Quick Session 1: Creating Meaning From Names

We’re going to have a quick sesh (session) and debrief here before we jump into the real article.

So, who rushed out and searched Puku’i & Handy’s Hawaiian Dictionary or  wehewehe.org to understand the notion of “Mahina La’au”?  No worries.  We’ll do it together.  Let’s see what WE can conjure up in terms of a broad image and nomenclature  (image not so much definition) for Mahina La’au.  (btw: la’au is spelled with a macron over the first “a”).  Go to wehewehe.org as we step through this.

mahi – to cultivate; a farm; a farmer; plantation patch; Cf. mahi’ai, mahina, mahiku (hint: always good to look up the Cf.’s)

mahina -moon, month, moonlight; 2. crescent shaped fishhook; 3. eye of the snail at the end of its horn; 4. farm, plantation, patch; 5. variety of onion similar to silver onion; 6. a variety of sweet potato (you see, I didn’t know this one!)

la’au – tree, plant, timber, wood, stick, pole, rod, splinter, thicket, club, blow of a club, strength, rigidness, hardness, male erection, to have formed mature wood as of a seedling, woody, wooden, stiff as wood; 2. medicine, medical; 3. lump or knot in the flesh, to feel such a knot or stiffness; 4. picture frame; 5. general word for canoe endpiece; 6. for nights of the moon beginning with la’au, see malo, 31, 35(la’aukukahi, la’aukulua, la’aupau)

Now, here’s OUR broader image.  You with me?

         Mahina La’au – cultivator of plants/trees….kay, straight forward enough.  Here’s where we start broadening.  Having fun now…

         Mahina La’au – cultivator of medicine (to ingest, for the mind, body, for the land).  Now, you see the potential implications of the name.  All of sudden we’re not only beautifying or designing for the visual aesthetic or the functional aesthetic.  Now we’re co-creating for the purpose of healing mind, body, spirit, of both the kanaka and the land-sky-ocean connection.  NO WONDER la’au also means a lump or to feel a knot and stiffness!  You’re working two honua-s (bodies) at once!  Go get that lomi you sooooo deserve!!

         Mahina La’au – to farm with the intent to strengthen like a tree.

         Mahina La’au – the la’au moon phases.

         Mahina La’au – medicine cultivated in the reflection of the moon.  To cultivate la’au, which is a very MALE image, (if you missed that one) in the reflection of the moon, which is a very female image, brings the “doer”, you, into a wonderful balance while creating balance.  Now, that’s good stuff!  And, lastly, for now,

         Mahina La’au – trees, plants, medicine, la’au moons

So who is the Mahina La’au?  The cultivator of plants, trees, medicine, who pulls from and depends on both the male energies of the image of la’au (this is not to say that all la’au are male, the visual representation is) and the female energies of the moon, for the purpose of ________; you fill in the rest.

You see, to grasp the Hawai’i-ness of the term, this process is necessary.  It is THE #2 priority investment when creating your intimate and embodied relationship with the Hawai’i universe.  Ultimately, when you are curious enough to investigate, deconstruct, and reconstruct the nomenclature or story of a Hawai’i name for a plant, person, place, or elemental phenomenon, even at the most rudimentary level, what magically happens is the emergence of a bigger, brighter image of the name.  This process of deconstruction and rebuilding is called “makawalu” (by my Mom, Pua Kanahele).  Makawalu means to engage multiple perspectives.  Try it!  Try it with plant names, wind names, place names.  I know you want to!  See told you it was a quick one.  Now, the real article.

Our Palai Community

Who is the first plant to pop up on a lava flow?  Who are the plants you might find in and around fresh water sources, whether a spring, a river, a cave, big cracks, or the side of a water worn pali? Who are the plants most used by hula people (watch Merrie Monarch kahiko night)? Who is one of the significant seed nurseries of the forest?  And, here’s the $1,000.00 Jeopardy question:  She was Hi’iaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele’s companion and totem in the story of Pele and Hi’iaka.  Answer:  “Who is Pa’u o Palai”.

