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Kahele, Robert (Part 1)

Waipi‘o: Māno Wai, An Oral History Collection by The University of Hawai‘i Ethnic Studies Program

Robert Kahele, Hawaiian, was born on May 1, 1917 in Honoka‘a. Since the family lived in Waimanu Valley, Robert and his mother went back to Waimanu shortly after his birth. He spent about four years in Waimanu before moving to Waipi‘o for one year. From Waipi‘o, the Kaheles moved to Kukuihaele. Robert grew up speaking Hawaiian and English. Robert finished the eighth grade at Kukuihaele School. His father died when he was about 12, so Robert became, “the man of the house,” responsible for harvesting taro and pounding poi for the family. After the eighth grade he took a job with the plantation for two years. At age 18 he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Waimea. After a year and a half there, he worked for a Pa‘auilo transportation company. Then he served four and a half years in the military on O‘ahu. Robert returned home to Kukuihaele in about 1946. He worked two years for the County, but because he sought freedom and independence, he started farming taro in Waipi‘o. About seven years ago (1970) Robert moved back into Waipi‘o Valley where he farms taro—right next to his hanai brother Joe Kala’s patches.

In 1978, Vivien Lee and Yukie Yoshinaga-Solmoiraghi from the University of Hawaiʻi’s Ethnic Studies program interviewed Waipiʻo residents for an oral history project called Waipiʻo: Māno Wai. Robert Kahele’s interview is included in Volume 1 of this published project.

VL: This is an interview with Mr. Robert Kahele. Today is April 8, 1978; we’re at his taro patch in Waipi‘o Valley. Okay, where were you born?

RK: I was born in Honoka‘a and after a couple of weeks, my mother went back to Waimanu so there I was in Waimanu after a couple of weeks.

VL: What was she doing in Honoka‘a?

RK: She came over to visit friends, I think. I don’t remember that far back. But she came to visit her friends and accidents do happen sometimes, you know. Well, there I was, I was born on a patch going down to her friends’ place.

YY: Which path?

RK: Well, there’s this path along side there, right below the Japanese grave in Honoka‘a. There’s a path over this side of the bridge that’s going down inside there; used to be camps down there. So her friend was down there and that’s where she was planning to go and all of a sudden she had a baby. I was on my way out and she had to. That’s where I was born, in that cane field. And, I guess three weeks was enough for her to be up and going back to Waimanu. So, ever since then, I stayed in Waimanu until I was about four years old, I think, when we came back to Waipi‘o.

VL: Do you have any memories of Waipi‘o from that early back?

RK: Yeah. Sort of a dim memory in general. I never remember much at that age.

VL: Like what do you remember?

RK: Especially like the folks going fishing. The men folks would be working in the taro field and the women folks would be fishing in the river or going to the beach.

VL: You remember that?

RK: Yeah. I remember that because I had to tag along with my mother, you know. And then she finds a good spot for me to stay and then she goes fishing.

YY: And do you remember what you used to do in that spot?

RK: Besides singing and doing all kind kiddie stuff, most of the time was cry when I didn’t see my mother for about half an hour.

YY: Do you remember what you used to sing?

RK: No, I don’t remember. Just singing.

VL: Would this be all day?

RK: No, just about two or three hours they going fishing. I couldn’t be by my father because I was still one, you know, my mother did still take care of me so.

YY: Were you still nursing?

RK: How would you put it? Yeah, in a way, yeah. But not from my mother’s breast, though. Like sort of wean off stage. I was fed, I don’t know how you would put it. Not grown up food, I mean there was poi but it mixed in almost like a, you could almost like drink it, you know. That and probably fish, that’s all. There was no such thing as candies and all kind, you know.

VL: Do you remember anything else from that far back?

RK: Yeah, I remember my grandmother, that’s on my mother’s side.

VL: What was she like?

RK: She was sort of a tall woman and raw bone type, you know? Yeah, sort of big bone, not fat, you know. In fact, she was very strong, my grandmother. We used to pull taro and she used to pack the taro bag on her back all the way home. She used to do those manual labor jobs almost as good as men folks.

VL: This was in Waimanu?

RK: Yeah. I used to remember my uncles and aunts.

VL: Did they all live in the same house with you?

RK: No, no. We are living way in the back of the valley and my uncle, that’s Joe’s (Kala) father, was living down the beach. And several of my uncles live on the other side of the valley across from me, opposite side of the river. We was pretty scattered, not in one house.

VL: Would you get together on occasions? All the family?

RK: Oh yeah. The occasion was probably once a week.

VL: For what purpose?

RK: Party, you might call a party, family party, you know. Social like, you know, getting together.

VL: Were there a lot of children your age?

RK: Yeah, my cousins and . . . I don’t remember other children besides my cousins. There wasn’t much people with kids up there. I used to remember some old Japanese and Chinese that were still, after the rice (rice cultivation in Waipi‘o ended in 1928), they were still there. Some of them were good fishermen and they were also good ‘ōkolehao brewers.

