I grew up in Hawaii from the ages of 11 to 24. Now I’m a landlocked beach boy stuck in the middle of the United States. Today on a cold, rainy day here in St. Louis, I miss Hawaii even more than I normally do in the winter.
Today I went to the St. Louis Art Museum and saw the Atua: Sacred Gods of Polynesia exhibit. There were carved statues, ink drawings and totems from all over the Polynesian Triangle, which runs from New Zealand, to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), up to the northern tip of the triangle which stops at Hawaii.
The collection was amazing and I was able to share some Polynesian culture with my daughter. She feels a special connection with Hawaii even though she’s never been there. Her middle name is Kawai O’ka Lani, which means “Water from the heavens,” in Hawaiian and she’s obsessed with the ocean and shark attacks.
In Hawaii, Mano, is a shark and people often think of the shark as their aumakua or personal god. My very first tattoo was of a shark on my left shoulder and I felt like this tattoo would protect me when I was out bodyboarding or surfing. I usually would surf in the early morning, called “dawn patrolling,” or in the evening at sunset. I did this because there aren’t as many people out in the water at those times because most people believe that’s when sharks feed.
I have seen several sharks over the years, but I was never afraid of them because I felt like they were my auamkua. Even though I wasn’t Hawaiian, I felt like I had a special connection to sharks and was almost certain that I wouldn’t ever get bit. I always had an excited, electrified feeling every time that unmistakable fin would breech the water. I felt safe, but very aware that the Mano was present.
It’s hard to explain Atua or Aumakuas to someone not exposed to the Polynesian culture. But that’s what this exhibit was about, the connection that the Polynesians have to nature, their Atuas and their spiritually.
Here’s more on it from some of the artists: click here if you’re getting this in your inbox, otherwise see the video below.