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The Hula School - Laka, Goddess of the Hula

Much of the information and customs of the ancient Hawaiian people have been absorbed by more modern influences. However, through their stories told from one generation to the next, we are able to glimpse the interests of boys and girls growing up in those times. This story of the Hula School is a good example of learning that brought happiness to the participants, and enjoyment to others, as Hula Teams displayed their skills and talents to larger groups.

Keao and 'Ilima were watching children playing in the sand. Suddenly 'Ilima spoke. "I was playing in the sand that way when I heard the call of drums. It was long ago, and I was very small, but the call of the drums drew me as a fisherman draws in the fish. I ran. People were crowded together watching something. I slipped through the crowd to see. You know how a child can slip in where there seems to be no room.

"It was a hula. Men and women were dancing to the beat of drums. There was my grandmother--my own dear grandmother. Perhaps I had seen the hula before. I do not know. But this one I remember; the dancers with moving arms and swirling pa'u, the shine of sunlight on leis and bracelets, the tinkle of anklets, and Grandmother softly tapping the drum with her finger tips.

"That night I crawled into her lap. 'Teach me, Grandmother,' I said. 'I want to be a dancer.'

"She did teach me in the years that followed. There is much a child can learn. She said, 'I am too old and heavy to dance and gesture,' but she was not. To me she was beautiful.

"'What are you seeing, Grandmother?' I asked one day. She was looking beyond me, and I turned to look. Only breadfruit trees touched by the wind. "What are you seeing!' I asked again.

"'Laka, my goddess.'

"'Where!' My eyes searched the breadfruit grove.

"'In my mind, Grandchild. I see her as I once saw her in the forest.' Then Grandmother told me about Laka, goddess of the hula. 'She is also the goddess of the wild plants which grow in the forest.'

"'She is my goddess,' I said. Every day I prayed to her. Whenever women went to the forest I went with them. I looked for Laka everywhere.

"'Some day you will see her.' Grandmother told me.

"One day I was in the lower forest helping women who were gathering berries to make dye. Rain came, and the women ran into a cave, but I stayed to watch the rain. It was only a light, misty rain. Sunshine sparkled on it and made a rainbow. Then I saw her!" 'Ilima's voice was almost a whisper, and Keao leaned close to listen. "Her pa'u was whirling mist. Her anklets were shiny raindrops. She was dancing a hula I did not know. Oh, Keao, I cannot tell you how lovely she was, how graceful!

"Then the misty rain was gone, and the women called me to gather berries. Laka was gone too, but the memory of her is still clear in my mind.

"That night I told Grandmother. 'She has chosen you, 'Ilima, Grandmother said earnestly. You are to be a hula dancer.' After that I worked harder than ever to learn the chants and gestures.

"'When can I train with a hula group?' I asked.

"'We shall ask Wahi.'

"But Wahi, the hula master, said I was too young.' The training of the halau is very hard. You know that,' he said to Grandmother. 'Wait until your grandchild is older and stronger.'

"We have waited. It is three years since Wahi taught the hula in this district. Grandmother has heard that he will come this year. If only he will take me!" Keao saw the longing in her friend's eyes. She heard the longing in her voice. She did not answer, but in her heart she prayed.

A few days passed. Then 'Ilima found Keao making ready to beat kapa. Keao jumped up when she saw her friend, for 'Ilima's eyes were shining. "Wahi has chosen you!" she cried. "I knew he would. I prayed."

"Can you come, Keao? I have something for you to see."

Keao looked at the bark and kapa beater. She did not like to leave her work. But Ana, her mother, said, "Go, Keao. This is a great day for 'Ilima. When she enters the halau you two cannot be together. Go with her today."

'Ilima took her friend's hand and urged her along the beach to the place where an old woman sitting under a hau tree was braiding sennit. Her hair was white and her face wrinkled, but shining with happiness. "'Ilima has told you," she said.

"I didn't have to tell," 'Ilima answered. "She knew by just looking at me. May I show her--you know what, Grandmother?"

