We have a Pueo, a Hawaiian owl, who seems to have settled in the neighborhood. I’ve seen it almost every day for the last couple of weeks. The Pueo is one of two native raptors, the other being the ‘Io, a hawk. Both birds are much revered in Hawaiian culture and are often featured as strong protective ‘aumakua’ or family ancestral spirits, not unlike the totem animals among Native Americans.

The Pueo is an endangered species, as are many of the native birds, in part because it is a ground nester, like the Nene, and is subject to predation by introduced species such as domestic cats and mongoose, as well as to nest destruction by cattle and human development. While resistant to the avian malaria that has been so destructive of other native bird species, the Pueo is susceptible to poisoning by pesticides and secondary poisoning through the rodents that form the bulk of their diet.

Unlike most of the owl species, the Pueo is often active during the day, flying above open grassy areas. The Lain classification is asio flammeus sandwicensis, although not all ornithologists believe that the Pueo is a true subspecies of the North American Short-eared Owl. The Pueo is beween 13 and 17 inches tall, with the females being somewhat larger than the males. The eyes are large and yellow, surrounded by a dark mask and the body is feathered in streaks of brown and white.

In Hawaii as elsewhere, the owl has a special place in the mythology. The Pueo is a sacred animal and the word itself has many layers of meanings and connotations. Pueo can mean a particular variety of that staff of Polynesian life, taro; the name connotes ‘shortness’, is used to mean the shrouds of a sailing canoe, and the rocking of a child. There are numerous expressions in Hawaiian that contain the word pueo, such as ‘keiki a ka pueo’ – the child of the owl whose father is not known; ‘ka pueo kani kaua’ – the owl who sings of war, meaning the owl who is a a protector in battle; ‘a no lani, a no honua’ – a saying meaning that the guardian owl belongs to both the heaven and the earth.

The Pueo flew over the island well before the first Polynesians arrived and is among the oldest manifestations of the ancestral guardian spirits, the ‘aumakua.’ It was believed that after the death of an ancestor, their spirit could still protect and influence the remaining family members through taking the body of an animal. Common aumakua were the Honu, or turtle, Mano, or shark, Mo’o, or lizard, and the raptors, the Pueo and the ‘Io. Each species had unique attributes and strengths. The Pueo aumakua was specifically skilled in battle and was a powerful guardian and guide as well.

A famous legend is ‘The Battle of the Owls’ and it underscores the strength of the aumakua.

An Oahu man robbed an owl’s nest: After he slung the coveted bounty in his knapsack, the owl-parent shrieked with grief and complaint. The man felt sorry and quickly returned the eggs unharmed to the nest. Not only that, he took the owl as his god and built a temple in its honor. Naturally, the ruling chief thought this an act of rebellion against the prevalent gods, and ordered the man’s execution. The weapon was poised, the man feared his last breath, and the owls gathered, darkening the skies with their wings. Any further action of the king’s soldiers became impossible. The man walked free. Pueo-hulu-nui near Moanalua on Oahu is one of the alleged places where the awesome battle took place.

Another legend recounts the story of Hina, the mother of the demi-god Maui. She was said to have given birth to a second child who took the form of a Pueo. When Maui was taken prisoner by his enemies and held to be a sacrifice, his brother owl rescued him and led him to safety.

Another well known tale recounts the legend of Ka-hala-o-Puna, princess of Manoa:

Daughter of Manoa Wind, and Manoa Rain, Kahalaopuna grew up as the most beautiful girl in Hawaii at the time. She was given as bride, in infancy, to chief Kauhi of Kailua.
The fame of her beauty spread, and ill-meaning, envious men sowed rumors of shame. Despite his fiancée’s innocence, Kauhi became enraged with jealousy, and he killed her with a cone of hala nuts, then buried her body hastily. An owl unearthed the girl with his claws, rubbed his head against her bruised temple, and restored her to life. She followed Kauhi, trying to reconcile. He killed her three more times! The owl brought her back to life each time. The fifth time Kauhi buried her far away and deep under the roots of a large koa tree. Now the owl worked so hard yet was unable to scratch the earth away and finally had no other choice but to abandon the girl. However, there had been a witness to this last murder and failed rescue attempt! A little green bird named elepaio flew to Kahalaopuna’s parents and informed them. They prepared to visit the koa tree and find her remains.
Meanwhile, the girl’s apparition appeared for chief Mahana, who, as directed by his vision, also went to the koa tree and found her body still warm. With the help of his spirit sisters he brought her back to life and gradually she healed from the ordeal. Mahana loved her and cared for her. Kauhi, this time, didn’t know that she had returned to life. Yet when Mahana asked for her hand, Kahalaopuna still felt under the obligation to marry Kauhi! In secret, with his brother and her parents, Mahana planned to kill the murderous fiancé. The two rivals met in a trial, and Mahana, who knew the truth, won. Kauhi, as well as the two chiefs who had spread the disastrous rumors, were baked in ground ovens and Mahana received Kahalaopuna as his wife. They were happy for two years, till Kauhi, in the form of a shark, devoured her.

