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Lessons from Lehua

When working in public health, as with any other field, it’s good to take space and gain perspective to recenter oneself in why this work matters. Earlier this month, I did just that when I had the privilege of attending Aha Hoolokahi 2023, the Native Hawaiian Health and Well-Being Summit held at UH West Oʻahu. 

For two days, hundreds of community leaders from all islands gathered around a shared calling of mālama ʻāina, mālama kaiāulu, and hoʻopono. Hawaiian ways of knowing and doing stood shoulder to shoulder with Western science as people shared ideas to secure the health and well-being of the Lāhui. Attendees attested to the joy of aloha being seen, heard, and felt in every interaction they shared. As we held that incredible space, the winds of Kapolei continued to blow.

Satisfied with all that I’d learned on day one and not sure I could catch another 6:30 bus for day two, I decided I wouldn’t be attending the rest of the summit. While waiting for my bus back to town, I met two aunties in the Kūpuna Respite Room, an air-conditioned space provided for folks to find reprieve from the heat. We introduced ourselves, talked story a bit, and when it was time for me to go, one aunty looked me dead in the eye and said, “You come back here tomorrow and talk story with me again.”

“Everyone with gray hair in this room is someone who has done something,” those two aunties pointed out when I came back the next day. Observing the room, I could sense that, indeed, these elders with their gray hair and softening features wielded sharp, perceptive eyes. An air of power without arrogance cloaked their very being. These kūpuna carried themselves in ways that reflected the full and rich lives they have lived and continue to live – a stark contrast to the patronizing stereotypes many hold about the old and the aging. 

Within the first few minutes I also confirmed what I suspected the day before: that I was seated between two of the most kolohe aunties present at the summit. In their own mischievous ways they showed care, slyly passing around ziplock bags of mini malasadas (it was National Donut Day, after all) and directing non-staff members in need to the much closer, but definitely off-limits, staff bathroom. Despite the intimidating truth regarding the kūpuna in the room, what one felt instead was gentleness exuded by people who have seen it all, done it all, and who know from a lifetime of experience that they certainly don’t know it all.

At some point I was asked to help roll one of them, Aunty Lehua, out to the parking lot behind building C and to leave her there to enjoy the warmth of the sun… Well, it wasn’t just to enjoy the sun and we weren’t the only ones out there because who else but yesterday’s powerful speaker, Aunty Lynette Kaopuiki Paglinawan, came rolling up waiting for her ride home. 

Enjoyment of paka respectfully delayed, what I witnessed next was two long-lived, Native Hawaiian wahine sharing their hopes and dreams for the next generations. One, a Haku Ho‘oponopono with 50+ years of experience. The other, a full-blooded Native Hawaiian well known for her tougher-than-tough love by generations of Oʻahu’s most troubled youth. The cultural traumas they’ve harbored and are healing from, the healing they’ve brought to countless others, the continued injustices done unto them by colonial violence on their own ancestral lands, and the sheer perseverance of the Lāhui in the face of it all – the naʻauao contained in their stories felt as boundless as the sky. 

How lucky I was to witness such a space of wisdom and how fortunate we are that kūpuna like them can still be found all around us. Like the ‘Ōhi‘a Lehua from which Aunty Lehua gets her name, wise and wonderful kūpuna exist from mauka to makai, taking all shapes and forms as they’ve come to reflect the environments in which they’re found. Aunty Lehua and Aunty Lynette reminded me that some kūpuna may be more kolohe, others slower to talk story with strangers, but all are vital to the health of Hawai‘i and its potential to be nurtured into a land of abundance, once more.

#405 Hahai no ka ua i ka ululā‘au.
Rains always follow the forest.

#2685 Pōki‘i ka ua, ua i ka lehua.
The rain, like a younger brother, remains with the lehua.

The ‘Ōhi‘a Lehua teaches us that to care for its forests is to ensure a miracle: that rains will come and life will flourish. From our oldest centenarians to those one may be surprised to call a kūpuna, they bring forth wisdom that cannot be gained except through time and humility to the larger universe around us. 

And yet, like the native ‘ōhi‘a forests, they face the devastating impacts of a way of life that devalues what it doesn’t understand. 

Houseless elders line our streets. Others with a home can be left isolated and neglected because of a system that makes it impossible for their children and grandchildren to afford to stay or otherwise provide the long-term care they need. Despite the great sacrifices they’ve endured, they are told both implicitly and explicitly that they have no active place in the fast-paced, high-tech, changing world of today.

But just as the fight to protect life-giving ‘ōhi‘a forests continues, so too can we remember our relationship to our elders and the responsibility to uphold these critical pillars of our future. In short, Lehua taught me this: 

To feed our kūpuna is to feed us all.
To house our kūpuna is to house us all.
To honor the dignity of our kūpuna is to honor the dignity in us all.

To mālama kūpuna is to mālama us all, now and for generations to come.

Kiara Louise D. Bacasen

Kiara Louise D. Bacasen

Kūpuna Collective Special Project Coordinator VISTA
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