Sacred Forests Part Five – Advice from a Kupuna

Sacred Forests
Part Five –¬†Advice from a Kupuna

By Sam Low

Shortly after Nainoa returned from Alaska, the board of directors of the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program, the official sponsors of the Hawai’iloa project, met at the Bishop Museum.

“I gave my report and the board was puzzled by it,” Nainoa remembers. “Here I had accomplished my mission. We had the trees just for the asking, all our problems were solved. Accepting the trees followed historical precedent, Vancouver had reported a canoe made of pine, and it was an opportunity to join with another native group that wanted to share with us. I understood all that. I understood that what we had set out to do we did very well. We obtained the trees that we knew would keep the project going, but I just wasn’t OK with it.”

Among the board members attending the meeting at the Bishop Museum was John Dominis Holt. Holt was a kamaaina – a member of an old family with deep ties to the islands.

“John knew that I was troubled about cutting the trees,” says Nainoa. “It wasn’t so much what I said but what I didn’t say and how I acted – no excitement. It was not my nature. I didn’t say, ‘Hey, we accomplished our mission. It’s all set up.’ None of that. I just gave a quiet uncommitted report back to the board. After that, John came up to me and said, ‘why don’t you come to my house for lunch?'”

A few days after the board meeting, Nainoa drove up a long driveway in the Pacific Heights neighborhood – an enclave of expensive old homes overlooking Honolulu. The driveway was lined with groves of mock orange and tall Banyan trees gnarled with age and it arced through manicured lawns that would have done credit to a golf course.

“The house was old style,” Nainoa remembers, “with big windows all around and views through them of Honolulu. There were a lot of paintings and there were maids and gardeners.”

John Dominis Holt was a tall man, a little heavy set, fair, with white hair. He had a deserved reputation as an elegant public speaker who wove wit and humor into his presentations. He took pride in dressing well.

“He stood very erect and when he spoke he gazed upward at the ceiling,” Nainoa recalls. “He talked to you very personally, but he always looked away.”

“John was an interesting man,” Nainoa continues, ” a writer and a publisher. He had a great passion and love for Hawaii and its people. He really cared, but he came from a very affluent life so in some ways his contributions, I think, were made in a kind of isolation from the community – not that the community didn’t like him – but the community didn’t really know how to relate to him. That’s my sense. He was a wonderful, kind, kind man. He had a passionate regard for Hawaii and its people. John Dominis Holt was of a different era. He was the end of that era.”

John Holt expressed his affection for Hawaii as a writer and publisher of books on Hawaiian subjects including, in 1964, a volume entitled “On Being Hawaiian” and a reminiscence of early childhood summers in Waimea, on the Big Island.

“We sat down to lunch – very prim and proper. It was very different than I would normally have lunch, you have to worry a little about how to behave. We made small talk and then John turned to me all of a sudden and he asked me, ‘Nainoa, tell me your dreams.'”

Nainoa was surprised by the question but he realized that it came from a deep place in John Holt’s understanding of Hawaiian culture. “It came from John Holt’s aloha for everything around him,” Nainoa explains. “He was trying to find out what was the real reason I couldn’t cut the trees down. Because I couldn’t answer rationally, John was trying to get to a deeper level. Asking about the dream was his avenue to the unconscious.”

“I think every single one of us who is Hawaiian, finds an instinct way deep within us – the Na’ao – not the intellectual, but the more spiritual part of who we are. We are still very connected to the earth because of who we were,” Nainoa continues, “and we have been disconnected because of this overwhelming change that came with the new order, the new Western world, with depopulation. And it has put to sleep that powerful connection to mother earth. It’s instinctual, not intellectual – what is right by our instincts and our soul – which is very much a part of Hawaiian decision making.”

Nainoa paused for a moment to think before answering the question. He had, in fact, experienced a recurring dream. It was a replay of the search for koa with Tava in the Kilauea Forest. In the dream, as the men come out of the forest, Nainoa feels a heavy pain in his shoulder, a pain so severe that it always caused him to wake up, startled and confused. Taking his time, Nainoa carefully told Mr. Holt the details.

Now it was time for John Dominis Holt to pause and carefully consider what he had heard. He looked up at the ceiling, then focused his gaze carefully upon Nainoa, looking deeply into his eyes.

“He told me that to understand the dream I had to realize that it was all about the pain that I felt on leaving the forest,” Nainoa remembers. “John was very precise in his words. He was a very articulate speaker. He said, ‘You know Nainoa, everything that you need to do is in front of you. It is very close to you. But you are just not able to see it. Not only are the problems there, but also the solutions.’ He said to me, ‘I know that you know the answer.'”