Such are the stories of the Hawaiian owl, a bird of power. When you hear the scream of silence, the rustle of soundless wings, an effortless shadow gliding by, look up in the high blue skies, follow the owl’s smooth dive. Pueo’s presence might be there for you.


Obon Season

Hawai’i’s multiculturalism seems particularly striking at this time of year. We just finished the Kamehameha Day festival in Kapa’au, yesterday, and this weekend is the big parade in Kailua Kona, and also in Honolulu, and hard on the heels of this very Hawaiian festival is the beginning of Obon Season, a very Japanese tradition.  This helpful guide to the Bon Dance was published in 2013 in the Honolulu Magazine and gives the beginner a good grounding in the basics of the festivals.

Hawaii Bon Dance 101
Obon season is upon us, and if you’ve never been to a bon dance before, this might be your year. Bon dances are festive, inclusive affairs, but they can also be baffling to the uninitiated. Here’s a quick guide on what to know before you go.


The tower at the center of the bon dance gives musicians a place to sit and dancers something to dance around.

The colorful lanterns strung from the yagura serve as a symbolic reminder to seek the light of the Buddha. They also light up the dance area.

Oahu’s seven bon dance clubs provide dancers and musicians to temples that need help throwing their bon dances. The Honolulu Fukushima Bon Dance Club even brings its own yagura, which is mounted on wheels so it can be towed from one dance to another.

Buddhist temples rely on their annual bon dances as fundraisers, and the choba is the booth where donations ($3 and up) are collected. Donors’ names, along with the amounts of their contributions, are written on slips of paper and displayed outside of some choba.

Live music is typically supplemented by commercial recordings from Japan. Japanese folk music is emphasized at some dances. Others mix classics with more contemporary compositions, such as “Pokemon Ondo,” inspired by the Pokemon craze.

Standard fare includes shave ice, saimin, barbecued meat sticks, hot dogs, hamburgers and the hole-less Okinawan doughnuts known as andagi. Any calories burned up dancing can be replaced immediately.

This is the traditional bon dancer attire. The yukata is a light summer kimono, worn by men or women. The hapi is a short jacket, also unisex. Proper dress is encouraged, though not generally required, for the dancers.

Small towels sometimes used as dance props, and sometimes used simply to mop up sweat. Pick one up at the choba when you make your donation.

Hand-held fans sometimes used as dance props, and sometimes used simply to keep dancers cool.

At Okinawan bon dances, the drummers encourage the dancers by shouting meaningless words at them. These call-outs are called heeshi. In some cases, the dancers yell back. “Ha‘i‘ya,” the drummers might yell. “Ha‘i‘ya‘i‘ya‘sa‘sa,” the dancers will yell back.

They are in attendance. Bon dances are all about honoring your ancestors and letting them you’re having a good time in this life. So be sure to smile.

As to the origins of the Bon Dance, Obon is a shortened form of the word ullambana, in Sanskrit, urbon’e in Japanese, meaning ‘hanging upside down’ or an implication of great suffering.  Bon Odori originates in a legend of Maha Maudgalyayana, a disciple of the Buddha.  He used his spiritual powers to look in on his deceased mother, discovering that she had fallen into the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts and was suffering (urbon’e).  Going to the Buddha in great distress over his mother’s plight, he asked the Buddha what he could do to release her from this realm.  Buddha told him to make offerings to the many monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the 15th day of the 7th month.

