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May 23, 2012

PART 2: Q&A with Native Hawaiian Surfer & Craftsman Tom "Pōhaku” Stone

Clip_image008Native Hawaiian surfer Tom "Pōhaku” Stone rides the waves near his home in Hawai`i. From May 20 through 25, Stone—an artist-in-residence at NMAI in Washington—will carve a traditional Hawaiian surfboard and sled in the museum's Potomac Atrium. Photo courtesy of the artist.


For this year's celebration of Native Hawaiian art, history, and culture, the museum welcomes Tom “Pōhaku” Stone, a Native Hawaiian carver from O`ahu, Hawai`i, as an artist-in-residence from Sunday, May 20, through Friday, May 25. Stone will spend the week in the museum's Potomac Atrium demonstrating his skills as he carves a traditional Hawaiian surfboard (papahe´enalu) and lashes together a traditional Hawaiian sled (papaholua).

In the second part of a two-part Q&A, Stone talks about what it was like growing up in Hawai`i, how he first became intersted in traditional Hawaiian sports and crafts, and what it takes to make a great longboard.

Tell me about Hawaiian sledding. I've read that you used to barrel down grassy hills as a child before you even knew about the cultural history of he´e holua. How did you first learn about it?

I originally was taught how to slide downhill on  leaves, which is the first step to learning to ride the actual sled. You would take a stalk of tī leaves and sit on it to slide down a 50 to 70 percent slope on dirt or mud. It was just a cultural practice that we grew up with because it was taught to us at a young age. I believe the intention was to prepare us to commit to the downhill.

Stone holds a traditional hōlua sled. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Can you tell me about how the ancient sport was used to honor Hawaiian gods? How did the tradition come to an end? When was it revived?

Hōlua sledding and the slide constructed (with a few exceptions) was built off of cliff faces or steep hardened lava slopes, which is the physical representation of Pele the volcano goddess. We usually performed this sport to honor her, showing all that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves; this was also a way for a great Ali'i Nui to show that he was a chief who would sacrifice his life for the people, which also applied to the warriors. When the conversion process from our traditional worshipping to Christianity occurred following the death of Kamehameha I in 1819, the slides and accompanying heiau (areas of worship) were some of the first structures to be dismantled under missionary supervision. Based on my research, this was due to various factors: 1) worshipping female gods went against the white male Christian beliefs; 2) [missionaries] needed to break the connection to the religious system; 3) as the Natives were in cultural collapse due to our great dying from foreign disease, we were looking for a god that would kleep us alive and at the time we believed what the missionaries were preaching.

The art of hōlua was resurrected in 1994 through my efforts to revive our knowledge and connection to this ancient sport that spanned the high islands of the Pacific and to reconnect us to our religion—the of honoring our 400,000 gods for giving us life over 30,000 years.


Stone lashes together a traditional Hōlua. Photo courtesy of the artist.

How is a basic sled built?

The papahōlua is constructed in three parts and reflects the image of a living person who is offering up a sacrifice, which is usually the riders themselves. The three parts are:

The runners (kama`a loa, or "long shoes"), which I draw freehand. The front section that I call the "hand of offerings" is meant to present the offering, and the body extends back as a person prostrating himself. A runner measures in average 12 feet in length by 2 to 4 inches in height by 1 inch in wide.

Then you have the crosspieces (`iako), similar to the outrigger canoe boom when lashing a double-hull canoe support together. The number of these pieces used to lash the runners together is dependent on their length; runners can reach up to 20 feet long.

The last is the handrails (pale), rounded and lashed together with bamboo ('ohe), which provides flexibility to the papahōlua.

The injuries I have are just what happens when you ride hōlua, but what keeps me doing it is my kūleana or responsibility to keep this cultural practice that strengthened our mind, body, and spirit alive. Practices such as this are what keeps us strong when facing the unknown, keeps us connected to who we are as ocean people, to see ourselves as living people with an intact culture rather than be assimilated.

How did you get into teaching? What is the hardest part? What’s your favorite part?

My dedication to passing on the knowledge of our kūpuna [grandparents]; bridging the gap between student and teacher, for students to understand the significance of past, present, and future; the living knowledge and history of my native world and knowing that it is alive with every breath I take.

What is your advice for young Hawaiians who want to reconnect with their culture? What are the new challenges for this younger generation in doing so?

Live for the future but embrace the old ways as your guide, and carry on the traditions that today impact the world. We are a people the world embraces and wishes to know who we are.

How long does it take to carve a surfboard? A sled? What is the oldest Hawaiian sled in existence?

It takes me when I am fully committed to one surfboard, five days from raw material to finish; for the sled it takes a total of 32 hours approximately. The oldest sled known to me is in the Bishop Museum. It belonged to Kanemuna (a great Ali'i Wahine, woman chief) from Ho`okena, Hawai`i Island. The name of this sled is Lonoikamakahiki.

Come meet Stone in person during his artist-in-residency through Friday, May 25, or join him and other Hawaiian artists at this year's annual Celebrate Hawai`i festival on Saturday and Sunday, May 26 & 27, 2012.

For the full schedule of events, visit the museum's website.

To read Part 1 of our Q&A, click here.


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What a tremendous job you guys are doing. Thanks!

A man made surf board sounds good. I want to see one and wants to know how it works. Maybe it does not perfectly works like the modern one but maybe it is just the same when it comes to durability. And also it is good to know that until know there are some people who managed to preserve the culture.

I want to see one and wants to know how it works. Maybe it does not perfectly works like the modern one but maybe it is just the same when it comes to durability.

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