In September I attended a conference in Waikiki during which I met one of the most unique people that I have ever come across. I was standing in the hotel ballroom, just like any hotel ballroom in the world, listening to the opening remarks marking the start of the conference when I noticed a shuffling in the back. I turned around to see who had entered late and was met with a visage of Hawaii’s past, a modern day Hawaiian medicine man.
Tom Pohaku Stone and his assistant led the very confused audience through a traditional prayer, surprising and even shocking some of the conferees. After he had finished and was walking out the door, I stopped him and asked if I could chat with him for a few minutes. He graciously acquiesced and I was thrilled for a rare opportunity to chat with a traditional Hawaiian shaman.
The first thing Tom did was set me straight, he preferred to call himself a waterman and a native teacher. I also learned that Tom has had a fascinating life. He holds advanced degrees in Pacific Island Studies and American Studies and has dedicated his life to bringing back to life Hawaiian traditions almost lost to the waves of time.
Tom told me how he had grown up frustrated that native Hawaiian ways had been almost lost and that modern society made those with Hawaiian heritage feel like second class citizens. He said that over time the powers-that-be had labeled traditional ways as ignorant, which had a devastating effect on native Hawaiians.
Through education, Tom was able to restore pride in his Hawaiian heritage for himself and through his work he hopes to do the same for others. His mission is broader than that though, Tom wants to educate everyone, regardless of their origin, about the proud and vibrant native Hawaiian culture.
On a daily basis, Tom lives this credo through a business of handcrafting wooden surfboards and Hawaiian sleds. I had never before heard of the sled, otherwise known as a Papaholua, and was a little surprised at what I learned. As it turns out, it’s a luge-like sled that people use to sled down not ice or snow, but rocks. Yup, he sleds down steep, volcanic rock hills at breakneck speed. It’s not for the faint of heart or untrained, Tom said a few months before he had a massive accident causing significant damage to his face and over the years has broken many bones. Not exactly like taking a toboggan down the local hill.
As it turns out, the sled is but one of many examples of the extreme way in which Tom lives his life. He was not only the first person in modern times to construct an authentic, old-style wooden long board, but he also used it to make journeys from Moloka’i to Waikiki, Moloka’i to O’ahu and O’ahu to Kaua’i. I don’t know about you, but the concept of solo paddling 120 miles in open ocean is practically incomprehensible to me.
Five years ago Pohaku and his associate Pake Ah Mow established Kanalu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education, ocean awareness and safety. Through this balance of riding, teaching and craftsmanship, Pohaku says he has found peace within himself and a sense of pride in his culture. Part of the teaching involved with this nonprofit is offering tourists and Hawaiians alike the opportunity to participate in more traditional Hawaiian experiences.
You can work directly with Tom in setting up an experience, whether it be a traditional luau in a friends’ home or trekking around the islands finding sites of importance to native Hawaiians long lost to modern guidebooks. In a state that can sometimes get lost in its commercialism, Tom’s experiences offer a welcome introduction into what it really means to be Hawaiian.
We wrapped up our talk with a firm handshake and half hug. I walked away thinking how valuable the conversation had been; not just for learning more about this amazing man, but for the lessons he taught me without even trying. I had been in Hawaii for several days and he was right, I had accepted what I had been led into believing was “traditional” or really Hawaiian. From that moment on, I promised myself to stop doing a disservice to the islands I had grown to love in only a few days and peel back the layers to find what really lie beneath.
Of course, that was one of the best decisions I have ever made.