The old woman took a kapa-wrapped bundle from the top of her pa'u. The girls were on their knees beside her as 'Ilima unwrapped the bundle. "Shells!" Keao exclaimed. "Such beautiful red-striped shells and all the same size! I have never seen shells like those, 'Ilima."

"They are anklets. See. They are strung on coconut fibre. Tell Keao about them, Grandmother."

"You know that I was a hula dancer, Keao," the old woman began. "Once the troupe I was in danced before a visiting chieftess. I danced one hula alone to the rhythm of sharkskin drums. When I had finished, the chieftess said, 'That is a hula dear to my heart, for it is like sunshine on rippling water. Here is something for you to wear next time you dance,' and she gave me these rare shells.

"They were my dearest treasure, and I wore them many times. When I was too old and heavy to dance and gesture I learned to play the instruments. Now I am very old.

"Yesterday Wahi said, 'The grandchild should have bracelets or anklets that have been used before. Have you something you have worn, something that will give her the blessing of our goddess?'

"So I brought out these shells. They are 'Ilima's now for she is my dearest treasure."

The two young women looked thoughtfully at the anklets and Keao said, "The sunlight shines on them as it shines on a lei of feathers. The color glows."

Grandmother put the shells away. "Until tomorrow," 'Ilima whispered. Then she added, "Tell us about the halau Grandmother. Tell us what Kanoe is doing."

"An altar will be built in the halau," the grandmother explained, "an altar to Laka. Kanoe was the one chosen to get branches for the altar as well as vines and flowers to trim it. He went into the forest at dawn and as he went he prayed. His work is sacred. It must be done in silence and with prayer. Tell Keao what he must gather, Grandchild."

"He is getting koa branches." 'Ilima was speaking now. Her eyes seemed to be looking into the dark kao forest as she went on. "'Koa' means 'unafraid.' The koa branches are a prayer that we shall never be afraid even when we dance before a crowd."

"What else must he gather?" the grandmother asked.

"Lehua in the lower forest, sweet smelling maile, 'ie'ie, palai fern and halapepe," 'Ilima answered. "He must repeat a special prayer for each.

And pili grass," she added quickly. "That is very important for 'pili' means to 'cling.' The pili grass is a prayer that chants and gestures may cling to us through all our lives.

"You tell what happens next, Grandmother."

"When Kanoe comes back to the halau Wahi will sprinkle the vines and branches with purifying water. He and Kanoe will build an altar to Laka, an altar made of the sacred branches and trimmed with vines and flowers. They will pray Laka to send her spirit into that altar. If you and the others try earnestly Laka will be pleased. Her spirit will stay in the altar, and vines and branches will be green and full of life."

There was a long silence. Keao was thinking, "Tomorrow 'Ilima will be there. She will see. O Laka," she prayed silently, "bless my friend. Help her to be a good hula dancer."

Then 'Ilima spoke, "And tonight, Grandmother? Tell Keao about that."

"Tonight Wahi will stay alone in the halau. He will pray Laka to bless his teaching. He will pray that he may remember every chant and gesture, that he may teach with patience and with wisdom. He will pray for all his pupils; that you may work earnestly and remember, that your voices may be rich and true, your bodies graceful, your hearts unafraid and reverent.

"Wahi will also pray for new wisdom. He will ask the goddess to come to him in a dream and teach him a hula he did not know or call to mind one he had forgotten."

Again the three were silent, thinking. Perhaps all three were praying. There was no movement but the sunlight dancing through hau leaves.

At last the old woman picked up the coconut fibres which had fallen in her lap. Keao watched her quick fingers as she braided. Though she was old, her hands were not stiff, but beautiful in movement. "Her voice so is strong and sweet," the young woman thought. "It is because of her hula training."

Aloud she said, "I think our district has the best dancers on this land."

"That is something we must never think," the old woman told her. Chants and gestures taught in one hula school are different, sometimes different only in little ways. But each is good. I still remember the words of my master, 'Never find fault with the teaching of another school. All knowledge does not come from one.'"

