Maunakea in Hawaiian Culture

Basic Protocol at Hawaiian Sacred Places

By Phyllis Coochie Cayan
© 1999.
Board Member, Mauna Kea Anaina Hou

One basic concept that permeates throughout Hawaiian culture is “aloha ‘aina” or love of the land. The late Hawaiian activist George Helm expressed his thoughts about aloha ‘aina this way: “The truth is, there is man and the environment. One does not supersede the other. The breath of man is the breath of Papa (the earth). Man in merely the caretaker of the land that maintains his life and nourishes his soul. Therefore, ‘aina is sacred. The church of life is not a building; it is the open sky, the surrounding ocean, the beautiful soil. My duty is to protect Mother Earth who gives me life. And to give thanks with humility as well as ask forgiveness for the arrogance and insensitivity of man.”

The culturally appropriate visitor will find the following tips invaluable when visiting Hawaii and its sacred places.

Image of article published in 1999

  • Before you enter a sacred place, ask permission of the spirits there. You can simply take a moment to silently ask permission, tell the spirits who you are and why you are there and give thanks for the privilege of entering that sacred place.
  • Know that you are in the presence of many gods. All life forms seen and unseen are sacred. Therefore, all things require respect for their mana (spiritual life energy). Maintain an attitude of respect with little or no talking.
  • All prayers offered in silence would first acknowledge the spirituality of the place, the unseen and the peoples of that place. Know that the mana of the place is now a part of you as you become part of that place simply by being there. Include in your silent prayer a thanks before and after and do not forget to apologize for any shortcomings you may have caused to the sacred place.
  • Common sense and simple courtesies that you would display in a church or temple or other religious edifice apply to the sacred places in Hawaiʻi. Heiau, burial mounds, sacred pools and many of the natural forms that make up Hawaiian sacred places require the same kind of respect as visiting a cathedral in Rome.
  • Dress modestly especially when planning to tour sacred places.
  • Avoid loud and aggressive behavior including keeping romantic and sexual behaviors out of public view.
  • Don’t be obtrusive, disruptive or do damage to the environment wherever you go. Be careful not to step on, sit or stand on anything that you may not normally do. Some sacred places are what may seem only “a pile of stones” to the unknowing visitor.
  • Do not plan on taking photographs at sacred places.
  • Silence is the best behavior at practice at Hawaiian sacred places. This way you will not disturb anyone else who may be there nor will you disturb the harmony of the sacred place.
  • Offerings are not required. Your silent prayers or chants are an offering in itself. Most offerings are done in more formalized rituals or ceremonies. The simple rule when making offerings is to bring items of flowers, ferns or other greenery, and non-meat items. If you are unsure, then do not bring anything. If there is no kahu taking care of a sacred place then the offerings often accumulate and begin to litter the area rather than be an enhancement for the gods.
  • A basic rule to follow is, if you are unsure, don’t do it. If you feel you have stepped on or say on or desecrated an area, then by all means say you are sorry and apologize to the gods. The mana of a place can often affect one’s health.

All behavior is learned from rules to ensure one’s safety and the protection of resources. The Hawaiian practice of Lokahi (to maintain a spiritual, cultural and natural balance) with oneself and others and the ‘aina also contributes to aloha ‘aina. As observed by the Kaho‘olawe Commission study,

“An inherent aspect of Lokahi is the practice of conservation to ensure availability of natural resources for present and future generations. Rules of behavior are tied to cultural beliefs and values regarding respect of the ‘aina. These include the virtue of sharing and not taking too much, and a holistic perspective of organisms and ecosystems that emphasizes balance and coexistence.”

In closing I leave you with Nana Veary’s simple words regarding protocol which are reproduced in large type on the poster shown above:

"Ask permission and give thanks - that was the Hawaiian protocol that extended to every aspect of life in nature. If you observe this constantly, you begin to observe an inner silence, a deep strength that comes from having your mind attuned to the universal consciousness that pervades all things."