Chief selectees bring honor, tradition to Native Hawaiian burial site

Kehau Lum uses a ti leaf to peform a peleku, or blessing to call on the ancestors. Bruce Keaulani then sprinkles water on chief petty officers and chief selectees for a pikai, which is a traditional cleansing ceremony.

Story and photos by MCC Alexander Gamble Navy Public Affairs Support Element Detachment Hawaii

On a sunny Saturday morning, tucked away off a well-traveled road on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, a sacred burial mound is given extra kokua (care) by a group of chief petty officers and chief selectees, Aug. 18.

The Sailors gather in a circle, hidden from the traffic by a green wall of trees and bushes. Bruce Keaulani sprinkles some water on each Sailor, one by one, as Kehau Lum follows behind with a ti leaf, touching each of us on the head, each shoulder, the chest, and then the abdomen. A bucket sits nearby, cradling tools and ti leaves. The ti leaves glisten in the sunlight with water droplets, blessed by Keaulani. A chant accompanies each blessing — the “E ho mai.”

A ho‘okupu sits on the burial site on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Aug. 18. A ho‘okupu is an ancestral offering wrapped in ti leaves.

Keaulani and Lum are members of the Alii Pauahi Hawaiian Civic Club. The civic club provides cultural protocols for the Navy for sites such as this one. The Sailors address Keaulani and Lum as “Uncle” and “Auntie,” respectively, which locals generally call their elders out of veneration, related or not.

This ceremony is known as pikai, a traditional Hawaiian blessing involving a pule — a prayer to call the ancestors and let them know that we come to help, and ask them to join us — and a peleku — a blessing where the ti leaf touches the spiritual points, accompanied by an oli (chant) — “E ho mai.”

Each point represents something different. The area nearest the head is the ke akua, which represents the father above, or god. The crown of the head is the aumakua, which represents the family, or ancestors. The shoulder and heart area is the uhane, representing the mother. And the unihipili is the abdomen, representing the child inside each of us. Auntie touches each of these areas as a symbol to show that love comes down from ke akua to unihipili.

Master-at-Arms 1st Class Shalonda Denson, of Bainbridge, Georgia, selected to chief petty officer, clears vegetation from the burial site.

While others are trimming the bushes and clearing the brush — the purpose of our visit — Auntie and I are talking. She points to the sky.

“Do you see the birds?” she asks.

She tells me the birds represent the ancestors coming to join us. This is a sign that the ancestors approve of what we are doing.

“This is a sacred burial site,” said Religious Programs Specialist 1st Class Glenda Techur, selected to chief petty officer.

“We have to ask permission. We have to let them know who we are and why we’re here.”

Utilitiesman 1st Class Eric Luiz, of Honolulu, selected to chief petty officer, trims bushes.

Techur was born and raised in Tamuning, Guam, but her family comes from the island of Palau — one of the Micronesian islands near Guam. When I asked her about the Guamanian and Hawaiian cultures, she said, “It’s very similar — respect for people, respect for the land (and) respect for your other brothers and sisters. We have the same food. Same ocean surrounding the island.”

For her, this custom was familiar, as it was done at funerals back home.

For others, this is the first time they’ve seen the ceremony.

Chief Master-at-Arms (SW/EXW) Matt Haylow, of Fort Worth, Texas, coordinated the volunteer efforts. I asked him if he is normally a spiritual person, and without hesitation, he said, “No. Not at all.”

Chief petty officers and chief petty officer selectees clean and trim vegetation around the Halealoha Haleamau burial site, Aug. 18.

But going through the ceremony, he said, “It felt kind of surreal. It made me think about things I hadn’t thought about in quite a long time.”

The ceremony brought back thoughts of his niece, who died 22 years ago, at just 35 days old.

“(The ceremony was) solemn,” he said. “Kind of a goosebump thing. It felt like your ancestors were actually coming to help out.”

This tradition gave Haylow the opportunity to honor his niece.

“Without it (the ceremony), I wouldn’t have thought of her,” Haylow said. “I wouldn’t have had any reason to go spiritual with this. (The clearing) would have just been yardwork.”

The site is known as Halealoha Haleamau, which in Hawaiian, means house of welcome, house of eternity.

According to Jeff Pantaleo, the culture resources manager for Navy Region Hawaii, there are 98 native Hawaiian remains in the burial mound. These remains have been recovered from all across the joint base, and they fill one of eight compartments buried under the rocks. The compartment has been sealed with concrete, but the remains will always touch the earth. According to Pantaleo, this was sacred and important to the Hawaiians when this site was built.

The Halealoha Haleamau was constructed here in 1997. At that point, the Navy was expanding the wastewater treatment facility, and during an archeological survey, a burial site was uncovered. Pantaleo said that Hawaiian burial sites are generally kept secret to protect the ancestors’ ‘iwi — or bones of the dead — and their artifacts from being pilfered. He said that the burial site for King Kamehameha I, for example, will never be found. His burial site would have been kept the most secret because he was such a powerful man.

King Kamehameha I, or, King Kamehameha the Great, is known as the great uniter, as he was the first king to bring all the Hawaiian Islands under one kingdom.

Pantaleo said this site had associated artifacts, and the Navy consulted with native Hawaiians to develop a plan to sacredly move the remains, dating back 800 years, to a more protected area. Part of the move included the construction of a traditional burial platform, which is what these chief petty officers and chief selectees were cleaning up today.

The Navy developed a memorandum of understanding with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, where the burial site would be made permanent, and native Hawaiians would be invited to do a pule and pikai each time work was done on the site.

“We don’t just come to a place and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go here and do this,'” Techur said. “You have to ask permission. You have to go and find the point of contact and make sure that it is OK, because you don’t know what the consequences are if you just go. The Navy has its own traditions and the Hawaiians have their own traditions.”

For Haylow, the ancestral ties are akin to our naval heritage.

“They might not have been blood family, but (past naval leaders) were folks who kind of laid the groundwork for what we do,” he said. “Our service wouldn’t be what it is and have the capability that it does without them. So, (there are no) blood ties, but they very much are our predecessors — ancestors.”

“The Navy — they know what they are doing,” Techur said. “They have respect, loyalty and teamwork. And they’re working with the people here in Hawaii.”

Haylow commented on how unique the experience is for the Sailors.

“If we weren’t doing this kind of thing with the chief selects, this would be nothing more than a leadership course, which you can get anywhere,” Haylow said. “When we bring these kind of events to it, of course, it broadens the experience for them, but I think it makes it worthwhile. And again, we would be doing a disservice to those who came before us if we didn’t remember and pass those on.”

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • RSS

Category: Life & Leisure