YY: A lot of brewing over there?

RK: Well, see, the family over there, that’s one means of earning a livelihood. Although it’s illegal, for them, whatever income they had from that would compensate for that taro plot they had and they couldn’t sell taro because what they planted was what they needed. In order to have money, they have to go to this illegal means, I guess but they need money.

VL: Was that their only source of getting money?

RK: Yeah.

VL: How about fish, catching fish and selling?

RK: Well, fish is like Joe’s father, that’s my uncle. Oh, he was a fisherman and what he did was he peddle whatever kind of fish he could. But he had a family to support too, so we had to find other means. And my father was sort of taking care of cattle over there too. The Chinese are cattle raisers so my father used to take care of that. So that way he has sort of another means of earning a livelihood; you get paid by meat and the Chinese used to pay him for taking care of the cows. So we had quite . . . but that wasn’t enough too, you know. So we had to go to this illegal things while we living over there.

VL: When you were living in Waimanu, did you come out to Waipi‘o and Kukuihaele?

RK: Yeah, my family did that. We came out shopping. They had stores down there (Waipi‘o) and they used to come down here buy groceries and go back. Some by trail, some on canoe. Whenever the sea was, you know, whenever they were able, they could go by ocean, they may use the canoes to transport their goods. Or else on horseback.

YY: Do you have any memory of going back and forth, either by trail or by canoe?

RK: Yeah. I used to ride; well, my mother and I used to ride like tandem on a horse and I remember I was strapped in the back, tied to her so I wouldn’t fall off. I would sleep on the way. Like it’s quiet. I’d probably be halfway over and then I’d be sleeping. And every once in awhile my mother would shake me up and say, “Get up, get up.” She doesn’t want that dead weight on the side, hanging on the side. The road then was well taken care of, this trail here. It was clean. People used to take care of their trail.

VL: Who would take care of it?

RK: The Waimanu folks take care the trail. Because they use the trail more than anybody else. They keep it clean. You could go there in the night. Today, it’s kind of tricky going over that trail in the night. Even in the day, it sort of raises you hair up when you go on that trail. Some places are real narrow.

VL: The horse on the road, that belonged to you folks?

RK: Yeah, we get several horses.

VL: How about other animals? Did you have them too?

RK: Yeah, we had a few heads of cattle and pigs, chickens and stuff.

VL: Do you remember your father’s taro patch? Did he work that all himself?

RK: Yeah, he had to make terraces and set up the taro patches. They weren’t big patches but they sort of supplied the bulk of the staple. Life being simple, the food was real simple too. Funny, when your needs are taken care of you not that . . . it’s just like what you need is supplied, you get ’em over there you don’t seem to want anything else. Just like when you stay in Waipi‘o. You know, when you walk up in Kukuihaele, you know you going to spend money on this. Same thing when you were in Waimanu. Coming over this way is like you going to spend money because you’ll have to buy something that you need.

YY: Was there any time when you or someone else in the family wanted something that cost money, other than food?

RK: Other than food, the next thing we needed was clothing and probably kerosene or sometimes you want cracker. You know, those big round crackers we considered as some sort of luxury. (Laughter)

RK: To have that is wow!

VL: Do you remember, when your father was working in the taro patch, did he do everything, all the steps, by himself? Did he have any help?

RK: No, my father was different. He was more of a farmer than a fisherman. So, he didn’t mind working in the taro field by himself.

VL: He harvested all by himself?

RK: Yeah. He was a good provider, as far as food. I had my two sisters, my mother with myself, John (brother), and he provided well for us. I mean, we didn’t have any, we didn’t wish for more than what we had. We were satisfied with what we had. In a way, I can say that he provided well.

YY: Did he pound the poi?

RK: Oh yeah, those days was always done by hand. Pounding. The poi would be put in a crock and probably you have to do that every four days. To keep poi longer than that would be; I don’t know, I don’t care for too sour poi. We probably made poi every four days. Then there came this, what do you call it, man-made famine. The pigs were going wild, you know the domestic ones. The domestic pigs would get into the taro fields and destroy completely the taro and so the people began to suffer because these tame pigs went loose. After that, taro went out; we didn’t have too much taro. And people had to go up the side of the cliffs go look for, you know those elephant ears? Well, they start using that as food and when that elephant ear thing sort of ran out, they went to wild bananas and after that it got so bad that didn’t have anything to eat. No staple. They had fish but they didn’t have taro. So, they had to move to Waimanu.

VL: Why were the domestic pigs running wild?

RK: Nobody was taking care of it. So they had to be let loose. If you can’t take care, then you have to let the pigs take care of themselves.

VL: How come no one was taking care?

