Reviewed by Brad Manker
Kapaemahu is a centuries-old traditional Hawaiian story (mo’olelo) based on “The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu,” first published in 1907. The legend tells of four extraordinary Tahitians who traveled to the island of Oahu and taught local people the art of healing. The tall, gentle visitors are māhū, or those whose minds, hearts, and spirits have both male and female qualities. Over a lunar month, the healers imbued their powers into four sacred stones and vanished. In time, Christian missionaries suppressed Hawaiian culture and persecuted the māhū; the rocks were buried and forgotten by many until recently. It is a tale that both denounces colonization and honors traditional Indigenous culture and viewpoints.
This picture book is based on an award-winning animated short film and the first picture book printed in Olelo Niihau, the Indigenous language of the island of Niihau. According to Wong-Kalu, this represents the only uninterrupted form of the Hawaiian language in communal use since before the arrival of foreigners. The story and illustrations are by an award-winning team of artists who have previously worked on films featuring Polynesian perspectives and LGBTQ+ topics. Sumptuous, warm visuals introduce readers to the fashion and culture of early Hawaii. Traditions of healing, inclusion, and aloha permeate the entire story. The author — by Western terminology, a transgender female — considers herself “māhū” and continues a long storytelling tradition with this picture book. By sharing, we can honor and respect māhū and perpetuate and preserve Hawaiian history.
Note: In the film, Wong-Kalu provides narration in Olelo Niihau with subtitles in English, and Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole sings traditional chants. Teachers can access teaching activities in both Olelo Hawaii and English here.
Brad Manker serves as a fellow with Teaching for Change. He is an educator, curriculum designer, and independent researcher with a background in elementary education.
Kapaemahu by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson
Published by Penguin on June 7, 2022
Genres: American Indians First Nations Metis Inuit, Asian American, Bilingual, Gentrification
Reading Level: Grade K, Grades 1-2
Review Source: Teaching for Change
Publisher's Synopsis: An Indigenous legend about how four extraordinary individuals of dual male and female spirit, or Mahu, brought healing arts from Tahiti to Hawaii, based on the Academy Award–contending short film.
In the 15th century, four Mahu sail from Tahiti to Hawaii and share their gifts of science and healing with the people of Waikiki. The islanders return this gift with a monument of four boulders in their honor, which the Mahu imbue with healing powers before disappearing. As time passes, foreigners inhabit the island and the once-sacred stones are forgotten until the 1960s. Though the true story of these stones was not fully recovered, the power of the Mahu still calls out to those who pass by them at Waikiki Beach today.
With illuminating words and stunning illustrations by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson, and Daniel Sousa, KAPAEMAHU is a monument to an Indigenous Hawaiian legend and a classic in the making.