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Hawaii's spirit of aloha helps restore a wildfire-damaged community

Giant letters spell "ALOHA" at a hotel on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Native Hawaiians say that the aloha spirit is unique and that it's helping them recover from the recent wildfires.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Giant letters spell "ALOHA" at a hotel on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Native Hawaiians say that the aloha spirit is unique and that it's helping them recover from the recent wildfires.

LAHAINA, Hawaii — It has been more than a month since wildfires swept across the historic city of Lahaina, but from the ashes of the disaster, the traditional spirit of aloha has given rise to a new spirit.

Native Hawaiians say they are not surprised to see neighbors, friends and families helping each other in the aftermath of the tragic fires — the deadliest in modern U.S. history — that have killed at least 97.

Aloha is perhaps one of the most recognized and used words in the world, even outside Hawaii — many businesses use it in their branding, goods and services.

"We see it on signage everywhere. We see it spoken all over the place," says Aleah Gomes Makuakāne, the culture and community engagement director at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center (MACC). "They used it as a marketing technique, a marketing tactic to really draw tourism here."

But there is more to the meaning of aloha, says Gomes Makuakāne.

Aleah Gomes Makuakāne is the culture and community engagement director at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Her husband was born and raised in western Maui.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Aleah Gomes Makuakāne is the culture and community engagement director at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Her husband was born and raised in western Maui.

After a natural disaster, community members tend to help each other, but people here say the aloha intent is what sets Hawaii apart — the spirit to help one another all the time, not only when disaster strikes.

Gomes Makuakāne grabs her purse and takes out a piece of paper. She shares a quote from Pilahi Paki, a trusted Native Hawaiian artist who inspired many with her work, especially her documentation and interpretation of the word "aloha."

"'The world will turn to Hawaiʻi as they search for peace because Hawaiʻi has the key; and that key is ALOHA,'" reads Gomes Makuakāne, getting emotional. She says that people on the island of Maui are looking for comfort, connection and some sense of peace right now.

For Native Hawaiians, that deeper intent of aloha in the aftermath of the deadly wildfires illuminates the community-led response to disaster recovery.

Kaliko Kaauamo is a Hawaiian-language advocate and curriculum designer at the MACC. When asked what aloha looks like, she quickly paints a vivid picture.

"Aloha is the guy whose home burned down, who has no clothes, finds his slippers, puts them on and immediately finds someone else to help without expecting anything in return," Kaauamo said.

Kaauamo and her husband lost co-workers, former students and a close relative in the fire. She says she feels lucky to have a home, and she opened it to family and friends who lost everything in the inferno last month.

Kaliko Kaauamo is a Hawaiian-language advocate and the lead curriculum designer at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Kaliko Kaauamo is a Hawaiian-language advocate and the lead curriculum designer at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

"At one point, we had about 16 people sheltering in our home for several weeks," she says. Right now, they all have found temporary housing, "but when that's not an option, our home will be ready for them." She adds, "Our Hawaiian community consistently helped with meals, bedding, clothing, toiletries." She says that people brought those items to her door just by word of mouth and that many families experienced the same.

Sitting in a ballet studio at the MACC, Kilihune Ka'aihue, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and educator who focuses on wellness, says she has lived on Maui for more than 25 years. Both sides of her family came from Lahaina, as did the paternal side of her husband's family. "Our roots go deep in Lahaina, and we are all hurting for Lahaina," she says.

"The word 'aloha' is a philosophy. It's an appreciation," says the mother of three. "It's an emotional attachment that we are born and raised with."

She adds, "Aloha is not always what you see in the tourism industry of pretty flowers, paradise, sunsets and mai tais," she says, referring to the popular island drink.

Kilihune Ka'aihue is a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and educator who focuses on wellness at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Her family is sheltering a family of seven and its two dogs since the fire in Lahaina.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Kilihune Ka'aihue is a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and educator who focuses on wellness at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Her family is sheltering a family of seven and its two dogs since the fire in Lahaina.

"Aloha means to listen to what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable." It's a mindset, says Ka'aihue.

Kaauamo nods and chimes in: "Aloha is not just about love and light. It's also about honoring the opposite" — loss and pain.

The meaning of aloha is layered, she says. "We are the land, the ocean — and the land and the ocean is us. There is no distinction or separation." Aligning her hands one behind the other to show unity, she adds, "If our ocean is polluted, we are too. It's one and the same."

"If we look at our history as Hawaiian peoples, we've been here before — we've had devastations, we've had tragedies." Through volcanic eruptions, fires and land grabs, says Kaauamo, "aloha always shows up. It shows up in how our community rebuilds but also in how ugly our chiefs may have handled things, how they've ruled."

