What Is A Kahuna?
by Serge Kahili King
There is still a lot of misunderstanding about Hawaiian kahunas, so I'm writing this to bring some clarity
to the subject.
According to Lorrin Andrews, author of the first Hawaiian dictionary published in 1865, "kahuna" is a
contraction of "kahu" (to cook, especially in an earth oven) and "ana" (a particle that adds "ing" to a
word). So the base meaning by this idea is "a cooking." This doesn't make much sense until you learn that
"kahu" also means "to tend an oven, or to take care of the cooking." Ancient Hawaiian thought, from our
point of view, was very symbolic or figurative and a word for one type of activity or experience could be
applied to other symbolically related activities or experiences. So "kahu," originally referring to taking
care of an oven, became a general word for taking care of anything. Another possible origin for the word
"kahuna," however, is that it is simply a combination of "kahu" (to take care of) and "na" (a particle that
makes words into nouns). In that case, a basic translation of "kahuna" would be "a caretaker."
Over time languages change and at some point "kahu" and "kahuna" both became nouns with somewhat different
meanings. The word "kahu" came to refer not only to caretakers, but to what are now known as "care-givers,"
as well as to administrators, regents, pastors, masters and mistresses of households, dog-owners, and
leaders of clubs, associations, orders and other groups. The word "kahuna," according to J.S. Emerson, an
early observer of Hawaiian culture, "suggests more of the professional relation of the priest to the
Andrews, mentioned above, defines a "kahuna" as "a general name applied to such persons as have a trade, an
art, or who practice some profession." He says that some qualifying term is generally added, such as "kahuna
lapa'au, a physician; kahuna pule, a priest; kahuna kalai la'au, a carpenter; kahuna kala, a silversmith."
He also notes that "the word kahuna without any qualifying term (generally) refers to the priest or the
person who offers sacrifices." Pukui and Elbert, authors of the modern standard Hawaiian dictionary, define
a kahuna as a "priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession (whether male of
female)." They add that under the 1845 laws of the Hawaiian kingdom doctors, surgeons and dentists were
David Malo, author of Hawaiian Antiquities, writes only about kahunas as priests and healers
without going into a lot of detail about their organization. Samuel Kamakau, in The People of Old ,
goes into quite a bit of detail about the classes of sorcerers and healers, priests and prophets, and also
mentions kahuna geologists, geomancers, psychics, martial artists, spear-throwers, "and many other classes
besides." In Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii Kamakau describes a kahuna, Paka'a, who was a master of
geology, psychic perception, and navigation. He also describes many kahuna craftsmen who were chosen by
Kamehameha the Great to be in charge of canoe-making, surf-board making, bowl-making, dyeing, navigation,
and many other crafts. In addition, Kamakau briefly describes the rules followed by boys who were in
training to become kahunas. John Papa I'i, writing from 1866 to 1870, gives a fair amount of detail about
the priestly kahunas and the practices of the medical kahunas of the time.
In Volume One of Look To The Source by Pukui, Hertig and Lee, kahunas of old Hawaii are discussed
in roles of sorcerers, priests and healers, but someone added this footnote on one page: "kahunas
intensively trained in the traditional manner no longer exist," which is only a statement about the limited
knowledge of whoever wrote that. In Volume Two the word "kahu" is defined as master or expert, with "ana"
being added as Andrews suggested. Shortly after there is a quote from Mary Pukui who describes her
grandfather as a kahuna canoe-maker, a kahuna fisherman, and a medical kahuna. This is followed by an
interesting chapter on medical kahunas with some brief mentions of sorcerers, prophets, and modern fakes or
healers and psychics only called kahunas by their clients. Also of interest is a short discussion of payment
for services. It says that while some modern Hawaiians believe that medical kahunas did not charge for their
services, several quotes are given from early Hawaiian writers who make it clear that, at least sometimes,
they did accept offerings of pigs, food or tapa in exchange for their help. And it discusses some kahunas
who set fees when a cash economy became prevalent.
Now what can we learn from this very brief historical survey of kahunas?
They were the experts of old Hawaii, experts in religion, health, crafts, science, psychology and magic.
"Kahuna" was a title, like M.D. or Ph.D., and additional descriptive words were used to designate the
field of expertise.
Just as the modern use of the word "doctor" by itself is generally taken to mean a medical doctor, so the
use of "kahuna" by itself generally designated a priest or healer.
They underwent intensive and extensive training before being recognized as experts in their field, either
by their teacher or by the community.
Some kahunas were experts in many fields.
Kahunas could be male or female.
Although it is not explicitly stated above, it is clear from reading the above sources that kahunas of any
kind were always attuned to the spiritual side of their expertise as well as to the material side.
Under the Monarchy the term "kahuna" began to be used for foreigners who were recognized experts in their
fields, especially for ministers and health professionals.
In Territorial times, when Hawaii became a tourist destination, visitors discovered that the best surfer on
the beach was called "kahuna nui he'e nalu," the "principal master surfer." Because of his expertise he was
also the leader among the surfers, and they would follow his advice on boards and waves and the skill
itself. He was called "kahuna nui" for short, and this soon became the phrase "big kahuna," which took on
meanings of "big boss" or even "the biggest and the best" in any area, including hamburgers.
In modern times the word "kahuna" is used and misused in many ways. Some people without any traditional
Hawaiian knowledge or training claim to have been "initiated" as kahunas, something which Hawaiians of old
would have laughed at or been shocked by. Some Hawaiians fear the word because they automatically relate it
to sorcery, and some Hawaiians say that no one can be a kahuna who isn't Hawaiian. Visitors come to Hawaii
looking for a "kahuna," which for some means a psychic healer and for others means a shaman.
How do you know if someone is really a kahuna? There are no hard and fast rules, and there never have been.
A deep knowledge and understanding of Hawaiian culture would seem to be a must if the word is to have any
meaning in a Hawaiian context. In old Hawaii the main test would have been one's level of expertise in a
given field of importance to Hawaiians. The teacher is the one who grants the title, so being able to name
the teacher would seem to be a factor, too.
I was trained in a traditional way in "kalakupua," or "kupua" for short, a near equivalent to "shamanism,"
by my Auntie Laka and my Uncle Wana of the Kahili family, who originally came from Kauai. I was hanai'ed
into that family as the grandson of Joseph Kahili in 1957. My last teacher, Wana Kahili, granted me the
title of "kahuna kupua" in 1975 on Goleta Beach, California, based on the results of more than twenty years
of training (including time with my father). Like most who have received a similar honor, I don't have a
certificate to "prove" it and, since it was a private ceremony, there aren't any witnesses to attest to it.
But I know what I know, and I know how to do what I do. That's enough for me.
However, I don't use that title any more. One aspect of Hawaiian culture I learned is to avoid offending
others when you don't have to and some Hawaiians are offended by my use of it. So I am "kahu" to members of
my organization who want to call me by a title, "Dr. King" to those who want to acknowledge my doctorate in
psychology, and simply "Serge" to the rest of the world. I have Hawaiian names as well, but I honor my birth
parents by publicly using the name they gave me.
So, what is a kahuna? Just a title that means what you think it does. If you meet a kahuna, respect the
person for what he or she can do, more than for the title.
Copyright Huna International 2001