"That is what my mother said about kapa making," Keao remembered. Patterns and dyes may be different, but all work done with prayer and skill is good.'"

Then she asked, "Do you know any stories about the hula?"

"I think the art was brought from far Kahiki by our ancestors," the old woman told her. "Girls of Hawaii taught it to Hi'iaka, and she and other sisters of Pele danced in the fire pit. Then La'a came. Do you know that story, Keao?"

"I have heard it, but tell it once more so we shall be sure to remember it."

"La'a was a son of Moikeha, the voyager," Grandmother began. "He came from far Kahiki. As his canoe sailed along the coast of Hawaii by night La'a softly beat his drum.

"The sound was new and beautiful.

"'What is it?' people asked, and others answered, 'It is the great god, Ku.' At daybreak they paddled out with offerings of food for the god.

"Sometimes La'a stopped at a landing place. Then hula teachers gathered, for they had heard the voice of La's drum. He taught them hulas. Though he beat the drum, he kept it hidden. 'What is it?' they asked each other. 'Its tone is rich and beautiful. If only we could make drums like that!'

"A hula master on Oahu followed the canoe. 'That drum's voice is most beautiful!' he thought. 'I have nothing with such a deep tone. I must see the drum!' So he ran, following the canoe. Sometimes he ran along the beach. Sometimes the trail was on the cliff above.

"As the hula teacher ran, he listened to the rhythms of the drum. They were new to him, and he must learn them. So he beat each one with his hands on his chest until it was fixed in his mind.

"When at last the canoe landed the hula master was there to greet La'a. 'I heard your drum,' he said. 'It sounds like one of mine. I wonder whether they are the same.'

"La'a brought out his drum. The man saw it was larger than any he had known before. It was made from a section of a breadfruit log, hollowed and covered with sharkskin. The sharkskin was laced on with sennit. 'Yes,' said the hula master, 'as I thought, it is much like mine.'

"Soon these words came true for the hula teacher made a drum like that of La'a. On it he played the rhythms he had learned. Since that day the sharkskin drum has been used through all Hawaii."

As 'Ilima came to the halau, the house where the hula dancers were to be trained, she felt cold with excitement. She joined others who were chosen for the training. Some were older men and women who had been dancers and would now be trained to play the rhythm instruments. Some were young men and women of 'Ilima's own age. All were people she knew, but today they seemed strange.

At the door of the halau, Wahi, the hula master, sprinkled them with purifying water. Once inside, 'Ilima looked about. The halau was larger than a sleeping house, but smaller than she had expected.

On the east side was the altar. 'Ilima knew it must be on the side of the rising sun. Placing the altar on the east was a prayer for life, health, and for growth in dancing.

There was time for short rests and for food, but not for games and idleness. The pupils could never forget that they were in the presence of their goddess. They could never be careless in speech or act.

Food was brought to the door by relatives. These people did not enter the halau, for it was sacred. Certain kinds of food were kapu to those who learned the hula, and these were never brought. The name of one limu meant "to hide." It was kapu, for eating it might make the memory of chant or gesture hide from those who tried to learn.

One morning as the pupils came from the bathing pool they noticed the master's face. "It is shining," 'Ilima thought.

"Wahi has had a dream," someone whispered. And it was so. The master told them that he had tried for many months to remember a certain hula learned in childhood. "But it had flown," he said. "Last night, as I slept, I saw our goddess, Laka. She danced the hula I longed for. Every gesture, every word was clear."

As 'Ilima learned the hula she seemed to see the goddess dancing. "Laka is in me," the young woman thought again, and danced and chanted easily. That hula was indeed a sacred thing.

One morning Wahi said, "Soon our district chief will send for this hula troupe to dance before his household. That is your graduation. I have asked Ka-ipo, a great hula master, to watch your work and tell us how it can be made better. Yesterday a message came from him. I think he will be with us today."

Many had heard of Ka-ipo. It would be an honour to have him watch their work. There was excitement in the halau and in 'Ilima's heart a little fear.

