Meet Paulette Kaleikini: The woman who stopped the rail
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Strong Cultural Roots
Kaleikini walks up to William Aila, chanting. In her hands are a small bunch of bananas. She hands them to him, he places them on top of the ahu (altar). The rain comes softly down as the sun tries to shine through the clouds. After each person has made an offering, the group dances hula, culminating in the end of the Makahiki ceremony, in which they honor Lono, the Hawaiian god of harvest.
Kaleikini has been participating in the sacred ceremonies in Makua Valley for 12 years. She even got Norman, Keliipaakaua and her grandsons involved in Makahiki. “She’s involved in the culture in more ways than one, and she’s willing to share that with you if you’re willing to learn,” says Norman.
In 1999 Kaleikini started Na Koa Opio, a nonprofit for at-risk Native Hawaiian youth. “I teach cultural practices, including taking them to burial sites [such as those near T.J. Maxx and Wal-Mart] and also keeping them clean,” she says. “That’s the beginning stages of the kuleana.”
It’s where her teenage grandson, Kilinahe, was first inspired to protect the iwi, says Kaleikini. He was at the reburial at Hickam and, although he isn’t allowed to touch the bones yet, he helped cut the kaula (rope).
“Some of my grandsons want their tattoos already, too,” she says. She’s not talking about a honu or the island chain, but rather traditional tattoos done by renowned practitioner Keone Nunes. Nunes did the ones on her hands and wrists, as well as those on her leg, ankle and tongue.
On her hands, fingers and around her wrists are niho, shark teeth. “That’s for protection while I’m doing the kuleana.” She also has some representing her lineage, as well as that of her husband’s. On the left hand, she has the iwi bird, “it’s the aumakua [spirit animal] of the malama iwi.” She also has the symbol of the goddess Hina that she got in honor of her only granddaughter. Getting them done three years ago was painful, she says, especially those on her fingers. “[Nunes] said, ‘It’s gonna be sore, it’s gonna be painful.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s a painful kuleana. When you go and fight for the iwi and they want to move them, it’s painful.’”
Kaleikini says her hands swelled terribly. The same hands that made protest signs to wave in front of Kawaiahao Church, dance hula in Makua Valley, sign papers to sue the city and state. The same hands that painstakingly wrap iwi kupuna. She says it’s all part of her kuleana.
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