This the disciple did, and, with great relief,  saw his mother’s release.  At the same time he saw the true nature of her selflessness and the many sacrifices she had made on his behalf.  Happy at his mother’s release and grateful for her goodness and kindness, he danced with joy – and from his dance comes the Bon Odori, or Bon Dance, a celebration in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.  Obon season runs through the summer,

both in Japan and in Hawai’i, and many of the celebrations are quite elaborate including carnivals with rides and games and summer festival foods.  In Japan, the festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the lantern floating ceremony, where paper lanterns are illuminated and floated down rivers, symbolizing the return of the the ancestors’ spirits to the world of the dead.  Here in Hawai’i, the big Honolulu lantern float is held around Memorial Day, but the one here on the Big Island it is usually held in August, closer to the Japanese traditional timing.


Kamehameha The Great


June 11th is Kamehameha Day – celebrated Statewide, but especially here on the Big Island, which was his birthplace. There will be a big parade in Kailua Kona on the 13th, and up in Kapa’au, the original Kamehameha statue will get its annual draping in lei.

The statue was originally intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Captain Cook in the Hawaiian Islands, and was commissioned through the efforts of a member of the Hawaii legislature in 1878, one Walter M. Gibson, with support from King David Kalakaua. Gibson, as chair of the Commemorative Monument Committee, selected Thomas Ridgeway Gould, a sculptor from Boston, living in Florence, Italy, to create the statue. It was completed in 1880, and shipped from Bremen, Germany to Hawai’i, but the ship carrying the statue was lost in a storm in the South Atlantic, near the Falkland Islands. When news reached the islands of the loss, a second casting was ordered, using the insurance money.

Ironically, and unbeknownst to Honolulu officials, fishermen from the Falklands had managed to recover the sunken statue, which was being used in front of a tobacconist in the Falklands as a ‘cigar store Indian.’ There, it was recognized and purchased by a British ship captain who returned it to Hawaii and sold it in 1882 to the Hawaiian government for $875. Now in possession of two identical statues, government officials decided to place the second casting, which was in considerably better condition than the original, in the location intended to receive the statue, the Aliʻiōlani Hale government building in Honolulu. The original was, after some considerable debate, installed near Kamehameha I’s birthplace in North Kohala. Due to the shipwreck, neither statue was on-hand in Hawaiʻi to fulfill Gibson’s original plan of celebrating the 100th anniversary of Cook’s arrival to the islands, but Gibson was able to convince King Kalākaua to incorporate the unveiling of the Honolulu statue into his coronation ceremonies in February, 1883.

However, the Kapa’au statue, corroded from its time in the sea, was annually painted by community residents to protect it from further deterioration and to make its colors lifelike — brown skin, yellow feather cloak and red sash. In 2001, the rapidly deteriorating statue was restored after a years-long process that involved the Hawai’i Alliance for Arts Education, conservator Glenn Wharton, Kohala cultural practitioners and hundreds of local residents. At issue: Should the statue be returned to the bronze and gold finish intended by the artist, or should it continue to be painted? Ultimately, the community voted to maintain the local tradition of painting the statue. The restored statue was rededicated in 2001 and it is maintained by a trained group of local volunteers.

Kamehameha is sometimes called the Napoleon of the Pacific, and was born in Kapakai Kokoiki Heiau, now named Kamehameha Akahi Aina Hanau not far from the town of Hawi, on the northern tip of the Big Island. His birthplace is marked only by a low rock wall enclosure and is reachable only on foot or 4-wheel drive vehicle over some pretty nasty roads, close to the Mo’okini Heiau.



Kamehameha’s coming was long-foretold. A prophecy was made about a warrior king who would unite all the islands into a single kingdom and who would rule wisely, piously and long. The legend told that this Ali’i would be terrible in his fierceness, unstoppable in his strength, just in his laws and faithful in his observances to the gods. Further, it continued that this fabled ruler would be born along the wild northern coast of Hawai’i, the most sacred of the Hawai’ian islands. This ruler would, according to the prophecy, wield power of proportion unknown to previous Hawai’ian Ali’i, but for all this destined greatness, he was prophesied to live a lonely life. The sign of the coming of this great ruler was said to be a a light in the sky with feathers like a bird.

Kamehameha the Great, whose name means “The Lonely One” was born into this mythic context in the year 1758, when the skies above Hawai’i were visited by Haley’s Comet. The large boulders inside the enclosure at Kapakai Kokoiki Heiau are thought to be the same birthing stones on which Kamehameha’s mother, Chiefess Keku’iapoiwa, gave birth to the future ruler.

