discover old hawai‘i: maui nei native expeditions’ new interactive cultural tour

MauiNei Old Hawai'i kalo demo webLearning to pound poi; creating natural dye and using it to print on cloth; making and learning to play a nose flute—any one of these activities would make for an educational and fun morning. Four friends and I recently had the opportunity to participate in all three activities in one action-packed experience: “Discover Old Hawai‘i,” Maui Nei Native Expeditions’ brand-new interactive cultural arts tour in historic Lahaina Town.

We’re greeted by Maui Nei kumu Keoki Sousa at the Old Lahaina Courthouse. Keoki will serve as our guide/escort throughout the tour. Keoki is one of Maui Nei’s first kumu, and is a practitioner of Hawaiian healing traditions.

Keoki leads us past bustling Lahaina Harbor, to the sacred, chair-shaped pohaku hauola (birthing stone), where high-ranking royalty gave birth. “While the mother gave birth, the family would be right here with her praying and chanting for a baby girl, over a baby boy,” Keoki says. “The ancient Hawaiian culture was very much a matriarchal society, and the family’s mana was passed down through the mother’s lineage.”

Next, we walk across the lawn to a table that’s been set up by Maile Keawe Bryan, who is a Hawaiian cultural specialist for the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa. “To make kapa [cloth used for clothing], Hawaiian women pounded the inner bark of the wauke [paperbark] tree with a wooden mallet,” Maile explains. “As the material was pounded, it would stretch. It was really hard work, and these women were very strong.” Maile tells us many different plants and seeds were used to make dye—kukui nut, noni tree bark, tumeric, and numerous others—which was used to stamp patterns onto the kapa. “It’s said that in those days, you could see someone fifty feet away from you and know where they were from from, who their family was, and what they did for a living—just by ‘reading’ their kapa.”

Maile shows us several ‘ohe kapala (carved bamboo printmaking tools). “They’re like ‘talking sticks,’” she says. “Each design tells a different part of the story—the ocean, the stars.” For the dye, Maile has chosen red dirt, called alae, which she says was also used for medicinal purposes. After pounding the alae, she mixes in a little salt to help the dye adhere, then a bit of oil, using a hala seed as a mixing brush.

Maile gives us each a piece of pellon, and encourages us to use the ‘ohe kapala and dye to “tell our story.” Dan has depicted his home surrounded by stars, water, and land; Glori’s cloth tells the story of coming back home to Hawai‘i after being on the Mainland for several years; Gail’s is a representation of Santiago, Spain, and its surrounding mountains; Brian’s piece shows the similarities between California and Maui; and yours truly has created a fairly literal piece depicting my house with an extra layer of stars above, since I live Upcountry, where the night sky is especially dazzling.

Keoki leads us to the King’s Taro Patch located in front of the Lahaina Public Library, which once belonged to King Kamehameha The Great, and introduces us to Wainani Kealoha, who lovingly tends the kalo garden. Wainani welcomes us with a chant, then teaches us the history of kalo in Hawai‘i, and explains why Hawaiians have such a deep connection to the plant. “There was a lot of chanting and praying during the planting of kalo, in hopes that the plants would flourish,” Wainani says. She explains to us the life cycle of the kalo plant, that the corm (root) is used to make pa‘i‘ai (pounded kalo) and poi, and the leaves are used for steaming laulau.

Wainani takes us over to the kalo patch, and points out the different qualities of the varieties planted there. “This particular plant is mana ulu, characterized by the yellowish hue,” she says. “This one is lehua lauloa, and its corm is red inside.” In fact, there are more than 80 varieties of kalo in Hawai‘i!

Next, Wainani demonstrates the pa‘i‘ai pounding process. “Pa‘i‘ai could last up to six months, so Hawaiians took it with them on their long journeys,” she explains. Wainani cleanses her hands in water, then peels the corm, and begins smashing it with a pohaku ku‘i‘ai (food pounding stone with rounded base and knobbed head) on a pounding board. “Pa‘i‘ai is then mixed with water to make poi,” she says.

Since this is a hands-on tour, Wainani gives each of us an opportunity to pound. Once you establish a rhythm, it’s a mesmerizing, almost therapeutic experience. And when we taste the fruits of our labor, we find it to be surprisingly tasty, and not at all like the mass-produced poi often served at commercial lu‘aus. It’s easy to see why Wainani is so enthusiastic about her kalo!

Keoki walks us to the site of Moku‘ula, which was home to great Maui chiefs since the 16th century, and served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i between 1830 and 1845. It is currently undergoing excavation and restoration by Friends of Moku‘ula, the parent organization of Maui Nei Native Expeditions.

We cross Front Street to Hale Halawai, where we meet Kalapana Kollars, a hula dancer, chanter, and Hawaiian nose flute maker, who travels internationally sharing Hawai‘i’s rich history and culture. “It’s my pleasure to introduce you to a true Hawaiian musical instrument,” Kalapana says. “Many people think of the ‘ukulele or the steel guitar when they think of Hawaiian music. But these instruments were introduced after Western contact. Prior to that we had, among others, the ‘ohe hano ihu—three words meaning bamboo, breath, nose. I’m carrying on the practice of the late Anthony Natividad, who brought the nose flute back to our everyday consciousness.”

Kalapana explains in Hawaiian culture, the breath from the nose is considered to be the more honest breath, as opposed to what comes from the mouth. “It’s the breath of life, or the ha,” he says.

We each select a piece of bamboo that Kalapana has harvested and pre-prepared with a nose hole. He explains that, as taught by Anthony, he never harvests from live plants. Kalapana shows us how to measure and mark for the three finger holes, which we create using power drills, which Kalapana acknowledges weren’t available during ancient times. Next, we file the holes to allow for sound to flow smoothly through them.

After some fine-tuning, our nose flutes are ready to make their debut. Kalapana teaches us proper playing technique, emphasizing it’s best to blow slowly and steadily. “You don’t want to blow so hard you pass out,” he says. We serenade Keoki, who listens appreciatively like a proud papa bear.

My friends and I agree Discover Old Hawai‘i is a must-do for visitors and residents alike. Learning about, and actually participating in, three authentic native Hawaiian activities has given all of us a deeper connection to our host culture. Mahalo nui loa, Maui Nei Cultural Expeditions!

–heidi pool



Discover Old Hawai‘i, an interactive program-tour where guests learn Hawaiian cultural arts and skills, while listening to stories of Lahaina’s sacred sites and traditional way of life. The tour is approximately 3.5 hours in duration, with sitting on ground at three sites, and walking between sites. Cost is $150 per person.


The tour begins at the Old Lahaina Courthouse, oceanside, 648 Wharf Street, Lahaina.


The tour is offered on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 9am-12:30pm.


Reservations required: 661-9494;


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