Hauwahine is a shapeshifting Hawaiian diety who protects Kawainui Marsh, the largest open wetland of Kailua. In the stories of Hauwahine, she watches over the area, alternately appearing as a beautiful Hawaiian woman, or a huge lizard/dragon creature called a mo’o to charm or threaten humans as needed to cultivate positive behavior. Stories of mo’o taught values of community and sustainability such as sharing food generously, caring for the land, avoiding overfishing, and paying attention to seasonal water safety. Here I have taken an age-old technique of narrative paintings, showing multiple forms of Hauwahine simultaneously. She sits in human form on the promontory of her own mo’o form which is depicted as stony grey and covered with lichen, which adheres to both the traditional description of Hauwahine’s mo’o form as well as my firsthand observation of the boulders that inspired this mo’olelo. In the sky, a bird soars over the modern marsh toward the rising sun.
After learning several mo‘olelo (legends) from kumu (Hawaiian teachers), a pattern emerged in my mind. There is a keen observation of rock forms that usually informs the lore of each area, so imagine the “chicken skin” moment when I saw the huge rock that forms Hauwahine’s favorite promontory, Na Pohaku Hauwahine (Boulders of Hauwahine), is shaped like a giant lizard or dragon head! I tried to make my painting reflect the scale of the massive rock. I had seen portrayals of Hauwahine as a lizard at max 8 feet long or thereabouts, but this pohaku (boulder) was seeming to indicate a GIANT lizard, much larger than the usual artistic depictions. You may also have noticed, if you live in Kailua, that this painting does not depict the kamani trees on the pohaku. I chose not to include them in this particular painting even though I am very happy that they are growing there and seeding out to the areas below the promontory of Na Pohaku o Hauwahine. The decision to exclude the kamani trees was a largely visual choice. I felt like the outline of the mo‘o would get obscured by the trees, so I chose to omit the foliage and leave the mo’o clearly visible.
The depiction of a white fairy tern, a bird no longer living in Kawainui area, is the aspect of my painting that piques the most curiousity to those familiar with her story. The initial oral identification of the bird as a fairy tern was from a caretaker of Na Pohaku on the day we were shown the mo‘o rock. I do not remember his name, but he seemed to know the mo‘olelo of Hauwahine very thoroughly. He told me she could turn into a bird. When I asked what sort of bird she took as her form (because as an oil painter who LOVES to paint birds, this was wonderful news!), he said it was the Manu o Ku, or white fairy tern. I have been able to find the chants about her either turning into a bird or calling a bird or a flock of birds to cast a shadow and block out the sun as a warning, but not the written evidence that it was a fairy tern as of yet. Hauwahine’s relationship to birds is mentioned in the story of Hi’iaka’s visit to Kailua. There are three versions of this chant by different authors over a considerable span of time, and much like any story which is loved and retold by multiple authors, each one is different, but one of the elements of this mo’olelo is Hauwahine’s ability to send a bird (or a flock of birds) into the sky to darken the sun. In one version of the chant, her relationship to the bird is left vague, allowing for the possibility that she might also in this tale have shapeshifted into a bird. In these chants, no specific bird-type is mentioned. In one of the chant versions, the open wording means she might also have been in the company of other guardians who were shapeshifting into a bird or flock of birds. Plural and singular in Hawaiian language is often determined by context. Oral history often carries details like this without making it to print as well, so my next step will be to ask a local kumu. I am intrigued and have spent quite lot of time tracking down the chants and stories of Hauwahine, learning a lot in the process.
Here are some of my favorite resources I have seen during my time of research:
- A wonderful video created by the school children of Kamehameha School (this is my favorite Hauwahine story!): https://vimeo.com/122069365
- The same story written out in Hawaiian and English, non-illustrated: http://www.ulukau.org/elib/cgi-bin/library?e=d-0hauwahine-000Sec–11en-50-20-contact-book–1-010escapewin&a=d&d=D0&toc=0
- A beautifully written discussion of three versions of the tale of Hi’iaka’s visit to Kailua (this explains the relationship of Hauwahine and birds) by Kīhei and Māpuana de Silva: http://hikaalani.website/uploads/3/4/9/7/34977599/kailua_i_ka_malanai_for_hweb.pdf
Although I haven’t found my conclusion yet on whether a fairy tern was one of the birds of Hauwahine, it is not an unreasonable idea. The fairy tern seems an unusual bird if you consider the area in modern times. They have been extinct from Kailua for a long time and Kawainui is freshwater. The beautiful fairy tern is a saltwater-feeding and coastal bird. However, they nest inland, as far in as the mountains! If you consider the nesting habits and the natural history of the area, it becomes quite plausible. Most of Coconut Grove was filled in by manmade means in the 1930s, and the flow of water has been cut off since the levee was constructed, leaving Kaelepulu stream almost dry. In ancient times, Kaelepulu would have been brackish near the ocean, its waters winding through the freshwater fishpond of Kawainui all the way up to the springs and waterfalls of Maunawili. Without the land filled in by human intervention, Kailua’s coast would have been much closer to Kawainui, and the land would have had more water flowing as well. The fairy tern would likely have lived along the coast of Kailua not far from the marsh, and nested inland, often flying over the marsh. We see the nesting behavior inland in our Honolulu populations. I am still researching the mo‘olelo of Hauwahine, so there will likely be an update on this point, but I find it highly likely that Hauwahine would have been able to summon assistance from a fairy tern at some point in the history of Kailua’s changing wetlands.
Beautiful Hauwahine, with her fierce mo’o form is a vivid symbol for taking care of our environment. Land all around the marsh has been developed, but the legend of Hauwahine remains strong. The marsh remains undeveloped and wild, a miracle that is the result of Hawaiians, environmentalists, the difficulties of development in flood plains, and the spirit of Hauwahine working in tandem to keep the land untamed. I hope it will be restored with native flora and fauna, and that someday the white fairy tern population will once more live on the shores of Kailua.