OK, maybe all of you already know this, but I was very impressed to find it out. I have been using the word ‘haoli’ – white guy, outsider – to describe myself when in Japan, Korea, or any Asian country. I was vaguely aware that it was slightly pejorative, but hell, I am as WASP-y as it gets, so why not? I understood that Captain Cook and his crew, when they landed in Hawaii, were so white that the natives thought they must be ghosts, dead, pale, and hence ’without breath’ – ha-ole. With the help of Trevor – the other white guy in this video, but a ‘naturalised’ Oahu-an – I came to a deeper understanding. Deep thanks to Trevor for taking me back into the hills to jungle waterfalls, as well as giving me a tutorial on Hawaiian native culture in the process.
In the video, we are performing the ‘Ha’, the ceremony of greeting, right downtown on Waikiki. As you can see, it involves getting up close and personal (far more than any New Englander would be comfortable) to share the breath. The original Brits didn’t do that – they shook hands, a very anaemic greeting by Hawaiian standards – so they were ‘without breath’ not in the sense of being dead, but not greeting people in a friendly way. Of course the truth of the term is lost to history, though I must say I prefer the second explanation.
The Hawaiian ‘ha’, of course, shows up in lots of words, most notably aloha and mahalo, connecting hello and thank you to the breath and the spirit. (Breath and spirit are also linked in our language: spirit / inspire / aspirate / conspiracy etc.) Interestingly, this also links to the popular Maori ceremony of the Haka, a breathy fierce chant well known to rugby players of the All Blacks. The links among the language and culture of the Hawaiians, Samoans, and Maori speaks volumes about the incredible watermen of the ancient Pacific, who somehow sailed accurately between the remote islands of that huge ocean. How did they do it?
In “The Last Navigator”, one reads of the experienced navigators in the prows of the huge seagoing canoes ‘reading’ the waves with enough precision to locate an island over the horizon. I am at least a knowledgable amateur in reading the sea, and I cannot conceive of the intimate knowledge required to do that. I am prepared to give Cook and the Europeans props for sailing around the world, but we need to give a ‘Ha!’ for the other peoples of the world, who make the history books only as footnotes, but whose intensely developed skills are largely unsung, and, I fear, rapidly being lost.