Given the birth name Paiea, the future king was hidden from warring clans in secluded Waipio Valley from immediately after his birth until about the age of five. He returned to his parents, in Kailua, and lived there with his parents until the death of his father. After the death threat passed, Paiea came out of hiding and was renamed Kamehameha (The Lonely One). He then joined the court of his uncle, King Kalani’opu’u, where he was trained in the skills of the ali’i – games, warfare, oral history, navigation, religious ceremonies, and other skills necessary to become an ali’i-ai-moku, or district chief.

During this time, warfare between chiefs throughout the islands was widespread and Kamehameha became a renown warrior, carrying the scars of a number of battles. He was described as a tall, strong, and physically fearless man and he accompanied his uncle when, In 1778, King Kalani’opu’u, boarded Captain James Cook’s vessel Discovery when it arrived in Kealakekua, Hawaii.

In spite of all the prophecies and Kamehameha’s prowess as a warrior, he might never have become king, but for an odd twist of fate. When his uncle the King lay dying, he called together his retainers and divided his Hawaiian domain, naming his son Kiwala’o as his political heir, but entrusting his nephew, Kamehameha with custody of the war god Kuka’iliimoku.

The god Kuka'ilimoku
The god Kuka’ilimoku

Although such a division of authority was not unheard of, it was uncommon, and, for Kamehameha, the possession of the war god was a powerful incentive to his ambitions, and King Kalani’opu’u’s decision to split power between two individuals of unequal rank set the stage for civil war among Hawai’i Island’s chiefs. Kamehameha began, almost immediately, to challenge Kiwala’o’s authority, stepping in, during the funeral of one of Kalani’opu’u’s chiefs, and performing one of the rituals specifically reserved for Kiwala’o – a great insult. Kiwala’o responded by withholding the redistribution of lands that were expected by Kamehameha and some of the other western coast chiefs, and the battle was on.

For the next four years, battles and alliances shifted power back and forth, but no decisive advantages were gained by either side. Kamehameha took a daughter of Kiwala’o’s – Keopuolani- as his wife, and also bethrothed himself to the young Ka’ahumanu, who had been intended as a wife to Kiwala’o. Finally Kiwala’o was killed in battle, but Kamehameha’s cousin, Keoua, the chief of Puna and Ka’u, remained opposed to Kamehameha’s rule and the island of Hawai’i remained divided.


Portrait of King Kamehameha the Great

Meanwhile, by 1786, the King of Maui, Kahekili, had become the most powerful ali’i in the islands, ruling over O’ahu, Maui, Molokai’i and Lanai’i outright, and controlling Kaua’i and Ni’ihau through an alliance with his half brother Ka’eokulani. Kamehameha by now had seen the efficacy of western weaponry and had enlisted the aid to two sailors, Isaac Davis and John Young, and, in 1790, invaded Maui. Kahekili was on Oah’u, attempting to stifle a revolt there, and Kamhehameha, using cannon salvaged from the ship the Fair American, forced the army of Kahekili’s warriors into retreat, killing so many that their bodies dammed up a stream.

While Kamehameha was engaged on Maui, however, Keoua took advantage of his absence to raid and pillage villages on the west coast of Hawai’i Island. Kamehameha returned hastily and fought Keoua in two fierce battles, forcing Keoua into retreat across the slopes of Kilauea volcano, where some of his group were lost in a volcanic steam blast. Keoua lost heart after this, perhaps feeling he had lost the favor of the gods, and ended his life as a sacrifice to the war god Ku upon the dedication of Kamehameha’s great heiau, Pu’ukohola, at Kawaihae. Kamehameha undertook the construction of this great heiau, the last built in the islands, at the direction of the priests of Ku who prophesied that it would assure his unification of all the island under his sole rule. Although it took some time, this did eventually come to pass.

Pu’ukohola Heiau in Kawaihae


Kamehameha’s unification of Hawaii was significant not only because it was an incredible feat, but also because under separate rule, the Islands might well have been torn apart by competing western interests. Today, the statues stand to honor King Kamehameha’s memory. Every June 11th, on Kamehameha Day, each of these statues are ceremoniously draped with flower lei to celebrate Hawaii’s greatest king.