Even though many of them are sick from the big accident, the Kānaka are really good hunters and fisherman. They are also great storytellers. They use their stories to help remember people who have died and to teach lessons. One of my favorites is the story of Lawai’a and the Whale. It is probably based on a real person but parts of it seem a little fishy to me.
The Kānaka have a long history of being excellent canoe builders but none of them were as good as Lawai’a. His long canoes were just as straight and strong as the short ones, and they could handle even the biggest waves. Nobody wants to go far out to sea, but if you had to, you wanted to be in a canoe that Lawai’a built.
Lawai’a took pride in his creations, but what he really wanted was to be a good fisherman. You see, while he was easily the best canoe builder on the whole island, maybe ever, he was a terrible fisherman. In fact, Lawai’a had never caught a fish or crab in his entire life. Even when he was asked to collect limpets from the rocks he came back with the smallest basket. All of the fishermen wanted one of his canoes, but none wanted to go fishing with him. As far as they were concerned he was cursed. He would spend every day the same way, building canoes in his shop by himself, and dreaming of becoming a fisherman.
The fracture didn’t just kill things on the land, it devastated the waters too. After the accident most of the big fish disappeared and the Kānaka had to live on crabs, small reef fish, and the occasional big prize that would swim too close to shore looking for food.
One spring the fishing was particularly bad, and the people worried that they might not get enough food to make it through the summer. What little hope they had disappeared when they saw the whale. Nobody had seen one since the day everything stopped working. The villagers knew that the whale would eat all the little fish they depended on. They were scared and didn’t know what to do. But Lawai’a said he had a plan.
He said he had an old harpoon that he found in the ruins of the whaler’s village to the North. He would take his biggest and strongest canoe out past the reef and kill the whale. The fishermen thought he was crazy but they didn’t have a better plan. The villagers wished him luck, and had a big party before sending him off. Nobody expected to see him again.
It didn’t take Lawai’a long to find the giant beast. He watched it herd the fish into tight balls before diving beneath and engulfing the whole school with its gigantic mouth. The closer he got the more he shook in fear, but he knew that everyone was counting on him so he tried to be brave. He finally got close enough and let the harpoon go. Lawai’a very first throw was true and it hit the whale mid-tail. The big animal sped off out to sea and the coiled rope hissed at it spun out. In less than a minute the rope went taught and the canoe lurched forward knocking Lawai’a down. He was speeding out to sea.
Lawai’a stayed attached to the whale for 3 days. They went around islands and over reefs. The whale tried diving deep and sinking the canoe but Lawai’a had brought enough rope for even the deepest spots. They swam through a storm but even crashing down the biggest waves wasn’t enough to loosen the harpoon. Finally the whale was getting tired and asked Lawai’a why he had stabbed him.
Lawai’a told the whale about how hungry the Kānaka were and about how bad the fishing had become. The whale listened to Lawai’a and offered him a deal. If he promised to remove the harpoon, the whale would promise to not come back to the Kānaka’s fishing grounds, and he would teach Lawai’a how to find and catch fish. Lawai’a thought about it, looked at how little water he had left to drink, and agreed.
The first day, the whale showed Lawai’a were the black crabs lived now and how to catch them. Lawai’a filled a third of his canoe full of them. He told the whale how he chose which trees would make the best canoes. He talked about which chisels he liked best and how to make lacquer while they looked for crabs.
On the second day, the whale explained how smart the octopus had become since the fracture. He taught Lawai’a how to disguise his traps with shells the same way the Kānaka still do today. By that evening another third of the canoe was filled with food. Lawai’a told the whale about his family and the first girl he loved. He talked about how his father taught him his craft and how he still dreamed of his mother’s cooking.
The third day, the whale explained that a deep canyon had formed after the accident and that the butterfish now swam there. He took Lawai’a to a good place to fish for them, and before long they had caught a dozen. Unfortunately, the canoe was becoming so full that there wasn’t much room for the Lawai’a. The whale saw this and offered to help again. He told Lawai’a that he could keep fishing until his canoe was completely full and he could sleep on the whale’s back that evening. Lawai’a agreed.
That night as the whale swam back to the village Lawai’a sat and looked at his full canoe in the moonlight. He wondered if it would be enough to get invited on fishing trips in the future. He told the whale how all the other fishermen thought he was cursed. The whale told him about his life and the secrets of the sea. All through the night the pair shared stories.
As the sun rose they saw people already casting nets in the surf. The whale told Lawai’a that its name was Hilina`i and that if he ever needed help again to paddle out to where they met and call his name. Lawai’a thanked him and plunged his harpoon into the whales blowhole.
The villagers could barely believe their eyes. Not only had Lawai’a killed the whale, but he had ridden him into shore with a canoe full of food behind him. Lawai’a told them what he had learned. The Kānaka divided the whale and all the rest he brought in the canoe. From that day on Lawai’a was known as the best fisherman on the island.
For the rest of his life Lawai’a would go out every week to the spot where he had met the whale and call the animal’s name. While he got his wish and was now also known as the greatest fisherman of all time, he still wasn’t invited to go on trips. The other fisherman were scared he would show them up or worse, they’d have a bad catch while fishing with the legend he had become. Lawai’a hoped that one day Hilina`i’s spirit would answer his call for help. He longed for those days they spent together fishing and talking. Lawai’a learned that what he had really wanted all those years wasn’t to be known as a good fisherman, it was to have someone he could call a friend.
Pu`u School Lahaina