirits. “When my son was in his mother’s womb, the owl started coming to our house in Ha‘iku and sitting on the fence or the electrical wires. Never before did that happen. When we brought my son home from the hospital, all along the path to our house were owls galore.”

Tau‘a has taught Hawaiian language and history within the Department of Education, and has mentored so many cultural leaders that he’s known simply as Kumu—Teacher. So when he shares a story that has been in his family for generations, you might want to keep an open mind.

“My great-great-grandfather was getting violent, so his wife, my great-great-grandmother, ran out of the house to escape. As she ran, she called on the pueo to blind her husband. She heard hoof beats catching up to her. Her only escape was to jump into a puka, a little hole, on the side of the path. When she jumped, an owl hovered over her and    shielded her, so Great-great-grandpa couldn’t see her as he rode by.”

‘Aumakua abound in Hawaiian legends, and in stories local families have handed down through the years. These guardian spirits display miraculous powers, appearing in dreams to give warning or advice; assuming in waking life the shape of an animal, a plant, or an elemental form such as a cloud or ocean wave. Perhaps because of their fearsome nature, sharks are a frequent subject of these tales.

Until recent times, a female shark named Ka‘ahupahau was said to live near the entrance to Pearl Harbor, with her brother, Kahi‘uka, “the Smiting Tail.” People of the region brought them food and scraped barnacles from their backs. In exchange, the two ‘aumakua kept Pearl Harbor free of man-eating sharks; sometimes Ka‘ahupahau would do so by transforming herself into a net that was nearly impossible to tear. Ka‘ahupahau resided at Pearl Harbor until the U.S. Navy built a dry dock over her home. In her collected Folktales of Hawai‘i, Mary Kawena Pukui recounts:

“Scarcely was it completed when, after years of labor, the structure fell with a crash. Today a floating dock is employed. Engineers say that there seem to be tremors of the earth at this point, which prevent any structure from resting upon the bottom, but Hawaiians believe that the Smiting Tail still guards the blue lagoon at Pearl Harbor.”

Among island residents, and even within the Hawaiian community, not everyone agrees on what an ‘aumakua is, what its role may be, or who is entitled to claim one.

“Many Hawaiians have a broad view of the culture,” says Hokulani Holt, an expert in Hawaiian language and culture, a master kumu hula (hula teacher), and director of cultural programs at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. “One may tell you, ‘You’re a good friend of our ‘ohana, our family, so you can have our ‘aumakua.’ Another may say, ‘If the same turtle comes to you every time you go out snorkeling, that’s your ‘aumakua.’ As a traditionalist, I would disagree. You can have a ‘guide,’ ‘a guardian angel’ . . . a myriad of other words, but not an ‘aumakua. That word is defined [genealogically] in the culture.

‘Aumakua are family members who have died and been deified, returning in a different form,” Holt explains. “‘Deified’ is the operative part; it was done by a kahuna [priest]. The gods indicated who should be deified. The kahuna interpreted and relayed that information to the family, and performed the ceremony.

“Most of what we think of as ‘aumakua are from much earlier times, when the traditional religion was active. When the traditional religion was overthrown [in 1819], the practices relating to ‘aumakua went with it.

“Everyone had at least one ‘aumakua.” she adds. “If you married and had children, their [ancestors] on both sides would come into the genealogy. They’re family; they stay with the family for generations.”

Often the form an ‘aumakua would take depended on where family members lived and how they earned their livelihood.

“If you were ocean people,” says Holt, “it would be good to have a shark as an ‘aumakua. If you were mountain people, pueo, ‘io [Hawaiian hawk] . . . birds would be helpful. If you were Pele people, the form your ‘aumakua took might be related to lava. The form was a way of placing you within the family, within society, and within nature.

“As in all things Hawaiian, there was a hierarchy in the ‘aumakua realm,” she adds. “Some of the highest in the hierarchy are those ‘aumakua that come from the very far past and are probably related to the ali‘i [royalty]. ‘Aumakua that come from the beginning of time have more ‘seniority’ than those created in the 1700s. Part of that is because they have more descendants who honor them and come to them for assistance. Their influence has been reinforced over hundreds of years.

“Let’s say you have a Grandpa Edward who lives to be ninety-two and is still sharp as a pin. If he has offered advice, taught three generations how to do the family skill, he’s gained a great deal of respect because of that. It’s the same process for the ‘aumakua that come from old times.”

In traditional Hawaiian culture, an individual’s relationship with his or her ‘aumakua began at birth and lasted a lifetime—and beyond.

Within twenty-four hours of the birth of a first child, the family held a feast dedicating the infant to the ‘aumakua. More religious than celebratory, the feast was meant to set the child’s feet on the path of his responsible elders, and blessed not only the first-born, but all the subsequent children of that mother.

A similar feast attended the completion of an individual’s first skillfully crafted work: a first weapon, a first fishnet, a first hula. Consecrated to the ‘aumakua, that “first-made-work” was never given away.

‘Aumakua sometimes exhibited all-too-human flaws. They could be jealous of the living, offended if their guidance was ignored—waging revenge by causing illness and even death. For the most part, the observances they demanded were designed to preserve harmony within the family.

When an individual committed a serious wrong against a relative, he was ostracized by the family until he made amends by offering the gift of a pig and asking forgiveness of both the injured party and the ‘aumakua. If the relative refused to pardon the wrongdoer, he risked having the family’s ancestral guardians huli kua, or “turn their backs” on him for being unforgiving.

Enlisting the aid of one’s spiritual patriarchs and matriarchs was an eminently practical survival strategy for people living on such remote and isolated islands, where family—immediate and extended—was both the basic communal structure and the principal source of support.

Times have changed.

“Many Hawaiian families have stories that tell them what kind of ‘aumakua they have, what form it takes,” says Hokulani Holt, “but the actual name of it and where it’s from has been lost. I often tell students, if you are out on your surfboard and see a shark barreling towards you, and you have a knowledge that the shark is your ‘aumakua, how do you know that shark is your ‘aumakua? In the past, families would know because they would see the transformation: the kahuna would identify the gray shark with the white tip that lives at Kohala as their ‘aumakua. They’d keep track. In this day and age, that doesn’t continue.

“When our kupuna [elders] who had the practices died, many of them made a conscious choice to take that information to the grave. They had become Christianized. To this very day, many of our kupuna will not talk about ‘aumakua, even if their grandchildren want to know. They’ve been taught since 1830 that it was evil.”

Severing the connection with one’s ‘aumakua has profound implications not just for one’s own life, but for all the generations to follow. “It’s a great loss to the family,” Holt acknowledges. “The grandchildren may want to know their ‘aumakua, but they can’t.” Without the practices, “you lose the connections and places of the past.”

As the living lose their knowledge of the ancestors, the ancestors lose their knowledge of the living.

“Let us say you visit Grandpa Edward often. He knows your voice. He remembers your face. He will answer quickly. If he hasn’t seen you in fifty years, he may not so readily recognize your face or answer your call.”

In traditional culture, the ultimate connection with one’s ancestors came at death, when the ‘aumakua met the spirit of the departed and led it safely over the leina, or leaping place, into the spirit realm. Those whose ties to a caring ‘aumakua had been broken, who had no one to guide them into the spirit realm, literally became lost souls.

That metaphorical disconnection must resonate with contemporary Hawaiians who have spent a generation working to reclaim their culture. If ‘aumakua can be restored to the role they once played in the life of the individual, the family and the community, the healing that follows will be nothing short of magical.