(Recalling an average Thursday evening circa late 1990's in the now demised Ho'olehua Recreational Center on the island of Moloka’i, Hawai’i)
Boom, boom, boom! The pounding of the pahu (Hawaiian drum) calls a small group of native men to attention. Swiftly, fathers, brothers, sons and friends assemble in a solid column formation. Silently with fists held firmly at their hips, they look to their Kumu Hula (expert & teacher of traditional Hawaiian dance), the late John Ka'imikaua for further instruction.
Kumu John asks in our native tongue, “Mākaukau (ready)?!”
The halau (group/school/assembly particularly related to traditional Hawaiian dance) respond in unison to their Kumu, “Ae (yes)!”
The drum is beat in a continuous, hypnotic rhythm while the men stand at the ready, attentively waiting for the command. Seconds feel like eternity until Kumu John orders, “Ku’i!”
“Some people claim that Nanaue is the descendant of an ancient Shark God.” -Amanda Waller from The Suicide Squad
The DC Comics villain turned antihero may have been introduced to the comic book world in 1994 via pages of Superboy #9. However, the legend begins long ago on Hawaii island, known to locals as “The Big Island” where the King of Sharks, Kamohoali’i fell in love with a mortal woman on the shores of Waipio. Shortly after courting and wedding her, she would be with child before the god would return to his home in the sea. Kamohoali’i would caution his love in raising his child to keep him from ever eating meat as it would awaken an insatiable hunger for it.
Nanaue was born with natural gifts of physical beauty (I would imagine from his mother), great strength (easily assumed from the deity) and as time passed, he was able to shape-shift into a full fledged Shark (definitely from dad). But, the demigod would find a hard and lonely life as on his back from birth was the shape of a Shark mouth that he and his mortal family worked tirelessly to conceal from the public. And eventually, his troubles grew worse after his first taste of meat and as the endless hunger ensued.
His bloodlust would lead him from his home through the neighboring island of Maui. Until fate would bring Nanaue to my home, the island of Moloka’i. There were rumors of an ‘ai kanaka (man eater) traveling the islands and not long after his arrival, loko ‘ia (fishponds) were emptied and sadly, villagers began going missing as well.
Moloka’i is not only famous for being the birthplace of Hula. But, also known for their powerful Kahuna (experts commonly referring to healing and mysticism). One was counseled as the villagers grew fearful for their lives and livelihoods and a glimpse of a shape-shifting Nanaue suggests the perpetrator was hiding among them. The Kahuna instructed that ti leaves would be stripped and laid across a clearing. All the men of the village would be lined up and each would step across the leaves. If, in fact, a demigod was among them his steps would leave no marks, bruising or impressions behind him.
Now, how does Sylvester Stallone’s role in The Suicide Squad (btw, bang up job, Sly!) have anything to do with diversity representation and me? First off, I had never approached entertainment with the idea of “give me a character that looks like me.” When I enjoy art, I aim to be taken beyond the bounds of believability, set to a practically impossible goal and yet be given a story with characters that I can still relate to.
The plight of The Suicide Squad version of Nanaue’s ravenous need to feed made him an unreliable ally to say the least! “I no friends,” the gargantuan Shark man would say in the Warner Brothers production (in case you didn’t already, GO WATCH IT!) and try as he may to fit in, he would always seem to stick out like a sore thumb.
Yet, somehow, he and his rag-tag team of “expendables” (here’s looking at you, Sly😉) just find a way to make it work. I can definitely relate to the tail end of that bit. Not to mention, I have been known for my ability to put food away like a fiend😅!
Never really having an interest in the character previously, I was admittedly intrigued by the idea of him being loosely based on Hawaiian legend. So, after some initial digging, I was beside myself at the discovery of not only the mention of “ku’u one hanau” (the sands of my birth), but it in turn reminded me of retelling the very chapter of that story for the better part of my life!
(Back to late 1990’s Moloka’i)
“Ku’i!” A command we knew well. It was the way every evening of Hula would begin. Moloka’i was known for many variations of this step that were unique to our island. Kumu John would call out the names of the different forms and the halau would emulate in unison, pounding the aged, hardwood floors in time with the beating pahu. One ku’i would stand out to me specifically as I would research for this very article. The ku’i papa.
Translated literally as the “flat kuʻi” or flat-stamping kuʻi whose motion is stamping the ground flat with both feet alternately in timing with the beat. This differs from the normal style where one foot kicks horizontally in front of the opposite shin. Such a dance move (among many others) was based on a Hawaiian martial art, known as “Lua,” a move designed to incapacitate the knee of an enemy by side-blow, a very popular technique in modern movie fight sequences.
We now return to the legend of Nanaue and the villagers of Moloka’i who aim to weed the ‘ai kanaka from their midst. As the failure of producing a trace as they walk across the ti leaves would mean instant death, the men of the village were compelled to do everything in their power to do exactly that.
The ku’i papa, a hula step I had done alongside my father and younger brother for years, was meant to capture the very essence of desperation in those ancients who hoped they would not be mistaken for the notorious demigod. Of all the various ku’i, this particular style would inflict the greatest impact upon the laying ti leaves and would guarantee a mark of some kind to be left by any mortal foot.
The ritual would prove faithful as the shape-shifter was identified and put to a swift death, bringing a close to the legend Nanaue. A story that would be carried through generations in mele (song), oli (chant) and, of course, hula to this very day.
A special Mahalo nui (big thanks) to my father, Kumu Ka’eo Kulani Kawa’a Sr., my original hero, for his collaborative efforts and advisory role in compiling my memories of Moloka’I history, legend and dance as taught by our late Kumu Hula, Uncle John Ka’imikaua. Thank you, Dad. Love you.
And to you, the reader, a sincerest Mahalo as you are now an integral part of my story. In the very reading of this article, you hold a piece of my personal history and heritage. I hope, within words such as these, it will live on long after I go the way of ancient Nanaue. The same as his story still lives in all who remember his name. May we all find stories and life lessons worth perpetuating and if we cannot, may we write them.
For more Suicide Squad, don't forget to read Tobi's piece on the 2016 film and Brendan's piece on the history of the comics!