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The Art of Healing

An early travel writing assignment for Hawaii Magazine about Hawaii’s healing arts – September/October 2006.

Hawaiian medicine depends on knowledge passed down from people and the land.

By Deston Nokes
Among the lesser-known island treasures are the healing arts and the Hawaiians who practice them. These kupuna (masters) of laau lapaau (medicinal herbs) are sought for their ability to diagnose and treat a variety of ailments: stomach aches, chest congestion, heart disease, diabetes, broken bones and even cancer.

Revered as national treasures, they only pass on their art to select, willing ears. Their medicine chest grows in Hawaii’s fields, seas, mountains and rain forests, and is cultivated in backyard herb gardens. Using what they gather, the healers believe they are working as a spiritual conduit of healing from a higher power.


On Molokai, I was given the honor of an audience with two kupunas of laau lapaau, Auntie Marie Kaui Kuuleionaona Place and Auntie Anita Naeole Arce. Following a protocol of introductions and prayer, Auntie Marie talked about her earliest memory of helping her mother gather laau (healing herbs, medicine).

“When I was five years old, my brother fell off a horse and broke his arm in three places,” Auntie Marie said. “My mother told me that I had to run and bring back a particular laau called hauowi [a weedy verbena]. I didn’t know what to look for and brought back the wrong one. ‘Listen!’ she said and pinched my ears. When I went back, I got the right medicine. Then she sent me back for some hinahina kahakai [a native plant of the waterleaf family]. My mother poked my forehead and said, ‘Keep everything in here. Learn. I pinched your ears because you didn’t listen.’

“She used (the medicine) for five days, every morning before sunrise and then before sunset. It healed the broken arm.”

Auntie Marie shared her knowledge with Auntie Anita when they were young women working the pineapple fields. “Auntie Marie told me that it works if you believe in God and do what you’re told,” Auntie Anita said. “She showed me how to treat colds and asthma. During the flu season, we clip the eucalyptus leaves and use them. It was easy to make the medicine.”

Auntie Anita Naeole Arce (left) and Auntie Marie Kaui Kuuleionaona Place are well-respected Hawaiian healers who use ancient techniques to help people recover from disease or injury.

Most herbs given are for cleansing the body. According to Auntie Anita, a lot of Western medicines develop toxins in the body; herbs cleanse the body.

“These herbs are a gift from God, but learning how to prepare them was a gift from Auntie Marie,” she said.

Today, both women often are called upon to help adults and children suffering from asthma, ear infections or congested chests. “We use popolo (black nightshade) for colds, placing it on the soft spot of a baby’s head,” Auntie Marie explained. “We chew uhaloa [a small native shrub] root to treat tonsillitis.”

I’m told that they have mended broken bones, including compound fractures, in a matter of days rather than months. Not only have both been honored for making significant contributions to the health of Hawaiians, but they have also worked with doctors at the University of Hawaii by teaching traditional medicine.

The aunties don’t charge for their help; rather, it’s a gift from their hearts. “If we teach people the laau, we help them learn to take care of themselves and their families,” Auntie Marie said. “The laau is the best thing because it’s free. So many Hawaiians are without insurance.”


Many doctors believe much can be learned from this healing art. Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli has known Auntie Marie for 20 years, and as a physician practicing on Molokai, he has worked with practitioners of laau lapaau.

“There were very few cancers in the older days,” Aluli said. “The diseases brought through colonization were new to the healers, and they didn’t know how to handle them.”

Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli (left), a modern physician practicing on Molokai, sees the benefits of old-time Hawaiian medicine practiced by healers such as Darrell Lapulapu (right).

“Missionaries and other westerners brought new diseases, and healers had no time to develop medicines to fight them,” Aluli said. “There were so many diseases that Hawaiians had no immunity from smallpox, leprosy, measles, gonorrhea; it’s a huge list. So what happened is the same thing that happened to many of our endangered species of plants and birds: They died.”

Aluli said that over time, Western missionaries and doctors established their authority and emphasized that Western medicine was better, therefore not acknowledging the Hawaiian practice and tradition of healing. “I think the issue today is to be more accepting of these practices in care management,” Aluli said.

But it’s not a matter of mixing the right concoction or taking the proper dosage. The traditional healing method in Hawaii seeks to treat the entire person — physical and spiritual — rather than just one symptom.


In interviews with healers on Molokai, Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island of Hawaii, there was a common emphasis that a core spiritual belief is essential to successful treatment. On Molokai, Auntie Marie said that before she treats anyone, she asks if they “believe in the Lord.”

Maco Kam, a massage therapist in Kapaa, Kauai, said she wouldn’t bother referring skeptics to a healer. “Prayer is an integral part of the laau,” she said. “Without the belief that it will work, it won’t.

“Of course, you have to believe in the first place,” Kam said. “I don’t care for it when people call, asking for medicine and ask me, ‘Are you sure it will work? Will it taste bad?’ Then, I just say that I’m too busy.”

Darrell Lapulapu, a relatively young healer at 47 on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast, studied under the late master of laau lapaau, Papa Henry Auwae, who passed away in 2001. “Papa’s belief in healing was that medicine is only 20 percent of the process and 80 percent is spiritual,” Lapulapu said.

In an interview given in the January 2000 issue of Alternative Therapies Journal, Papa Auwae explained the difference between Hawaiian and Western medicine: “What I do is to make the body strong enough so that the body can take care of the cancer,” he said. “You see, the medicine we give the body is not to fight cancer or fight heart problems. [These herbs help] the body get the strength to eliminate all of the diseases.

