A Key to Unlock
Kealoha and Kalaunuola Domingo serve Hawaiian culture as a tool for understanding everything
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Ambassador of Culture for The Council of Native Hawaiian language, history, and culture is dressed in a flowing orange dress printed with Polynesian tribal patterns trailing down to the floor. Her midnight black hair is pulled up into a magnificent bun finished with a tropical flower. She seems 10 feet tall. Not just in stature, but demeanor too.
When she opens for a panel of Indigenous chefs at the 2023 Hawaii Food & Wine Festival with a traditional chant, the room vibrates with the power of her voice and the incantation of ancestors.
At the previous night’s festival, under the orange sherbet sunsets at Mauna Kea beach on Hawaii’s breathtaking Big Island, her brother, Alan Wong, a renowned Hawaiian chef and restaurateur, had joined chef Kealoha Domingo in pounding poi – at a long wooden board where two people sit end-to-end pounding the root vegetable taro (kalo) with a heavy stone to make poi– one of Hawaii’s sacred staple dishes.
Wong-Kalu reported that she sat below her brother, as a sign of traditional respect for her elder, at the board.
“In Hawaii, if the land is our mother, then food is our elder sibling.” When her brother offered her a taste of poi from the board, lowering it to her sitting position, she called the symbolism “profound.” Tears threatened to spill from her eyes, and the eyes of chef Kealoha who sat next to her on the panel.
Poi, like the Hawaiian language and hula (once a sacred dance now secularized) was outlawed by white colonizers in the early 1900’s, claiming it to be unsafe. But Polynesians brought the taro plant to Hawaii as long ago as 450 A.D., and it’s one of the oldest cultivated crops throughout the islands, keeping tens of thousands of people nourished for centuries.
Taro and poi feature prominently on all of chef Domingo’s tables.
“I’d be a liar to my children if I didn’t do these things,” Kealoha explains.
Like much of Native America, the story of Hawaiian culture is too often about what has been lost than what remains. Kealoha and his wife Claire Ann Kalaunuola Domingo have decided to raise their four sons as culturally Hawaiian as possible, in a crucial effort to pass living traditions via generation.
Both grew up in traditional 1980’s middle class Hawaiian households– meaning that they were not necessarily steeped in traditional Hawaiian culture. That came later for both of them. Kealoha’s dad was a cop– “old school, a man of few words, didn’t say ‘I love you’ very often,” and his mom had a little convenience store that sold snacks and gifts.
“I was proud to be Hawaiian, but I never really knew what that meant,” he remembers.
Kalaunuola knew she wanted to be a teacher since she was a little girl. In college, she volunteered at a Hawaiian immersion school.
“The way I saw these children learning their language and who they are as Hawaiians, having a kapuna there– an elder there learning with them– to be a child to be in this kind of environment and see how they were thriving, being happy.”
That changed her.
Like some of their traditional foods, and the sacred dance of Hula– one of the most well known Hawaiian cultural touchstones– Hawaiian language was banned at the end of the nineteenth century and would not be heard in schools again for four generations. It’s estimated that there are only around 2,000 native speakers in existence today– less than one percent of the population, and UNESCO has designated it an endangered language.
But linguists understand that language is not just words to explain things– it’s the blueprint for entire worldviews and ways of life.
“It unlocks everything,” says Kalaunuola, who is now fluent in Hawaiian and teaches the language to her kids, and her students at the immersion school where she works.
At his culturally relevant tables, Kealoha prominently features taro, poi, sweet potato, Ti leaves, and also breadfruit (ulu)– a species of flowering tree that was once prolific on the islands and provided sustenance for thousands– one tree can produce up to a ton of fruit annually. This “tree of life” fell victim to Hawaii’s most infamous colonizer crop– sugar. Breadfruit trees were burned and cleared to make room for sugarcane, a crop that led to the enslavement of Native Hawaiians– a history not widely known or discussed.
“If everyone has the ability to plant an ulu tree we should do it. There should be no reason for anyone to go hungry or to be eating out of the garbage can,” Kealoha says.
