By Rasa Fournier
Walk past leafy naupaka bushes, hearty laua‘e ferns and into Lanikuhonua—“Where Heaven Meets Earth.” A soft lawn connects two small huts nestled in tropical foliage to a low rock wall fronting a crystal lagoon. Just near the wall, under gently swaying coconut fronds, is Aunty Nettie, attractive in her red mu‘umu‘u patterned with white hibiscus, a red flower in her pulled-back hair. “Welcome,” she smiles.
The scene is like something from a Hawaiian storybook, but then much of her life is an enchanted tale, sprinkled with special memories of Ko Olina. Growing up, her family lived in town. “We started coming out to Ko Olina in the ’50s,” Nettie recalls. “Kamokila became like a hanai (adoptive) grandmother.”
Nettie refers to Alice Kamokila Campbell, who, shirking convention, moved to O‘ahu’s secluded southwesterly shore in the 1930s. The onetime fishing village had no trees, no grass, limited fresh water, and no soil. Alice’s father, the famed James Campbell, changed all that, helping her create the Eden she named Lanikuhonua.
Nettie’s mother—a kahu, or spiritual adviser—had befriended Mrs. Campbell, and through that relationship Nettie’s family had their own protected enclave away from public censure. “Being Hawaiian wasn’t fashionable when I was growing up,” says Nettie. “I was very fortunate. As a kahu, my mother retained the language, the art and the crafts—the culture and rituals.
“Oh look!” A honu, or sea turtle, captures Nettie’s attention as it glides to the surface of the lagoon. Looking toward the sea, brings up thoughts of her father. “My dad was the original Indiana Jones,” she laughs. “He made us do crazy things. He’d wake us in the morning and tell us we’re going to go holo holo, which meant down to the ocean. We’d go fishing and he had a rice ball for each of us, that’s it. ‘If you’re hungry you’re going to have to catch it, clean it and cook it.’ We’d dive in and hook the nets on rocks. It was wonderful.”
Her dad was known as fun and friendly, and mom was strict. When her mother passed, Nettie would inherit her position as kahu. The initiation was nothing short of magical. Years of learning culminated in a private ceremony: “My mother took me with two kahunas and my aunt. The tide was out and we were at these little ponds in the rocks. It was after I became a woman. I was naked and they bathed me in the moonlight.”
Now 70, and residing on the outskirts of O‘ahu’s fast-growing “second city” of Kapolei, Aunty’s days are devoted to weddings, baby blessings and the blessing of new houses and businesses. Her lovely hideaway, Lanikuhonua, is a cultural refuge where kupuna, the respected elders, teach a variety of Hawaiian arts from singing, hula and music to knowledge about medicine plants and Hawai‘i’s other natural resources.
On this day, the mother of three, grandmother of four, is preparing to receive a ho‘okupu, or gift, for her services as kahu. “I blessed a baby and they want me to come and get my ho‘okupu. The last time they did this, it was a Pomeranian. I have this feeling it’s another four-legged ho‘okupu.” Can’t she in turn give it to her grandchildren?
“It’s one of these odd situations—you cannot turn down a ho‘okupu but neither can you give it away.” The jovial kahu and her husband of 50 years just may have a new addition to their storybook home.