First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a second year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. In 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 and 13 new fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations.
2021 LUCE INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE FELLOW: HINALEIMOANA WONG-KALU
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, “Kumu Hina,” is a Native Hawaiian transgender woman born and raised in the Nu’uanu District of O’ahu. She came of age during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, a time of renewed interest in Hawaiian language, culture, music, and art. This movement sparked Wong-Kalu’s passion for preserving her traditions, specifically the art of storytelling and dance.
“It is the wisdom perpetuated in the traditions of hula (dance), oli (chant), and mele (song) that inspires me the most,” says Wong-Kalu. “I use this knowledge in pursuit of wellness in our islands and in alignment with the true meaning of aloha: love, honor, that intimates respect for all.”
Today, she is a teacher, cultural practitioner, and community leader promoting the Kanaka (Hawaiian) language, philosophy, and traditions of her people across diverse educational, political, and media landscapes. She is also an accomplished filmmaker who uses digital media as a modern extension of Hawaii’s ancient storytelling traditions.
In 2014, Wong-Kalu served as an educational advisor for the award-winning films “Kumu Hina” and “A Place in the Middle.” She also produced the PBS/ARTE feature documentary “Leitis in Waiting” and the award-winning short “Lady Eva.”
Most recently, she co-produced and co-directed the animated short “Kapaemahu” with Dean Hammer and Joe Wilson, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and appeared on the Oscar shortlist for “Best Animated Short Film.”
“We might see and hear our language here and there in very tokenized ways – like on road signs and all-too-often business signs capitalizing on appropriated Hawaiian words, but we don’t have news broadcasts or major T.V. programming,” says Wong-Kalu. “I hope these film projects will help inspire and uplift people to see and hear our language in something mainstream.”
Healing stones and the māhū
Wong-Kalu’s award-winning and groundbreaking films center on the long-hidden history of four healing stones ─ still located on Waikīkī Beach ─ and their relationship to the māhū or “the in-between.”
The term māhū describes a person who embodies duality of spirit, both male and female elements within the mind, heart, and spirit, resulting in a different level of balance. Pre-Western contact Kanaka (Native Hawaiians) lived in aloha, in harmony with the land and one another. Traditionally, Māhū were accepted, respected, and honored in Native Hawaiian culture and were not the cause of dissension, disparity, and negative discourse.
“The māhū are four healers of dual male and female spirit,” says Wong-Kalu. “They brought the healing arts from Tahiti to Hawaii long ago and used their spiritual power to treat illness and disease.”
But when Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the early 19th century, they were shocked by the commonplace of Māhū and denounced them as evil. They colonized the Kanaka and taught that māhū people were immoral and sinners. Ultimately, missionary colonizers silenced oral histories about the māhū, along with many other elements of Kanaka life and the word māhū devolved into a pejorative or insult.
Wong-Kalu believes film and digital media have the potential to reclaim and decolonize these oral stories. Over the years, she has used these mediums to revitalize traditional stories about the māhū and reach a wider audience.
Putting the fellowship to work
During the fellowship period, Wong-Kalu launched the Kumu Hina project, a film-based community educational campaign for gender diversity and inclusion rooted in Hawaiian culture.
She also co-curated “The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu,” a digital exhibit that traces the history of the four māhū, presented in both English and ʻōlelo Niʻihau. The exhibit, which includes a combination of animation, archival materials, and expert interviews, is on display at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, through October 2022.
Additionally, Wong-Kalu also wrote a children’s book about the four māhū, “Kapaemahu.” The book was published by Penguin Random House in June 2022.
As a filmmaker and newly published author, Wong-Kalu strives to make Native Hawaiian language and culture more visible. She observes that Native Hawaiian people and their culture are often diminished and devalued in the state of Hawaii. Wong-Kalu is determined to change this narrative.
A devoted teacher
Wong-Kalu has spent a lifetime preserving and perpetuating Native Hawaiian language and culture through song, dance, and storytelling at both the community and political levels. She was a founding member and outreach director of Kulia Na Mamo, a Native Hawaiian transgender health organization.
She also served as the cultural director at Halau Lokahi, a public charter school that taught Kanaka youth about Hawaiian language and culture. As an educator, she uses song, dance, and storytelling to educate and inspire her students. “I saw firsthand how artistic expression could help instill cultural wisdom and pride in our young people.”
Grateful for the fellowship of others
Wong-Kalu accomplished many personal and professional goals with the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. It provided her with the time and funding to preserve, perpetuate, and promulgate the cultural legacy of Kanaka and along with this the understanding of Māhū as commonplace in Hawaiian society.
The writer and filmmaker hopes this fellowship continues for years to come. “It enables us to do good work in our communities. It gives us confidence and reassurance, and allows us to push ourselves further than we imagined.”
The fellowship strives to bring Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers from all over the country together to support and learn from one another, as some feel isolated within their communities. Wong-Kalu says she would have “crashed” without the fellowship, which gave her the emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial stability to accomplish her goals.
“I truly appreciate interacting with other Natives,” say Wong-Kalu. “We are very similar, yet we are also very different. It’s good to see how other Natives view and interact with the world. It gives us a greater resolve, knowing we are not the only ones out there.”