RK: The guy who owned the pigs, most of the pigs, he got sick or something and came back over here. And the pigs just ran wild, got into people’s taro patches and uprooted their taro. So, after that ordeal over there, the people had to move out; otherwise they themselves going starve too. And so they came over here, came to Waipi‘o, looking around for jobs. Over here was still planting rice that time and most of my uncles and my father got into this rice harvesting. And for a while, that’s the only job they had and somehow the plantation have a opening and my father moved up Kukuihaele and that’s where I started going to school, in Kukuihaele. So my father was working for the plantation as a luna with couple of working men under him. Maybe I was about five-years-old when I was going to school. Well, he worked for the plantation and I think when I was about 12, he died and I sort of took it upon myself to be the guy to take my father’s place. Because all I had was my sisters and my mother living up at the house.

YY: Where was John?

RK: John was down here in Waipi‘o.

YY: Who was he living with?

RK: He was living with my uncle.

YY: Your uncle Solomon?

RK: No, William. And so we were staying up in Kukuihaele and there was my sister and my mother. So when my father passes away I sort of became the man of the house so I tended to the taro field. Like go to school and then come back, I start working on the taro patches.

YY: Down in Waipi‘o?

RK: No, no. Up in Kukuihaele. We planted our own taro.

VL: How much land did you have in taro?

RK: Not much. Maybe about not even quarter of an acre, I think. But we had patches that could keep us going year around. And the same thing happened up there. We had to make poi, pound our own poi.

YY: So then did you do all of those duties?

RK: Yeah.

VL: When you were going to school, can you tell us about a day? Like when you would wake up and what you would do all that day.

RL : When I got up, before I go to school, my mother would sort of remind me, “You have to come back early today. You got to pull taro, make poi tomorrow.” So I came back from school in the afternoon and I start pulling the taro and get ’em ready. My mother cook ’em when I go to school so when I come back, she’s got ’em all cooked and peeled, and I pound ’em.

VL: So you would come home from school and pull and the next day . . .

RK: And the next day I pound. The taro would be cooked by my mother. Meanwhile, my sister was working plantation.

VL: So, when you were going to school, would you do any chores before you went to school?

RK: Yeah, when there was something like probably go cut grass or move the animal. We had horses to take care. I had to go check the animals before I go to school.

VL: Then would you eat breakfast?

RK: Yeah, you know those days, breakfast didn’t seem important. All that was important is get to school, play with your friends. Lunch was pretty important.

VL: And what was that?

RK: From the school, we had to run all the way back, eat lunch at home and run all the way back to school again.

YY: How far away was that, where was the house?

RK: You know where that Japanese church in Kukuihaele? Yeah, from there I used to run all the way from school, all the way there and in the back, that’s where we stayed. And once in a while, you feel rich when you got a nickel or a dime, you could go to the restaurant and buy yourself half a loaf bread with jelly, just smothered with jelly on both sides and cost you only a nickel.

YY: And you would have that?

RK: Oh yeah. And you feel like a millionaire.

VL: How did you get your money?

RK: I used to nag sometimes, nag my sister. (laughter) When I was able to get money was like I used to go cut grass for Seiko’s (Kaneshiro) father. Like, if I cut one bundle, just one bundle for the day, then I would get, say, maybe a dime for a bundle. But if I cut two for a day, I might get quarter, two bundles for a quarter.

YY: How much time did this work involve, doing what that much?

RK: Oh, it didn’t take long because, say, you get through school about 2 o’clock, you come back, you go cut grass and maybe take you hour and a half before you finish the two bundle of grass. And then there’s you quarter. And we used to get these silent movies theater across the valley. You know where Olepau? Right this side of the store? Well, there’s a garden over there; used to be old theater over there, silent movie. And this quarter goes a long way for the whole, you know, on weekend we get movie. You save this quarter.

VL: How much was a movie?

RK: Dime.

YY: Do you remember any movies that you saw?

RK: Yeah. Like usually it’s Western pictures. You know, Western show, but silent movie. They used to have the “Mark of Zorro” and all those old pictures. They didn’t have much of this singing cowboys then. Probably they couldn’t sing worth . . . But anyway, there was Jack Huxey and William S. Hunt and oh, I forget, some others. And on the heavier side you had Rudolph Valentino and all that. That was pretty heavy, those days.

VL: How often did you go to the movies?

RK: Oh, as often as I can scrape up that two bundle grass. (Laughter)

VL: Then your chores after school, was it to help in the taro patch?

RK: Yeah. Or go get firewood. Get firewood ready. You know, hot water.

YY: Where did you go for firewood?

RK: Right next to the house you get lot of guava trees and those Christmas berry trees. Those are considered hard wood. They grow wild down there so that’s where we go pick our wood.

YY: So did you have to cut?

RK: Yeah. You had to cut ’em. And you cut ’em before or dry ’em before. Say about month or month-and-a-half. And then you’d be able to use ’em to cook, hot water, or taro.

