Woman with red shirt picking from a tree
Healing by Nature

A traditional Hawaiian health practice taught for generations reawakens a sense of connection to land, body, and soul.

Text By
Matthew Dekneef
Images By
Meagan Suzuki

On a wooden bench at the Lyon Arboretum in Mānoa Valley, beneath the canopy of an ‘ulu tree, Emmalani Makepa-Foley-Wong sets up her materials: two nīoi fruit, ‘ōlena rhizomes, verdant blades of kīhāpai and oliwakū, and a noni leaf that is the shape of a heart.

“All plants have a purpose,” she says, her hands held over the spread of foliage. Emmalani, a lā‘au lapa‘au practitioner formally trained in this plant-based Hawaiian healing tradition, prepares to pule, or pray, over these species, which are commonly used in the practice. “People who live in Hawai‘i especially should know what our plants are and what to use them for,” she says.

Within the 200-acre grounds of the arboretum, there are two areas—the ethnobotanical garden and lā‘au lapa‘au garden—dedicated to illuminating the healing properties of endemic and naturalized plants for guests. Flourishing near where Emmalani sits is the lā‘au lapa‘au garden, where a māmaki shrub, whose muted-green leaflets can be brewed into a calming tea to regulate diabetes and high blood pressure, is found. Next to it, flowers blossom on an ‘awapuhi kuahiwi, the gel of which can be used as both a hair and skin conditioner. When Emmalani refers to these lā‘au plants, she calls them “warriors in healing.”

The garden is special to Emmalani, who was first brought here by her late kumu, Levon Ohai, a seventh generation lā‘au lapa‘au healer from Kaua‘i and a professor at the University of Hawai‘i. After graduating from University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa with a degree in Hawaiian studies, Emmalani was hired as Lyon Arboretum’s first cultural educator, tasked with the job of implementing visitor programs that drew deeper connections between the plants thriving there and Hawaiian culture. In this sense, the arboretum is a living, breathing classroom.

Lā‘au lapa‘au, the practice of using medicinal materials found in nature for healing, has roots that reach back centuries. In the Kumulipo, a bedrock Hawaiian genealogy chant, healers are mentioned by name, alongside the students they taught. Not so unlike today’s diverse medical field, throughout precontact Hawai‘i, there were kāhuna lapa‘au (expert healers or priests) whose practices and specialties ranged from treating the ailments of children to addressing malevolent illnesses tied to sorcery. Lā‘au lapa‘au fell under an ancient order of kāhuna hāhā, healers who diagnosed patients by touch (hāhā is the word for “grope”). This class was distinguished from other healing practices, according to literature by 19th century historian Samuel Kamakau, by its use of visual-aids and hands-on teaching, most notably the papa ‘ili‘ili, a life-size diagram of a person created with pebbles placed on the ground. Primary references like this serve “as one of the few models of traditional and professional pre-contact education that we know of in such detail,” wrote Malcolm Nāea Chun, in his book Kāhuna, citing Kamakau.

This Hawaiian ideal of instruction—a process of learning by observation, listening, example, mentoring, and experimentation—continues with students turned teachers like Emmalani, who is now introducing the practice to the next generation of lā‘au-conscious individuals as a Hawaiian studies lecturer at Windward Community College. “The plants are vital, but the spirit and the ability to connect with the unseen are of equal or greater importance,” says Emmalani, of lā‘au lapa‘au’s distinction from naturopathy and Western medicine.

In her class, Introduction to Hawaiian Medicinal Plants, students nurture their relationships with the immediate land around them, the ahupua‘a of Kāne‘ohe, that provides the resources for the course; naturally, the group always ends up outdoors. “Most of my class’ focus is on creating a foundational platform in which the student is building his or her connection with spirit, with akua, with their kūpuna, with ‘āina,” she says. “Building this platform then allows them to get familiar with the spirit, character, and mana of the plants. Without being in tune with the spirit, the student or practitioner is cold because she is far from the flame.”

At the start of a lesson on how to properly gather the multi-functional lā‘ī, or ti leaves, used to allay fevers and wrap wounds because of their ability to absorb heat, the students disperse to forage quietly, contemplate the lā‘ī they select, and then debone the leaves with their teeth. As one student demonstrates, the resulting bandage is pliable enough to wrap comfortably around his head to soothe a headache.

There has been a renewed interest in the practice of lā‘au lapa‘au over the past decade. Its revivals, historically, have been linked to major upheavals in Hawai‘i: In the early 1800s, the practice became crucial in response to an unprecedented decline in the population due to foreign diseases introduced by the earliest Western explorers; in 1866, with a community still in decline, the Maui group ‘Ahahui Lā‘au Lapa‘au of Wailuku mobilized to create the framework for legitimizing practitioners with certificates from the then-government’s Board of Health. Today, a blossoming awareness of the environment and reclamation of Hawaiian culture appears to factor into its resurgence.

“People are starting to shift in consciousness, in terms of medicine and healthcare options,” Emmalani says. “Times are different, but the foundation is the same. The community deserves options when it comes to health. But this new wave or resurgence in the healing practices are not for all, and are not to be taken lightly or confused with naturopathic medicine. Our kūpuna knew about mana, they knew how to communicate with spirit to restore balance, and we as their descendants have that knowing within us, and the kuleana, or responsibility, to do the same.”

Traditional Hawaiian medicinal plants and tools
Plants roots with dirt in the palms of a persons hand.
Ti leaf plant

Native and naturalized plants are used to heal the body, mind, and spirit. Practitioners like Emmalani Makepa- Foley-Wong refer to them as “warriors in healing.”

Woman with red shirt picking from a tree

Emmalani Makepa-Foley-Wong forages with purpose at Lyon Arboretum’s native Hawaiian gardens. “In Hawai‘i, our Band-Aids grow on trees,” she says.

Juicing an orange colored fruit.
Woman in red shirt and jeans pounding a Hawaiian plant in a stone bowl.

In early Hawaiian households, it was common for everyone to know the properties of the plants in their region, but it was only the kāhuna lā‘au, the specialists, who ensured the physical and mental wellbeing of their communities.

Close-up image of hands holding a green leaf with a piece missing.

Emmalani is one of a select few who have been chosen to perpetuate the legacies of her kumu, Levon Ohai, as well as the healers of her own family.

Grounded orange colored plant in marble stone bowl.

“All plants have a purpose. People who live in Hawai‘i especially should know what our plants are and what to use them for.”
— Emmalani Makepa-Foley-Wong lāʻau lapaʻau practitioner and educator

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