Honolulu tells story of healers with dual male and female spirit through new plaque in Waikiki

HONOLULU — Honolulu officials on Tuesday introduced a new interpretive plaque for four large boulders in the center of Waikiki that honor Tahitian healers of dual male and female spirit who visited Oahu some 500 years ago.

The centuries-old boulders — one for each of the four visiting healers — are protected by an iron fence in a beachside park surrounded by hotels and shops in the heart of the world-renowned tourist district. The monument is known as the stones of Kapaemahu, after the group’s leader.

According to stories handed down orally, the boulders were placed on Waikiki’s shore at the time of the healers’ visit. But the stones became neglected more recently. In 1941, a bowling alley was even built over them and remained there for two decades.

The earlier plaque dates to 1997. It doesn’t acknowledge the healers were “mahu,” which in Hawaiian language and culture refers to someone with dual male and female spirit and a mixture of gender traits.

Scholars blame that omission on the homophobia and transphobia pervasive in Hawaii after the introduction of Christianity. Missionaries pushed aside gender fluidity’s deep roots in Hawaiian culture and taught believers to suppress anything that deviated from clearly defined male and female gender roles and presentations.

The new plaque is attached to a stone in front of the iron fence.

“Please respect this cultural site of reverence,” the sign says. “There are many stories of these four healers from Tahiti, known for duality of male and female spirit and their wonderous works of healing.” The plaque includes a QR code and the address to a website with more information about the stones and their history.

Kumu Charlani Kalama, whose title “kumu” is the Hawaiian language term for master teacher, performed a blessing with ti leaves and salt. Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu draped lei on the fence.

Joe Wilson, a member of a group that pushed for signage acknowledging a more complete story of the stones, said monuments and public art are powerful symbols of who and what are valued by a community.

“Kapaemahu should and will be a shining example of a city that honors and celebrates its culture, diversity and all who visit or call it home,” Wilson said at the blessing ceremony.

The story of the stones was initially handed down orally, like all tales in Hawaii before the introduction of the written language in the 1800s. The first written account appeared in a 1906 manuscript by James Alapuna Harbottle Boyd, the son-in-law of Archibald Cleghorn, who owned the Waikiki property where the stones were at the time.

Wong-Kalu, who is mahu and a community leader, said she stopped by Boyd’s grave before the ceremony to pay her respects and express her gratitude that he wrote down the story for subsequent generations.

“If not for his recordation of this, we would not be able to tell this story today,” Wong-Kalu said.

Honolulu’s mayor said the future of tourism lies in teaching visitors about the culture of a place so they appreciate it for more than its beautiful beaches and the ocean. The stones can help do that, he said.

“I’m hoping is that the people who are interested will realize that it’s just not four stones in Waikiki. There’s a meaning and a history and even a spirituality,” Mayor Rick Blangiardi said after the ceremony.

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