Today, Hawaii is not known not for breadfruit or taro or other highly nutritious foods that sustained the islands for hundreds of years, but instead for crops like sugar, pineapple, pork, white rice, Spam, macaroni salads, coffee, Macadamia Nuts, and other dishes not at all linked to the Native Hawaiian diet.
“The Hawaiian food that we mostly revere is plantation food, Kealoha reminds us. Foods brought to the Island by people interested in cash crops rather than nutritional health.”
Twenty years ago, Kealoha stumbled on Papahaha Kualo at Wipao on O’ahu, 70 acres of cultural, conservation, and agricultural land and an important site of mythology, history and Native culture. It’s likely that ancestors, chiefs, and gods considered it a sacred space (though Hawaiians consider the entirety of the islands as sacred space). Practitioners at Wipao share create, utilize, and perpetuate this sacred space– allowing participants to spiritually reconnect to land.
It was the first time he had heard Hawaiian being spoken in fluency. Kealoha says he just kept coming back.
“I had a heart song. A calling– na’anau. It’s a calling from your heart; your soul.”
“It opened up the sanctity of food– teaching our kids about traditional values that we rediscovered– beliefs like we are descended from the taro plant. Whether or not my kids believe these things, I’m not sure. But I do know that my kids have the ability to have a father that is pounding poi– for me [growing up] I had much less.”
In his previous life, Kealoha fixed things. First cars, then elevators. He cooked on the weekends and then found that he didn’t want to do his day job anymore.
“I’d be saying, I have a catering, I’m not coming to work.”
Today, the couple lives on the family compound that Kealoha’s family has lived on for five generations. About nine families live on the land. There’s a family burial plot there. The village raises their children. Most Hawaiian families don’t have the luxury of this style of traditional communal living anymore– or even having any connection to their land.
“But it’s ironic– my family has been here for generations, but a white guy owns the land and I pay a mortgage on it. But these are our birth sands.”
In the early 1800s, large numbers of Hawaiians were forced off their lands as colonizers moved in and sold leases for pineapple and sugar cane plantations. Hawaiians were pushed into urban areas, contracting diseases for which they had no immunity. Within about a hundred year period, their numbers dropped from around 150,000 to just over 20,000.
The entire archipelago of Hawaii makes up about 7 million total acres of land. But only 200,000 acres have been designated for Native Hawaiians, via a program that is fraught with bureaucracy and decades-long wait periods for access.
“Thousands have died waiting in line,” reports Rob Perez in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser article entitled “Promised Land: To Reclaim Ancestral Land, All Native Hawaiians Need Is a $300,000 Mortgage and to Wait in Line for Decades.”
Startling stats like these punctuate the significance of the way that Kealoha and Kalaunuola make their life, passing down food and language customs to their four sons– customs that could very well disappear forever if the next generation does not receive them.
“It’s not just about speaking Hawaiian,” Kalaunuola goes on.
“It’s behavior– said and unsaid behaviors. It’s having reverence to uphold; it’s your responsibility to carry on the protocol of your kapuna’s (elder’s) foods and the sacredness of how to grow everything. It’s spirituality, how to live, how to be in nature. Every day at school we greet all of the elements– the sun, the clouds, the mountains, the ocean, the guardians in the ocean; we say good morning to the fish pond. When people visit the school and see all of this, they say they would never want to miss a day!”
The way the couple lives is not the easy way. They fall asleep to the sound of the ocean “on the other side of the highway,” but their home on O’ahu is not air conditioned, in a climate that stays consistently in the mid 80’s and is getting hotter with global warming. It’s easier to buy poi from the grocery store than it is to pound it. Famous Malasadas, warm and habit-forming donuts introduced by Portuguese plantation laborers, are an easier to access starch than Breadfruit.
“But knowing the Hawaiian way is like a key to unlock– it opens a whole different understanding of all of this knowledge that the ancestors left. It’s there. It’s all there. There’s so much of it,” Kalaunuola concludes, as she shuffles between her day job teaching Hawaiian and her night job cooking Hawaiian in her husband’s kitchen.
“Our boys are protected here. We tell them they don’t have to be afraid in the dark. We say: ‘All of your ancestors are here.’”
Kealoha and Kalaunuola can be hired to cater events.
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