Fighting to reclaim the true meaning of aloha

For many Native Hawaiians, the fear over land grabs is deeply rooted in their history, dating at least to the 19th century, when the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown for financial and political benefit by American and other foreign interests, says Noelani Arista, a Native Hawaiian and an associate professor in the history and classical studies department at McGill University in Montreal, as well as chairperson of the university's Indigenous Studies Program. She was previously at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Arista says the Hawaiian-language textual archive is the largest Indigenous archive in North America (including Canada and the United States), as well as the Polynesian Pacific, and some of it is feared to have been lost in the fires in Lahaina. For example, "we lost the Baldwin Home, Lahaina's oldest building and a repository of historical records," she says.

The Baldwin Home — seen here in 1967 — was built in 1834 and was the oldest house on Maui. It was destroyed during the wildfires last month.
Archive Photos / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The Baldwin Home — seen here in 1967 — was built in 1834 and was the oldest house on Maui. It was destroyed during the wildfires last month.

"Hawaii is aloha" — that's how people around the world see it, Arista says. "But commercially, it's been detrimental to our people. It's a form of paradise that is a form of colonialism for us."

However, Arista adds, the high profile of Hawaiian culture, even if misunderstood, means that "Hawaiian or Hawaii concepts or practices — hula, aloha, ohana — are circulating globally. [It means] our issues are also in the forefront," and the islands and even towns like Lahaina are not foreign to people.

Several years ago, Arista started an experiment that ended up as a Facebook archive of the Hawaiian language — she called it 365 Days of Aloha. For several years, every day she posted a word connected to the concept of aloha, she said. "The response was overwhelmingly positive." The archive has more than 3,000 followers.

"I was getting a little concerned that people in my community were thinking that aloha is something that is used as an advertisement to sell Hawaii to tourists." Native Hawaiians, she says, felt upset.

"That word 'aloha' has no meaning anymore. It doesn't belong to us. It's been completely overtaken," Native Hawaiians would tell her, she says.

Arista's goal with the Facebook archive was to help people understand the deeper meaning of Hawaiian words, including aloha, and to reclaim it for her community, often through chants and songs. "The intimacies expressed between Hawaiian people and the land, the seas, the waters, the winds and rains we have in every part of the island were getting lost."

"Aloha is not coercive. It's not ideological. It's not rule bound. It's not governing," Arista says. In the case of the Lahaina wildfires, aloha "illustrates a form of sovereignty — people could take care of each other."

Two women embrace and cry as they look out over a burned area of Lahaina on Aug. 22.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Two women embrace and cry as they look out over a burned area of Lahaina on Aug. 22.

That sovereignty, she says, is generational.

Confusion, chaos and no aloha from the official fire response

Arica Lynn Souza's family home was in the Kahoma Village section of Lahaina — it burned to the ground on Aug. 8.

"I escaped with my two babies, my two dogs and a diaper bag," says 34-year-old Lynn Souza, a science teacher at Lahainaluna High School. She and her husband got separated in the chaos. She says her husband watched their home burn and frantically tried to call Lynn Souza — unfortunately without luck, because there was no cell signal. They were reunited two days later, and they are now sheltering with family.

"All the help was from my friends and my family," Lynn Souza says. "The only reason why we're able to have clothes on our back and everything else is from my friends."

She's mourning the loss of her community. "We're all family. We have all our birthday parties together. Every Friday night, we have dinner together," she says, speaking in the present tense. "There is this kind of aloha feeling within our community and with each other." She describes it as "being there when something happens, when someone is in need. I think that's what makes Lahaina so special."

Lynn Souza can't say the same about the official response. "I unfortunately have not felt much aloha from the local government and even from the federal government." She says she has not seen evidence of the $95 million that the Biden administration has pledged to help the electric company in Lahaina. "I was trapped on a street because an electric pole was down. The electric company nearly killed us. It doesn't feel right," she says, with her voice trailing off.

Though Lahaina and Maui are going through traumatic times right now, over and over people said this tragedy can also be seen as time forhulihia, which means to turn, to change, to start anew in Hawaiian language.

A scene of destruction from the wildfire in Lahaina on Aug. 22.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A scene of destruction from the wildfire in Lahaina on Aug. 22.

"We are at that turning point right now," says Kaauamo, the Hawaiian-language advocate with the MACC, "to change the branding of aloha from this commercialized version." It's an opportunity to embrace the real meaning of aloha, she says. "It's being a very conscious human being who lives with the right intention to help others, the land, the ocean."

Ka'aihue, the MACC educator, says people in Maui are supporting one another through their pain and uncertainty with an aloha intent right now. "We have an opportunity through the way that aloha is being shared and expressed and seen during these difficult times on Maui, to really show the true meaning of what that is and what it looks like."

Ka'aihue says that in the aftermath of the fires, "the life and the spirit of aloha is really what is driving this healing force for everybody impacted, as well as keeping everyone focused and grounded and really, truly on the same journey, allowing everyone to heal at their own pace with that aloha at that heart of this devastation."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marisa Peñaloza
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.
Claire Harbage