I must have gotten my social media platforms mixed up. I thought I was going to a Civil War reenactment, like they do in the mainland South. It wasn't. The ceremony, surrounding the sunrise, was a prayer and a commemoration, a service, not a reenactment. The Hawai'ian kingdom once had a civil war, two centuries ago. I thought I was going to see hundreds of locals portraying the brave Big Island warriors, led by Kamehameha, who ran the O'ahuans over the cliffs of the Pali. All week, I was wondering how they were gonna pull it off. Nope. Instead of cannon fire, clashing spears and stuntmen leaping into the precipice, I got prayers, chants and a few of the royalty in a commemoration of a valuable and historic event. And like everything in Hawaii, it was incredibly beautiful.
Kids today can't find the United States on a map. I still can't, but I remember the Battle of Nu'uanu. Most every American male knows it well. We boys and some girls have all gawked at the iconic painting by Herb Kawainui Kāne in our schoolhouse textbooks. Every detail is rich with wonder and violence. Better than any comic book. An unearthly landscape, a stormy sky and a wildly attired army shoving a horde of bad guys off a sheer cliff. The battle is epic and faces are grim. At the edge of the cliff, life is desperate. You see a buncha' guys freefalling, surely onto jagged rocks far, far below. I remember the image fondly. As a kid, fantastically overwhelmed by the imagery, I promptly forgot what the decisive battle was about. The all-island smackdown unified the fractious Hawai'ian kingdom and placed Kamehameha the Great upon the throne.
We arrived in darkness at the Pali lookout. The forest was quiet, much too early for the crowing roosters and the chatty birds of Hawai'i. Deep in country, I was so happy to see stars in the sky, an impossibility in urban Honolulu. We could not see the half moon, low in the east, nor would we later see the actual sun rise. Gathered in a large queue, we waited in the dark, patiently, as is customary when in the presence of royalty.
In the dark, senses are heightened. We couldn't see the landscape around us. Some blinded themselves with their hand held devices. A flashlight app illuminates little. Slowly, we resigned ourselves to the night. To the sounds of wind through leaves. To the smell of raw earth. To the trust of one foot forward into the black unknown.
A conch shell sounded, the call crisp and welcoming. We then began to move forward, after the procession of ali'i, priests, musicians, warriors and hula halau dancers. The ceremony began in darkness. Somewhere against the pali, the unseen participants stood before the adherents. For Hawai'i, it was a chilly dawn. The trades were gusting with bluster. The Hawai'ian chants of prayer and song rose, fell and disappeared to the winds. Raindrops freckled our faces. As the sky began to slowly lighten, silhouettes of the assembly, a form to the voices, began to appear.
A society was presenting itself. The organization had clear definitions of duty and power. Most were clad natively. The powerful ali'i wore dark suits beneath their short and decorated capes. Prayer, song and dance told many stories. Most of the dialogue was in Hawai'ian, a little in English. Different halaus played their part with offerings of oli and hula.
As the sky lightened, the forest around us began to wake. Roosters made announcements, mynahs shrieked in play and parrots made the rounds of their patrol.
The lineage of Hawai'i royalty is a testy subject. The different bloodlines point fingers at old grudges. It's better not to ask. The replies are passionate and fierce, a floating mine better circumvented than sailed through. Kamehameha I was such an incredible character, none of his progeny could ever be as successful or respected. The history of the Hawaiian Kingdom is convoluted, complicated and compromised. Born in beauty, Hawai'i island culture is bold and beautiful.
The ceremony ended and a new day had started. We waited as the royals and the priests and the dancers and the musicians made their exit. A small group of priests and acolytes continued to chant a final blessing, a halau.
This haole felt lucky to be included. I was surprised at how small the crowd for such a hallowed commemoration. I asked my kanaka and he replied, "Polynesian Paralysis. Five A.M. is early, brah."
I have been graced with a rare privilege, to witness this not-so-secret and very formal ceremony. The lilt of the chants and the slow coloring of dawn against an endlessly dramatic and fast moving sky were incredible. It was a true commemoration, of a decisive battle, led by a truly great man. Sadly, it was also the last major political action purely determined by the Hawai'ians toward forging their own future.
Aloha says Hello and Goodbye.