Naka Nathaniel: Hawaiian Kupuna Are Repairing The Break In Generational Knowledge - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

It took teachers two generations, but keiki now have more opportunities to practice their culture.

At the state outrigger paddling championship races in Hilo Bay on Saturday, there was one last lesson for young paddlers to learn before they returned to school.

During the summer-long regatta season, lessons were learned about the value of effort, teamwork and sportsmanship, but the most worthwhile lesson might have been the one Keoni Turalde had been teaching young paddlers.

It was a skill that had little to do with moving a massive koa canoe around a race course. It was making paiai, undiluted poi.

On most Saturdays this summer, Turalde, 66, set up a tent near the Hilo Bay race course and brought out his stone poi pounders, his long pounding boards and steamed chunks of kalo (taro) and, for free, taught kids how to make the most fundamental of Hawaiian foods.

Turalde caught folks from around Hawaii island and the kids from each canoe club passing by.

“When the kids see the pounding, they stop quickly, and they look — even the parents and the older adults, because they’re happy to see that we were making poi,” he said.

Kids would wait in line for a spot on the benches to open and then they’d start to mash the kalo with a pounder. Turalde would come by and throw a little water onto the boards and the kids would pound and turn the kalo until it was a soft mashable paste.

Turalde would then scrape the paiai into a Ziplock baggie. The sight of kids sucking on the corners of the plastic baggies would only lead more kids to Turalde’s tent.

“And that’s how everybody catch on, ‘Hey, whatcha sucking on?’” said Turalde. “Then more kids would come back over and over and when other kids saw them, they wanted to do it too.”

Young paddlers from Kai Ehitu from Kailua-Kona work their pounders to create pa'i'ai. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)
Young paddlers from the Kai Ehitu team from Kailua-Kona work their pounders to create paiai. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

Mariko, a young paddler from Hui Nalu, came from Oahu to race in Hilo. While she didn’t have a medal hung around her neck, she had something possibly more valuable in her hand, a baggie full of paiai that she’d pounded with Turalde’s help.

It was the first time she had pounded kalo and all she had to do was nip the plastic corner and enjoy her new found knowledge.

Turalde is a renowned pahu (drum) maker from Keaukaha and his prized instruments have been used on the stages of the Merrie Monarch hula competition.

He has been teaching workshops for decades and has helped repair the break in the transfer of traditional Hawaiian generational knowledge in the 19th and 20th century.

Not only was the Hawaiian language nearly extinct, but also many of the skills and traditional practices.

Turalde is one of five kupuna from Hawaii island highlighted in “Hometown Legends” co-directed by Kolby Akamu Moser. In the film, Moser told the kupuna’s stories through the lens of a younger person and Turlade’s story was told through the lens of his son, Leomana. 

Moser said she expected the film to resonate with middle-aged audiences, since they had seen grandparents and older relatives practicing the skills she highlighted in the film like weaving, fishing and paddling. She said she was surprised to see the biggest interest has been with the younger generations.

“There’s just this youthful energy around the film, which is unexpected and really nice to see,” Moser said. “It’s these young kids, these teenagers or young adults, that are the ones who are staying to the end and asking questions and then going out and doing their own research and going down and talking to Uncle Keoni and all these legends.”

Turalde's family paddles for the Puna Canoe Club and he was one of the youngest paddlers to complete the Moloka'i Hoe (the canoe race from Moloka'i-to-O'ahu). (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)
Turalde’s family paddles for the Puna Canoe Club and he was one of the youngest paddlers to complete the Molokai Hoe, the canoe race from Molokai to Oahu. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

A similar kumu-haumana (teacher-student) structure was used in the “Ola ka No’eau: Excellence in Hawaiian Artistry” exhibition at Bishop Museum (on display through October) to demonstrate kapa-making, weaving and carving. 

Marques Hanalei Marzan, Bishop Museum’s cultural adviser and exhibition curator, said that 50 years ago at the start of the Hawaiian Renaissance, there was a desperation to preserve traditional practices and individuals were trying to learn as much as possible.

But now that the past two generations have had the ability to be raised with Hawaiian language, Marzan said young Hawaiians can find what really intrigues and inspires them. And that’s the practice he and several others are trying to reinforce in the community.

“People don’t have to learn everything just to keep it alive,” he said.

It’s wonderful to see kumus and kupunas being revered by younger generations for their talents and knowledge.

“I don’t think I would’ve been even that interested when I was a kid in high school to listen to these legends, these kupuna speak, but it’s just cool to see how these kids are reacting,” said Moser. 

Even her father, who is in his 60s, is still unsure why there’s this current interest in her film and Hawaiian culture. She recalled how he used to feel embarrassed to be Hawaiian, and how he wanted to be American.

Now, Moser said her father is wondering, “Why is it so cool?” to be Hawaiian. “But for the next generation, that is normal to them,” she said.

As summer comes to an end and school starts, it’s remarkable that young people have the opportunity to learn lessons and skills from kumu like Turalde.

Turalde’s generation didn’t have the same opportunities to learn how to carve, weave and speak Hawaiian. That the older generation of kupuna are being celebrated and revered by a younger generation is incredibly heartening and encouraging. 

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Keoni is a blessing to Hawaii with his Aloha to all. In your pictures I see that the kids willing to step up to the poi boards are the na ha-ole.

kealoha1938 · 1 month ago

Superb article. And technology expands such learning beyond Hawai'i and for people of all heritages and ages. For example, this past school year, Windward Community College's Ka'ohekani Hawaiian Music Certificate Program conducted via Zoom had students from four islands and from Washington state, California, and Vermont. Obviously the students were older, ranging in age from early 20's to late 70's, learning 'ukulele, slack key, language, culture, Hawaiian music history, music theory, and digital recording. And this is probably just one of many learning opportunities.

irwinhill · 1 month ago

Reversing the denationalization and Americanization of the Hawaiian nation requires the will of the people, young and old.

AHawaiianMan · 1 month ago

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