“We have certain herbs that we use for cancer, heart problems, diabetes or any other type of problem,” Papa Henry said. “But we [also] use prayer.”

Papa Henry had a long legacy of healing, having treated more than 12,000 people in his 97 years.

“My daughter, in her early 30s, had been bothered for many years by a knee injury,” said Auntie Jo Manaba, a student of Papa Henry and lifelong resident of Molokai who serves as a guardian to the kupuna. “Papa Henry felt her pulse and told her what to look for. With just the use of his hands, he determined she had a hairline fracture. After using laau, she felt relief.

“I don’t think there’s anyone left who could prescribe with the accuracy of Papa Henry,” she said. “He’s helped people with cancer who are alive today.”

“I have very clear sight,” Papa Henry said. “I can feel the body working, the blood pressure working. I can feel the blood flowing. I can tell how much oxygen is going up through the brain. Some call it ‘X-ray hands.’”

Growing up in Oahu, Lapulapu watched kupuna use laau and lomilomi massage.

“We were forced to massage our aunties and uncles,” Lapulapu recalled. “I hated doing it at the time, but they taught us how to do it properly. As I got older, I became more interested in the healing arts.”

Today, he works full-time as a staff acupuncturist, herbalist and massage therapist at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Kaupulehu on the Big Island.


In 1993, Lapulapu began his seven years of study under Papa Henry. “People traveled from all over the world to see Papa Henry,” he said.

Although Lapulapu didn’t get his ears pinched like Auntie Marie, he did have to undergo an unusual apprenticeship. About 1,000 people applied to learn from Papa Henry, and Lapulapu was among 75 who were accepted. It was a year-long process that weeded out all but 30 people.

“During that first year, Papa simply had us weave mats,” Lapulapu said. “It was just like the movie The Karate Kid, when the boy doesn’t understand why he’s washing cars. But Papa was watching us and listening.

“Papa had us cook, and he remembered which dish was prepared well. Food is like herbs. Their preparation has to be good. Papa remembered who brought good food and who brought bitter; he made me in charge of the food for graduation.”

In 1996, Papa Henry gave his blessing for Lapulapu to serve as the laau lapaau on the Makalii, the 52-foot voyaging canoe, for its maiden voyage to Tahiti.

Lapulapu explained that it took two years to reach the first level and be authorized to use laau lapaau. “The art is in the ability to discern the root of the problem, not just the symptoms,” Lapulapu said.

Over time, Lapulapu has developed “X-ray hands” of his own.

“I don’t always want to know what the symptoms are,” he said. “First, I want to observe the person’s vitality, their color, and appearance of the eyes and tongue. I can detect things through their smell and by feeling their pulse.”


Next, it was my turn. Taking my hand and feeling my pulse, I could sense Lapulapu counting my heartbeat, feeling my circulation. Next, he asked me to stick out my tongue. “I can see that you have an ailment in your spleen due to stress, and who brought bitter; he made me in charge of the food for graduation.”

He was right on all counts.

“Discerning the problems is like a meditation, slow, not fast,” he said. “It just comes. After doing so many of these, I can just feel. It’s working backward from the branches to the limbs, to the trunk, and down to the root of the problem.”

But like his teachers before him, Lapulapu said one has to look at a person’s spiritual side for healing to begin.

Although he is less concerned whether or not the patient is Christian, he stressed that the person seeking help must believe in a creator, be it a father, heaven or God.

“I believe they did a lot spiritually by just coming to see me, so I honor and respect them,” he said. “But when people want you to do all the work, that’s where I draw the line.”

Still, the protocol of prayer and sincere faith is integral to every facet of the healing arts. “When I come into a place to pick herbs or to heal, I chant a special prayer,” Lapulapu said. “Each preparation and each prayer are tailored for an individual patient — whether it’s a man or a woman, and for which purpose. For instance, I’ll kneel on the right knee for a man or left for a woman.”

Sometimes, gathering can be an involved process. There are thousands of herbs used in laau lapaau. Depending on their location, herbs can vary in potency. Some are difficult to obtain: To prepare a specific treatment for a cancer, the healer might have to mix alaea— a type of clay located seven fathoms (42 feet) under the sea — with a tiny plant that grows among the rocks on top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

Healing is more than just the physical, Lapulapu said. It’s also important to discuss the spiritual, such as what’s going on at a patient’s home, relationships and the things he or she doesn’t want to tell.

“Papa Henry said bad feelings and resentments could make you sick,” he said. “You need to work with people to find out why and what the problem is. For many, the problem is their stress or worries. Some have problems like jealousy that they don’t want to talk about.”

For some of those issues, other traditional Hawaiian healers play important roles. In addition to laau lapaau, there is lomilomi (massage) and hooponopono (the traditional art of dispute resolution). All have a solid spiritual and cultural foundation.

“After dealing with people for so long, you develop an intuition about what’s needed,” Lapulapu said. “Papa was good at that … he could hear what they were saying behind the words. I can still hear his voice through the laau.”

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Finding a healer is generally a word-of-mouth affair. Often, a practitioner of lomilomi massage can refer you to a healer. The healer quoted in this article, Darrell Lapulapu, recommended contacting Tutu’s House, a health information community resource center located in Kamuela on the Big Island, for more information about workshops and referrals: (808) 885-6777, www.tutushouse.org

Deston S. Nokes lives in Portland, Oregon. His mother, Audrey Nokes, lives in Kauai making angels and selling them to tourists. For information, log on to www.destonnokes.com


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