Fierce Heart: The Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawaiian Surfing

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9780312384517: Fierce Heart: The Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawaiian Surfing

Fierce Heart is the biography of a community and a portrait of its people. Although Makaha is a small, isolated town on the Western coast of Oahu, it has produced some of the most intriguing Hawaiians of the twentieth century: world-class surfers Buffalo Keaulana and his sons Rusty and Brian; beautiful skin diver and surfing pro Rell Sunn; and larger than life singer and songwriter Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. What connects them is a love for their culture, their people, and various kinds of water sports. Fierce Heart combines stories of exciting big wave surfing competitions, dramatic water rescues, deep friendships, and touching family portraits with a look at the history and origins of one of the world’s most thrilling extreme sports.

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About the Author:

STUART HOLMES COLEMAN moved to Hawaii in 1993 to teach, write, and surf. His essays and poems have appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, USA Today, The Atlanta Review, and The Honolulu Advertiser. He is the author of Eddie Would Go and lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

When Worlds Collide

 

The highest peak on O‘ahu, Mount Ka‘ala rises up like a god at the head of the Makaha and Wai‘anae Valleys and watches over the entire Westside. Ancient Hawaiian kahuna (priests) considered it one of the most sacred sites on the Island and built heiau (temples) at its base. They believed the mountain wore the golden robes of Kane, heavenly father of all living things, who was associated with the sun. Like the clouds that envelop Mount Ka‘ala, the history of the Wai‘anae Coast and its people is shrouded in myth and mystery.

 

Local legends say that Wakea, Sky Father, and Papa, Earth Mother, first mated on the coast of Makua, which means "parent." Their children were born in a womblike lava tube nearby called Kaneana. It was here that the Polynesian demigod Maui landed his canoe, learned to make fire, and gave the gift of light to the people. Farther down the coast at the northwestern corner of the island, Kaena Point juts out into the ocean like the long, rocky finger of Mount Ka‘ala, pointing toward the endless sea of eternity. Here the souls of the dead would leap from this world to the next. Though poor and isolated, this part of the Island offers rich mythical stories about the supernatural origins of life and the final destination beyond death.

 

At the base of Mount Ka‘ala and along the Wai‘anae Coast, there are the remains of old heiau. The people of the land once gathered at these stone temple sites to celebrate and make offerings to their gods: Kane, Ku, Lono, and Kanaloa. Wandering among these crumbling ruins, a boy like Richard "Buffalo" Keaulana probably wondered what solemn chants and ceremonies his ancestors had performed at these sacred sites. Touching the lava rocks must have sparked his imagination and given him a glimpse of Hawai‘i’s ancient past, before the arrival of the white men and their tall ships.

 

A pure Hawaiian, Buffalo came from a long line of leaders, including some of Hawai‘i’s great chiefs and ancient explorers. Like most Hawaiians, he revered his ancestors and probably felt like they were watching over him as ‘aumakua, spirits that could take the form of sharks, lizards, sea turtles, or any element of nature. Buffalo knew of kahuna who could recite genealogies going back to the gods and the first humans who walked this land. There were familiar stories from the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation story that traced their ancestry back to the origins of creation. The spirit of his ancestors was in the sea, the forests, and the mountains because they were all part of nature and eternally present. Though Buffalo grew up in an increasingly Westernized world, he never forgot the proud origins of his people.

 

According to the ancient chants in the Kumulipo, Wakea’s first child, Haloa (long stalk), was stillborn and buried in the earth. He returned in the form of taro, the sacred plant also known as kalo that became a central source of food in Hawai‘i. His brother was born soon after and also named Haloa. His mission was to nurture his brother, kalo, who would in turn provide nourishment for all their people. Like most Hawaiians, Buffalo grew up eating poi, the purple paste made from pounded kalo. This staple was part of their daily diet, and the stories of Haloa fed their spiritual hunger and love of the land.

 

These beliefs about their interdependence on nature also helped sustain Hawai‘i’s people for centuries, ever since the first Polynesian voyagers sailed here in their double- hulled canoes and settled the Islands more than twelve hundred years ago. As a boy, Buffalo would have heard stories about the legendary navigators who guided their canoes all the way across the Pacific. But staring at the seemingly endless sea, he must have wondered if these were just made- up stories, childhood myths. Only later in his life, Buffalo would sail on the Hokule‘a, a modern replica of these voyaging canoes, and retrace the journeys of his ancestors all the way back to Tahiti.

