Staff of Life?
by Veronica S.
A lone coconut tree towers
over the Hawaiian landscape as snow draped Mauna
Kea looms in the background.
The tall coconut tree sways in the Hawaiian trades.
Many visitors to the islands expect to see these graceful
palms or look forward to an authentic pina colada. They
mail the coconuts to their snowbound relatives elsewhere.
Ah, how sweet the tropics.
In reality, however, the coconut tree, cocos nucifera,
doesn't thrive in Hawaii like it does on islands closer
to the equator, and stands for a lot more. The tree
symbolizes life itself for the Hawaiian people.
Niu, as the palm was called in the Polynesian language,
probably originated in prehistoric times in the Indo-Malaysia-Melanesia
triangle and was brought to the Hawaiian islands during
the first migrations. But while elsewhere in the South
Seas the coconut tree was a staple food source and was
planted extensively, the old Hawaiians never used the
tree in that role. For them, the food-value in the coconut
tree added merely a welcome variety to a staple diet
of taro and breadfruit.
Far more important were its many other uses. From trunk,
husks and shells, leaves and fronds, the Hawaiians created
food containers, hula drums, fans, children's toys,
rods and other tools. And the canoes, which brought
the precious protein in the form of fish, were lashed
together with invaluable sennit, the indestructible,
coarse rope yarn spun out of the fibers of the coconut
husk. No other rope could withstand the pressure of
water, weight, and wind as well the coconut. In Hawaiian
legend it is said that the god "Maui" snared
the sun's rays with coconut sennit!
Yet there was more to the tree. A sacred function,
and a vital meaning.
The early Polynesian voyagers sailed a long way before
they found the shores of Hawaii. They were a migrating
people, but nostalgic for their permanent home. This
foreign home was named Tahiti or "kahiki"
and the coconut tree stretching into the sky, flexible
and strong, symbolized and served as a powerful reminder
of their Polynesian ancestral roots.
There is a well-known legend which tells of a young
Hawaiian boy, son of Hina and Ku-the-Leader. The father
has gone back to his homeland Tahiti and the boy longs
to meet his father. He asks Hina for help. Hina then
chants to their ancestor, the coconut tree. She sings,
"niu-ola-hiki, o life-giving-coconut of Tahiti."
And she sings, "niu-loa-hiki, o far-traveling-coconut".
A coconut sprouts in front of her.
She wakes her son and tells him to climb the tree and
hold on, while she continues chanting. The coconut sways
and bends, it stretches and grows, it stretches over
the ocean till its crown comes down. At last the strong
leaves rest on Tahiti.
The boy meets his father. Together they bring offerings
to their ancestor, niu-ola-hiki, who, in the form of
an eel, arises from the ocean and savors the offered
This legend reappears in many different variations.
Always, the coconut tree is pictured as a stretching
tree with magical powers, an image of Ku, the ancestor
of the Hawaiian people and the link to the original
The coconut tree offers a pathway to another world,
and serves as the bridge between humans and gods, earth
and heaven, child and ancestors. This tree is a path
to the sacred land and therefore the Staff of Life.
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