Just as the pupils were taking their places for a dance they heard a voice chanting the password. Wahi's face lighted with joy. The drums were hushed, and everyone listened eagerly as Wahi chanted the reply giving permission to enter.

Ka-ipo was old and white-haired, but straight and handsome. Wahi sprinkled him with purifying water. The old man went to the altar and lifted his voice in prayer. How strong and rich his tones!

Thy blessing, O Laka,
On me, the stranger,
And on these within the halau.
Teacher and pupils.
O Laka, bless the dancers
When they come before the people.

Then Wahi took Ka-ipo in his arms. Their faces touched, and their eyes filled with tears of joy. But they did not wail aloud, for they were in the presence of the goddess.

Wahi seated the old master on a mat to watch. Ka-ipo did not interrupt a dance, but after each told how it could be improved. "In this place your breathing was not right," he might say. "Fill your lungs and do not stop for breath until the phrase is finished." After another chant, "Your tone is not that of the bamboo rattles. Listen!" He struck a rattle. "Do you hear the light song of wind blowing through reeds in a marshy place? The music of your voices must be as light as the note of the bamboo."

That night 'Ilima went to her mats tired with the effort of the day, yet happy. The old man's words had made the hula even more full of beauty and worship than before.

Ka-ipo stayed for several days while pupils worked their hardest on dance and chant. At last he said, "It is well." That was all, but coming from the master it was praise enough. 'Ilima knew-- everyone knew-- the troupe was ready for graduation. A few days later came the chief's command to dance before his household. The time had come!

Just after midnight, when no one was about, the pupils went to the ocean to bathe. Oh, how good to feel its waves once more! At the door of the halau Wahi sprinkled each one with purifying water as he had done every time they entered. Then he himself went to bathe. When he returned they danced and chanted, then slept a little while.

At daybreak the pupils were wakened by their teacher's tapping on the sharkskin drum. 'Ilima was wide awake at once. This was the day!

All bathed in the pool just as they had each morning. They chanted as they dressed, but the pa'u each put on was new and beautiful. They gathered about the altar and chanted prayers to Laka.

A long ceremony of prayers and chants followed the morning meal. The pupils watched as vines and branches were taken from the altar and replaced with fresh ones. They listened as Wahi talked to them. "Be true to what you have learned in this halau," he said. "Then the chants will be yours through all your lives."

And now, for the first time since entering the halau, the pupils visited their homes. The men might shave. Everyone might trim hair and nails. They were given fresh leis made by their families. For a moment 'Ilima held her grandmother in her arms. Each knew that understanding and love had grown between them.

The time at home was short. Soon all returned to the halau to be sprinkled once more with purifying water and to chant reverently:

Laka sits in her shady grove.
An offering we give to you.
O Laka, let it be well,
Well with us all,
O giver of all things.

As the chant ended the pupils crowded to the altar and heaped their leis upon the block of lama wood where the spirit of Laka rested.

The many prayers were answered. Quietly the hula troupe went to the chief's home. The audience was there, sitting or lying about the large mat made ready for the dancers. The program was long. Chants and instruments changed, but always the voices carried the tone of instruments used--drums, gourd rattles, sticks, small stones. It seemed to 'Ilima that the spirit of Laka had driven fear from everyone. The praise which followed the program was not praise for the dancers and musicians. It was not praise for Wahi, but for Laka, their goddess.

That night when graduation was over Wahi took all the sacred things to Kanoe's canoe. He took the branches which had made the altar, the vines and every pa'u and lei worn by a dancer, even bits of food from the feast shared with the goddess. Wahi and Kanoe paddled to deep ocean and reverently dropped everything into the starlit waves. Wahi prayed, and the two watched the sacred things disappear. They were safe. No careless hands could touch them, no careless feet step on them.

As she lay in the sleeping house 'Ilima heard the dip of a paddle. "Perhaps it is Wahi and Kanoe returning," she told herself. "Our training is finished." There was a bit of sadness in the thought. Then came another, "Soon Makahiki will begin. Our hula troupe will dance in this district and in others." With a thankful prayer to Laka the young woman fell asleep.

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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.