 

Living on the most isolated island chain on earth, ancient Hawaiians had to be innovative and completely self- sufficient to survive. The people in Wai‘anae had an even greater challenge in that they lived on the driest part of O‘ahu. To conserve their natural resources, they developed a sophisticated plan to divide the land into wedge- shaped districts called ahupua‘a that stretched from the mountains to the sea. Instead of having individual ownership, each district was communally managed by the ali‘i (chiefs). The people worked hard and played hard, and many of their activities revolved around the sea.

 

The name Wai‘anae may have originated from the fact that fishing became their main source of food, wai meaning "water" and ‘anae being the large mullet so abundant in the area. Besides being talented fishermen, the people on the Leeward Coast felt at home in the ocean and excelled at sailing, surfing, and paddling canoes. When the surf was up, almost all work came to a standstill as people rushed to the shore to ride the waves. The commoners generally rode shorter wooden boards on their stomachs, while the chiefs stood up to ride their long, heavy boards. During the Makahiki season, they held festivals on the beach. The chiefs would compete against each other, and people would gamble on who would win. A similar festival would later be resurrected in the form of the Makaha International Surfing Championship during the 1950s and ’60s, and Buffalo would become one of its early champions.

 

The past is interwoven into the present, and the Makahiki season is still celebrated today in Hawai‘i. Sponsored by Quiksilver, the annual Makahiki surf contest in Makaha features longboard surfing, canoe paddling, and tandem surfing, where couples perform balletlike poses while riding the waves. But the origin of the Makahiki season came from the fact that war was taboo from mid-October to January because it was prophesied that Lono would return during this time and bring peace. But when the season was over, old conflicts would often resume, and warriors would fight for control over the land and freshwater streams. The people developed their own form of martial art called lua, and bandits who lived in Makaha would swoop down from the hills to beat up and rob travelers along the coast. Theft would continue to be a serious issue on the Westside even in modern times, though later it was less about tribal conflicts and more about a lack of economic opportunities.

 

For centuries, Mount Ka‘ala and the Wai‘anae Mountains have served as a kind of defensive wall guarding the small Hawaiian villages of the Leeward Coast of O‘ahu. Cutting across the sky like the serrated edge of a stone spearhead, these mountains have kept the people of Wai‘anae isolated from the rest of the world, and its fierce warriors fought to maintain their independence. Yet this isolation could not last. "A gap in the Wai‘anae Range where one can cross over is called Kolekole Pass," writes Bob Krauss in Historic Wai‘anae, "because it was here that the warriors of Wahiawa (the other side) and those of Wai‘anae met in battles that left their flesh kolekole (raw) with wounds." One Wai‘anae kahuna prophesied that "big fish" would arrive one day in the form of foreigners and eat up the natives like little fish.

 

When the British ships under the command of Captain James Cook first sailed to Hawai‘i in 1778, the local fishermen thought that Cook was the god Lono returning for the Makahiki festival. Sailing, paddling, and swimming, thousands of natives greeted the three ships with a mixture of curiosity, fear, and awe. On the Big Island of Hawai‘i, they feted the visitors with huge feasts and gifts before they departed. Although there were several thousand kanaka maole (Native Hawaiians) living in Wai‘anae at the time, Cook and his officers passed them by, thinking the land was barren, rocky, and barely inhabited. In fact, there was a thriving local culture, where kalo and other crops grew in the mountains and fishponds flourished on the coast.

 

Later that year, the captain and his men returned to the Big Island after the Makahiki season was over. After trading and interacting with the foreigners, the chiefs no longer considered them benevolent gods or peaceful guests. When one of his small boats was stolen, Captain Cook ordered his men to take a local chief hostage until it was returned. A skirmish broke out, and the warriors killed Cook and four of his men on the beach. This event began the long and contentious relationship between Hawaiians and the endless waves of foreigners who would land upon their shores and gradually take over the Islands.

 

With the aid of Western guns and ships, a young chief named Kamehameha waged battles against his rivals on the Big Island, Maui, and O‘ahu. After driving the last warriors off the steep cliffs of the Nu‘uanu Pali, he conquered O‘ahu in 1795 and united the Islands. A great warrior and natural leader, Kamehameha became the first king of Hawai‘i, but none of his royal descendants would ever achieve the same level of power and leadership. Many of the conquered chiefs fled to the isolated area of Wai‘anae, where they formed a school at Poka‘i Bay to preserve the old ways. Their kahuna taught the history, culture, and chants of the ancient chiefs of O‘ahu, instilling in their students a sense of pride and a resistance to change. Growing up on the Westside, Hawaiian boys would inherit a fierce pride in their culture and a suspicion of outsiders.