Palai, the fern.  The appear-er, disappear-er, and reappear-er of all manner of forest.  They are the dinosaurs of our plant communities…well, maybe except for some fungi or mosses. These monocots (is that right?)  pack some punch in terms of Hawai’i practice, function, and veneration.  In the Hawai’i family system, if you are the first born, you’re the hiapo, the eldest, the boss of the family.  No difference with our plant family.  I wonder if we’ve considered the palai or the fern to be THE HIAPO of the forest because she/he is the first to appear on a lava flow?  Most times we don’t.  She’s not the biggest, doesn’t have attractive flowers, and doesn’t get the headlines in terms of lists, yet, the palai IS the HIAPO, the elder sibling of all the major forest communities on the ‘aina, landscape.  The exception might be the higher and lower “wao” or natural land divisions, but of course I don’t know EVERYTHING 🙂

The palai is the initiator and the invigorator and has more longevity then some of the other vegetation that we use in hula, which is why we use palai.  The idea of palai is to make soft, flexible, malleable.  The magic of the palapalai, pala’a, ‘iwa’iwa is that their softness and the subtlety of their scent is deceiving.  They are prolific in their reproduction.  Which is the reason we use palai in ritual:  in hula rituals, in farming, planting and harvesting rituals, in revivification, at funerals, in Makahiki rituals, in healing rituals.  In ritual, to have the fern present, is just like having your family’s oldest Aunty at the dinner table. It’s a recognition of the genesis, the rigor, and the fragility of life.  In our traditions, we have very strict harvesting rules for ferns because my negligence in the treatment of the palai will have serious repercussions on the health of the forest, not to mention my spirit.  Whoa!

The palai people, whether you’re working with hapu’u or kupukupu or ‘ekaha or amau’u, peahi, or moa, have multi-functional uses.  Aside from the instilling the ideas of profundity, flexibility, and origins, we also use the fern people for weaving, for dyeing for scent, for medicine, for bandaids, for lei making, for food, and for cloth printing.  We’ve indigenized some of the introduced ferns into our practices because…well, why not.  And because of their general usefulness in attracting metaphysical outcomes, as well as functional outcomes.

So, is the fern significant in Hawai’i practice? YES, undoubtedly!  If you want to attract or impose the characteristics of the fern that I mentioned above into your landscape, go out and simply observe how this unassuming plant community interacts with the other people of ka (the) nahele (bushes).  Get the digest sized Fern Book.  I looooove that one.  Keep it in my car.

Anyway, remember the $1,000.00 Jeopardy question about Hi’iaka and Pa’uopalai?  We’ll, there’s a great story!  But, I’ve gone over my word limit.  I’ll leave you with a smidgin of the importance of Pa’uopalai to Hi’iaka.  The Pele is the lava.  So there’s your landscape.  She is the older sister of Hi’iaka which means, the land is required for Hi’iaka to do her job.  Hi’iaka’s function is the green-ing of the landscape.  Pa’uopalai or the “clothing of ferns” is the totem and companion of Hi’iaka.  Which means Pa’uopalai is a necessary companion of Hi’iaka because________?  Why?

If you have inquiries to prompt our next topic of discussion, you may send them directly to me, at ohaililani@gmail.com.

I am Kekuhi Kanae Kanahele Kealiikanakaoleohaililani.  My paternal family ties are to Keleikini of Kaua’i, Nauoho of Hana, Maui. My maternal family ties are to Ahiena of Puna, Kealiikanakaole of Ka’u, and Kanaele-Kenao of Kohala. Learning about and engaging with my relations in nature, from Hawaiinui, Hawaii-iki, Hawaiipamamao (this Hawaii, the Hawaii within, and the Hawaii beyond the horizon), thoroughly excites me. Cultivating relationships and making ecological connections for myself and others is my gift and my passion.

Rick Quinn provides the prompt for this issue’s Hawai-‘icology thoughts.  Mahalo Rick and Heidi Bornhorst for your inquiries.


I really like the column by Kekuhi Kealiikanakaoleohaililani at the back of the Jan/Feb LICH mag. Now I know Im a Mahina laau !

Using plants in landscaping with an understanding of their connection to the current and past culture of Hawaii is important to me, and the new column looks like it will provide some great information along those lines.

I think we should be using more native ferns in our landscapes.  Can you please pass on to Kekuhi to consider including some discussion of native Hawaiian ferns and their place in Hawaiian culture and use.


Rick Quinn

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