La‘au Lapa‘au: An Introduction to the Art of Hawaiian Healing

Authored by: 
Ashlyn Ku‘uleialoha Weaver

E Ku e,
Ke lawe nei au i ka ʻili, o keʻia laau
I mea hoʻola no ka maʻi o (mea)
Wehe aku ʻoe i na pilikia a me na poʻino a pau,
A me na maʻi a pau maluna o kona kino,
A lilo keʻia laʻau i laʻau hoʻola nona (or noʻu)
E Ku e

E Hina e,
Ke lawe nei au i ka ʻili, o keʻia laʻau
I mea hoʻola no ka maʻi o (mea)
Wehe aku ʻoe i na pilikia a me na poʻino a pau,
A me na maʻi a pau maluna o kona kino, 
A lilo keʻia laʻau hoʻola nona (or noʻu)
E Hina e.

 

Oh Ku
I take the bark of this tree
For the purpose of curing the sickness of (name)
Undo all the troubles and afflictions,
And all the sickness upon his/her body
And may this medicine become the healing medicine for him/her
Oh Ku

Oh Hina
I take the bark of this tree
For the purpose of curing the sickness of (name)
Undo all the troubles and afflictions,
And all the sickness upon his/her body And may this medicine become the healing medicine for him/her
Oh Hina

 -From June Gutmanis, Na Pule Kahiko

Hiking along a path in Hawai‘i is mesmerizing and spectacular. Shades of green engulf oneself as the outside world is left behind, a distant memory. The lush, tropical trails are thick with various plants, each unique in size, shape, and color. 

These same trails also hold medicines that can cure an upset stomach, mend heartbreaks, and forgive. How so? The flora that line the edge of the trails and paint the world a shade of green, can all be used to cure illnesses. This common practice of healing among Hawaiians is called la‘au lapa‘au. 

La‘au lapa‘au originated during the Polynesian Migrationroughly 1,500 years ago. Arriving on double-hulled canoes, a number of the plants species were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands. These species were primarily used for medicinal purposes throughout each voyage. As each individual stepped foot onto new terrain, they brought with them a wealth of knowledge of indigenous South Pacific flora. As the Polynesians populated each island, over time, they adapted to their surroundings, learning and studying the use of the native species.

Acclimating to the various terrains, the people of Hawai‘i lived completely in isolation. Assorted diseases located throughout heavily populated areas found in different parts of the world, were not known or contracted by the Hawaiian people. 

According to the Hawaiian Author and historian, Kamakau, illness was associated with evil doings, such as breaking kapu (probation). Only then would the Kahuna la‘au lapa‘au (medical doctors) be called upon to cure the sickened individual. The Kahuna la‘au lapa‘au would cure everyone individuals all the way up to the chiefs with remedies and solutions to heal and protect. 

La‘au lapa‘au was practiced throughout each region, becoming the source of healing for hundreds of years. This allowed the health of Hawaiian inhabitants to acclimate to illnesses found only in those specific regions, until the arrival of western explorers. Foreign contact brought new diseases, which flourished in Hawaii. Looking to the Kahuna la‘au lapa‘au to rid them of their newly introduced diseases, the Kahuna la‘au lapa‘au did not know how to cure people of these unidentified illnesses. 

These diseases ravaged the weakened immune systems of the Hawaiian people. For many years, the diseases left behind spread from one island to another, forcing various Kahuna la‘au lapa‘au’s to find new herbal remedies they could use as cures.. In 1820, English missionaries arrived, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge, and, most importantly, medicine that would finally cure these debilitating illnesses.

During the establishment of English missionaries, the practice of la‘au lapa‘au was ridiculed, and healers were labeled as heathens. Westerners became confused to the differences between medical practitioners (kahuna la‘au lapa‘au) and a sorcerer (kahuna ‘ana ‘ana) whose prayers cast upon an individual could cause death. 

Due to the disapproval of la‘au lapa‘au practice, westerners and the English missionary movement on the Hawaiian Islands encouraged the newly established Hawaiian government to enforce licensing for anyone who wanted to be a health practitioner. This caused the various kahuna practicing la‘au lapa‘au to move their practice underground.

Nearly one hundred years after the introduction of new diseases to Hawai‘i, an estimated 90% of the Hawaiian population was decimated. Accompanying the decrease in the Hawaiian population was the decline in important knowledge, including la‘au lapa‘au and ho‘oponopono. 

Today, indigenous practices of la‘au lapa‘au or Hawaiian herbal healing have been revitalized with a sense of renewed energy. The practice of la‘au lapa‘au was banned during the introduction of English missionaries until the Hawaiian revitalization in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. When this revitalization erupted, many of the healers that surfaced were already well in to their seventies and eighties. These healers had a sense of urgency to preserve and perpetuate la‘au lapa‘au practices that were passed onto them from their parents, grandparents, and ancestors.

As we tune into the wisdom of ancestral Hawaiian healing practices, this revitalization of la‘au lapa‘au may once again thrive. Learning and practicing the art of la‘au lapa‘au restores the body with vital nutrients that are beneficial to mind, body, and spirit, and rids the body of invasive toxins. La‘au lapa‘au has beneficial properties which, when practiced on a regular basis, can rid the body of specific disease, diagnoses, and illnesses.

With attention, curiosity, and reverence, the art of laʻau lapaʻau may once again be celebrated for its wisdom.

Our La’au Lapa’au blog series has a mission of respectfully bringing the wisdom of Hawaiian healing to all.