My Honolulu: Trying (and Failing at) Traditional Hawaiian Sledding

Letting things slide isn’t always a good way to go.
Jayna Sledding
Jayna trying Hawaiian sledding for the first time at Bishop Museum.


Right or left, Jayna? Right or left?!


I’m nearing the bottom of a 25-foot grassy slope on a Hawaiian sled when indecisiveness strikes. I need to remember whether the instructor told me to lean my shoulders to the right or to the left. But I’ve totally forgotten what he said. I make a hasty decision to lean left and instantly regret it. I tumble off the sled and onto my back, arms and legs flailing. It was right after all.


“Are you OK?” one of the assistants asks, looking a little concerned.


“Oh yeah, just grass,” I say, brushing myself off. But I’m not quite convinced, so I do a quick inspection: No blood or cuts. Woohoo!


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This is the first time I’ve ever tried he‘e hōlua, or Hawaiian sledding (and hopefully not the last). The practice was considered a form of religious worship in ancient Hawai‘i and eventually evolved into an extreme sport. The 12-foot-long sleds, or papa hōlua, are made of wood and coconut fiber that’s lashed together, a tedious process that can take up to 30 hours.


Just minutes before my first wipeout, Tom “Pōhaku” Stone, aka the he‘e hōlua guy, teaches me the basics of riding. As an avid surfer and lifeguard, he’s definitely a skilled rider, both on land and in the ocean. The makeshift rock slide doesn’t look very steep when I’m standing, but crouching down gives me a whole new perspective. As he’s directing me where to place my hands and feet on the sled, my anxiety builds.


But, with a little push, I’m off down the slope. I’ve never been athletic or even agile, so it was no surprise when I ate it not once but twice. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a lot of fun (until I fell off) and so amazing to know that this is a sport Hawaiians enjoyed centuries ago. After two rounds, I call it a day and watch other people give it a try.


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A few months earlier, I didn’t know anything about Hawaiian sledding. Like other cultural practices, he‘e hōlua seemed to have vanished, particularly after the missionaries arrived. The good news is that Stone and other experts are trying to change that. Their stories of perseverance and passion are so inspiring that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write about them.


The opportunity to interview these Hawaiian cultural practitioners was a personal and professional thrill for me. Arts and culture have been passions of mine since childhood. I even wrote a personal account in January about how a story on Honolulu’s ethnic festivals inspired me to reconnect with my Japanese heritage and join a taiko studio. I’m happy to report that I’m still playing taiko and really enjoy it.

  jayna hula

Jayna dancing at her first hula competition. 


At 9, I started dancing hula and remember instantly falling in love with it. I learned quickly from my kumu that hula is much more than pretty hands and swaying skirts. We learn about Hawaiian culture, history and language—they’re all interconnected, and without them, there is no hula.


This seemed to resonate with each cultural practitioner I spoke to for my story. They all had different stories, but they all weaved a similar theme: We need to know our past to know who we are. And when something is lost, bring it back. 


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This is a behind-the-scenes look at the feature, “Saviors of the Lost Arts.” Read more about four Hawaiian cultural practitioners who are fighting to keep their ancient arts alive in the November 2019 issue of HONOLULU, available on newsstands now or for purchase at Subscribe to the print and digital editions now.


Read more stories by Jayna Omaye