Chant for O’ahu Birth Rocks

I did not capture your palace or steal your sunstruck gold.
I did not force your people’s spines to bend until they cracked in cane fields
or die with parched tongues and fever:

I came with parchment and messages of hope,
I came to love and be loved.
I came to plant a tiny garden,
and laugh while steaming laulaus…
I came to answer parrots and call to sparrows.
I asked for nothing but some time to talk story,
and learn the names of fish
and eat them in their own language.

When I moved to O‘ahu in the summer of 2004, I had one single week to find a place to live and get settled before I had to be on the Manoa campus for T.A. training. I had moved to Hawai‘i from San Diego to earn my MA in English courtesy of a full scholarship and job as a T.A. While packing and getting ready for another giant change in my life, I read everything I could find (applying my secret theory of randomness) about Native Hawaiian culture, the history of the island chain, myths and folklore, and current affairs. Several months earlier, before I was even sure I was going, I had subscribed to what was then the Honolulu Star-Bulletin–long distance–to keep an eye on events, jobs, rentals, and university news.

Given the urgency of my timeline, it may seem odd that one of the critical items on my To-Do list was to visit the historic Birth Stones at the island’s heart (near Wahiawa). A small item in my AAA Guide to places to see had mentioned this sacred spot, which at first seemed to me a jumble of rocks, at the end of a red dirt turn-off. In fact, when I first drove by in my rental car, I couldn’t believe I had found the right place. There were no monuments or large signs. Only a casual turn-out, that looked like the kind of place high school students could park and hang out.

I drove to the end of the path, and then found a sign introducing the “Kükaniloko Birthstones State Monument.” A circle of palm trees protected a jumble of variously sized rocks, seemingly rolled at random on a circle of more of the red soil. I didn’t understand. So I shut off my head, planted my feet firmly on the ground, and breathed there for a while, wanting to feel the sacred energy. I noticed that the spot seemed sheltered by its apparent secrecy, and the circle of palm trees. I noticed that protective mountains loomed at the horizon. And I noticed that little gifts and offerings were planted all over the rocks … everything from ripe pineapples to gift-wrapped boxes. I walked back and read the sign again. This was O‘ahu’s navel–the piko–what more appropriate place to cut the cord of infants whose ali‘i families used to live on this plateau? The line of the mountain ridge suggested the shape of a pregnant woman, lying supine, facing the sky.

Then I remembered reading (was it a novel? a folk tale?) that if you really wanted to “plant” yourself well on this island, you needed to leave an offering at the rocks. Instead of a physical birth, you were ensuring a psychic birth and safe growing in your new chosen home.

So while I would never be royalty, or have my birth witnessed by a circle of 36 chiefs standing guard at the stones, I could at least plant a bit of my spirit in the rich volcanic soil of my new home, and hope. I was wearing two strings of seed pearl bracelets, very dear to me because they were the first gift ever given to me in a place that at first was totally intent on taking. But to be a significant gift, I decided the giving had to hurt … not as much as birth pains, certainly, but pain I would always remember. I unhooked one string, curled it into a little ball of “seeds,” and planted them in a small, deep hole on one of the backrest stones.

Later I would learn more about this place. The fertile forest that had once made this plateau choice real estate back in the century between 1400 and 1500 A.D. was now gone. Women now give birth at Queen’s instead of crouching against rocks. Yet the mountain range, Wahine Häpai, has an astonishing correspondence with summer and winter solstices and spring and fall equinoxes. And many cultures treat an infant’s umbilical cord as a sacred object, planting it or retaining it in a culturally prescribed way. Even my West Indian ex-husband has a giant coconut tree that was planted as a seedling to guard his umbilical cord, when his mother gave birth to him in their mountain cabin (no electricity, no running water–and he walked barefoot to school whenever he could escape the banana fields).


Is it surprising that medical researchers are now finding miraculous properties in the stem cells of umbilical cords? And there are now places to “bank” these cords for future preservation? Everything old is new again?

I also read that you could learn if O‘ahu has accepted you if your offering is taken. The next year I went back with Colin to see if I had been “planted” successfully. Colin was lucky enough to be born on O‘ahu, yet he had never heard of this tradition, nor of the birth stones, although he was the person who taught me most of what I know about Hawaiian life, from favorite recipes to the habits of reef fish. (Colin also taught me how to win in a battle against a shark, having encountered quite a few while free diving and spearfishing–although I seem to encounter more of the human variety.)

We checked every upstanding rock, just to be 100% sure, and my seed pearls were gone. Of course some people will say that kids living in nearby towns could have come by for interesting pickings … and some people will say that the menehune took them! No matter. What is important is that my offering “took,” and I have been accepted by O‘ahu. That day we left another offering to celebrate our engagement, and I haven’t been back since.

Here’s a chant, courtesy of a brochure by the State of Hawai‘i (in English…my apologies for knowing so little Hawaiian), that commemorates the first royal infant born at Kükaniloko:

Kapawa, the chief of Waialua,
Was born at Kükaniloko;
Wahiawä the site;
At Lihu‘e the placenta,
At Ka‘ala the navel cord,
At Kapukapuäka (heiau) the caul,
(Heiau) of Kaiaka at Mäeaea;
A chiefly child of Waialua, O‘ahu.

Colin and I had planned to have a child, a chiefly child, and I was disappointed to realize how impossible it would be to deliver a baby in that sacred spot today. But I still think of those rocks often, and sometimes I tell people about them. I like the fact that the place isn’t hugely developed or overwhelmed by paved parking and souvenir stands. I want it to stay just as it is, stones and trees and soil.

Editorial Note: I have begun to question how strong my psychic roots are after all. First Colin died of a rare form of Multiple Sclerosis and I lost the love of my life, my home, my savings, and my opportunity to complete my thesis. Then I required three surgeries to deal with an on-going health issue, and my employers were not at all kind about whether I lived or died. Then three people I trusted broke their promises to me, and I have lost my home once again…and freelance work isn’t covering my bills so I am about to lose every precious item I own–my books, my art, my family furniture, my cookware–in an auction of my storage locker because I need another operation and I am behind on fees. I had believed those tiny pearls would germinate into a giant tree of unity by now. Was I wrong about everything, including moving to O’ahu 15 years ago?

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