The Hawaiian People, prior to western contact, were a remarkably vigorous, healthy and hearty people, both physically, emotionally and mentally. Practicing primarily an organic diet, exercise through a combination of work and play, a spiritual lifestyle, and a sound family relationship, promoted an emotional well being. A combination of proper hygiene, savvy use of the land for the disposal of personal wastes and concern for the natural environment contributed to sterile communal conditions. A virtual paradise, free of environmental pollutants, mosquito, most pathogens and harmful bacteria, the native healer was reasonably well equipped to deal with the accustomed health problem of the day.
The pre-contact culture was based on the harmonious interdependence of all the elements of nature, man included. The medical arts concerned themselves with maintaining this harmony. The native healer or Kahuna, were categorized into a variety of specialties that dealt with among other things, diagnosis (’alawa maka), fertility (ho’ohapai), child birth (ho’ohanau) and care (’ea), setting of broken bones (ha’iha’i iwi), sorcery and power of suggestion (’anā’anā), herbal remedies (la’au lapa’au), and massage (lomilomi).
Most diseased administered to by the people of old were basically divided into two categories – that caused by forces outside the body (mawaho), and that caused from within (maloko). Mawaho was the result of the mental anguish caused by stressful elements within the social setting, i.e. hate, spite, displeasure of ancestral spirits, problems within the family group, or the work of a sorcerer. These symptoms were generally treated at the spiritual level, thru prayer, offerings to the gods, and with a family mediation process called ho’oponopono. Maloko, on the other hand, required diagnosis by the kahuna haha, and medicinal treatment by the kahuna la’au lapa’au. The herbal remedies came in the form of plants (la’au), fresh water (wai), salt water (kai), minerals (’alaea), and animal (i’a). In all native association with nature there are corresponding forces on the land and in the sea, and when one was not available, the corresponding item could be substituted.
In either case, the medical treatment was ineffective without the involvement of the gods. Gods were invoked through prayer and offerings throughout the entire process of treatment. Generally the greater deity at the onset and more specifically the personal family deity as the process of healing became more involved.
The training of the kahuna began at a very early age, usually five, as an apprentice of an expert in his field. A process of constant observation, mimicking, and careful instruction, the student (haumana) learned about the medicinal plants – their use and effect on the body, the proper time and place to gather, preparation and administration techniques and the specific deity to which must be offered up the prayers for the sake of the patient.
The pani, or closing of the medical treatment, be it physical or emotional, required the acknowledgement of the medicines and processes used in the treatment and the human relationship thru the nature process. This reaffirmed the proper place in the natural order of things for the people (kanaka maoli), nature through the medicines, and the gods.