 

During his reign, Kamehameha embraced the new technology, ideas, and goods of the West without sacrificing the independence or culture of the Hawaiian kingdom. But after he died, Ka‘ahu-manu, his favorite wife and royal regent of the Islands, gradually came under the increasing influence of Western advisors. After seeing that the foreigners had broken many of their traditional taboos without consequence, she and Kamehameha’s son Liholiho even commanded the kahuna to destroy the ancient temples. Six months later, in 1820, the first Protestant missionaries arrived, bringing with them a new God to fill the spiritual void.

 

The cultural and religious transformation of the Hawaiian people was compounded when Ka‘ahumanu converted to Christianity. She then dismissed most of the remaining kapu (taboos) and insisted that her people study the Bible. The people wavered between their traditional ways and beliefs and the new faith and rules of the foreigners, whom they called haoles, which literally means "no breath," because they seemed to lack the spirit of joy in their lives. Coming from such different worlds, these cultures continued to clash like waves against a rocky shore. And like their ancestors, the Hawaiians found comfort in the ocean, whether they were fishing, swimming, or surfing.

 

When the first Western sailors and traders arrived in the Islands and saw surfing for the first time, they marveled at the Hawaiians’ ability to "walk on water." But the missionaries were frightened and offended by the Hawaiians’ near nakedness. They condemned the "savage" sport and banned traditional practices such as the hula because they thought these acts led to promiscuity and depravity. Surfing and the hula suffered a serious decline for de cades and were looked down upon by the white establishment. Along with denigrating Hawai‘i’s culture and traditions, the haoles introduced deadly illnesses that would almost destroy its people.

 

Just as the Native Americans had been infected by foreign diseases, Hawaiians began to fall victim to the same kinds of mass epidemics. When this was coupled with a profound cultural and spiritual depression, their health as a people declined dramatically. Strong warriors succumbed to common diseases such as chicken pox and influenza, which struck them down in vast numbers. Because of their isolation from the rest of the world, they had no natural defenses to protect themselves from these foreign illnesses. Within forty years of Western contact, the Hawaiian population had gone from an estimated four hundred thousand to about forty thousand. Nine out of ten had died, and the rest were physically weak and spiritually broken. Most of their religious ser vices consisted of funerals, and survivors spent much of their time burying and mourning for the dead.

 

In the face of such devastation, Wai‘anae remained a fiercely in de pen dent region under the command of Chief Boki. A powerful Hawaiian leader, Boki distrusted the haole and resented their Western diseases, business practices, and alien beliefs. But he knew he would have to work with them to stay in power. Eventually, many Hawaiian families like the Keaulanas became dedicated Christians while also maintaining the spiritual beliefs of their ancestors.

 

Influenced by the haole merchants and traders, most of the local chiefs or ali‘i fell under the spell of alcohol and Western goods. The merchants in turn wanted the sweet- smelling sandalwood that was so abundant in Wai‘anae and highly sought after in the Orient. So the chiefs forced most of their followers to harvest as much sandalwood as possible to fuel their greed. Gradually, the taro fields grew fallow and the fishponds deteriorated, and the people began to starve. The chiefs continued their collaboration with the haole businessmen who decided that the land should be divided and sold in order to promote private ownership. The missionaries also supported this movement because they thought it would encourage Hawaiians to become small, in de pen dent farmers.

 

Starting in 1848, the king and the legislature enacted what came to be known as the "Great Mahele," which legalized landownership and divided the land into parcels. According to author Bob Krauss, the missionaries argued that "the Mahele provided that a commoner had only to file a claim in order to receive title to his kuleana, the parcel of land his family had worked for generations." But complicated legal procedures and title claims were used to intimidate the commoners from filling out the forms. Besides, the idea of buying and selling land was inconceivable to Hawaiians. They didn’t believe that humans could own any part of nature because the land was considered sacred, a gift to be shared by the community and preserved for their descendants. Coming from a communal way of life, they rejected the idea that land could be bought and sold or taken away from the people. They must have wondered if these foreigners would even try to claim the rights to the streams, the ocean, or even the sky.

 

Only a few commoners signed up for the land, and the ruling chiefs claimed the title to the rest. After Chief Boki passed away, his wife, Liliha, gave her claim to Makaha to High Chief Abner Paki, who continued Boki’s re sis tance against the ways of the Western missionaries. Like many ali‘i, Paki liked to surf, drink, and gamble, activities that were condemned by Ka‘ahumanu’s missionary advisors.

 

Encouraged by sea captains and traders who also resented the Puritanical influence of the religio...

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