YY: What kind of tool did you use to cut?

RK: Oh, we used to have this so-called two-man saw. You know, two people on one saw for when that thing back and forth. Or else, we had this Japan saw; you know, the thing that you pull towards you. And this big ax and cane knife, and that’s it. Those two came in handy when it’s necessary to use ’em.

VL: After your father died, did your mother work?

RK: No, she stayed back, take care of the hogs.

VL: So your folks’ income, your money, was from where?

RK: From what my sister made, which wasn’t much, at that time. But my mother would go down the beach to go fishing or would catch these ‘opihi. She would sell that. And she would but the (inaudible) and whatever she need. I used to go with her too, but that was only for get away from the house chores so I used to follow her around.

VL: Followed her when she did what?

RK: Go fishing. And then, on the way home, I help her pack some of her stuff like probably her ‘opihi bag or whatever she get from down the beach. I help with her.

YY: Did she used to come down the beach?

RK: Yeah, yeah. Where Sam Moloha and all those guys go down. You know, from the breakwater.

YY: Where is that?

RK: Kukuihaele. There’s a road going down the beach up there. You can see that house on the other end over there, from this side, looking over. Well, we used to go down that beach.

VL: So mostly what you folks ate was, what?

RK: I guess seaweed kind of thing like the usual thing. Like poi. Rice wasn’t expensive, was really cheap. We were getting used to all this cracker and coffee and butter and all this.

YY: How about candies?

RK: Oh, that came later.

YY: Or any other kind of sweets?

RK: No, my mother didn’t go for sweets. She didn’t care for sweets. But, see, when I was small, she was working too, before we got settled up there. She was working. And she used to take me to the store as sort of a bribe, you know. If not, like I’d yell my head and won’t go to school so she’d buy me this big package of candy which was cheap in those days. And all that made me feel so good I could stay home whole days, whole night, only by myself. I used to like my candy after when I came this side, Kukuihaele.

VL: When you were living in Kukuihaele did you folks ever come down to Waipi‘o?

RK: Yeah, we came fishing like that. Or came visit some of the family down here. Because we still had family down here. That was probably a once a month thing or maybe once in two months, come down visit with paddle and go fishing down here.

The fishing, those days, was good because the river was deep and wasn’t polluted like the way now. I really enjoyed those days, you know.

VL: How did you go fishing?

RK: Net. And this basket-thing like. Which was for the shallow part of the river. On the deeper part of the river, we either use throw net or somebody call it a cross net. There was enough fish, lot of fish.

YY: What kinds?

RK: Mullet. What would you call that now? Gori and ‘o‘opu. And those were big size kinds, not that small kind like this. And then, there was a season where these small fish, almost like iriko, would come out. And boy, there’d be like two to three months, it’d be steady stream of this tiny fish would be coming in.

YY: Do you remember what time of the year?

RK: No, I don’t really remember. Probably in the summer months I guess. But that’s another type of fishing we go through, you know, catches these small fish.

VL: How about hunting?

RK: Hunting? I didn’t know much hunting until I got back from the Army. That’s when I started doing hunting. But my family used to go. And those days, they were hunting like just with knife and rope. They didn’t have guns and dogs. They didn’t use guns, those days. And that would be like maybe once a week spent hunting, fishing, you know.

YY: How did they use the rope?

RK: Just in case the pig is in a hole where it’s impossible for the men to go down and get ’em they use the rope, they lasso that. By lassoing the pig, they could go down and sort of tie that pig up.

VL: In Kukuihaele, when you were sick, did you go see a doctor?

RK: Yeah. I don’t know whether he was really a good doctor or what but he was more like a country doctor. Doctor Okada. Like, he was famous for cutting people up, you know.

VL: Oh no.

RK: Oh yeah. And every time he start whistling, people would get scared. You know, whistling means big things, coming on. I think, I don’t know if he saved more lives than anybody else but people were kind of afraid of him. We had two. Before Dr. Okada was Dr. Tamura. Then we had Dr. Okada, he’s an older doctor too.

YY: Japanese?

RK: Uh huh.

VL: How does this doctor travel around?

RK: He came by car. He had his own car. But to bring the doctor down to Waipi‘o here, we sort of went up with an extra horse and get him and his bag down, get him down here. Then if the patient require hospitalization, then the patient have to go up.

VL: Were you treated, say, by your mother, with any folk medicine?

RK: Yeah. I know one of these medicine would be the kukui nut sap, that was for coated tongue. And, I don’t know, one kind of clover with the yellow flower that you use for if you’re underweight or something. That’s one of these folk medicines, you know. You boil this into a tea and drink it. What it does is increase your appetitie, and get some other medicine. I never understand some of these medicine is just like going into all these kahuna thing, you know.

YY: What about that?

RK: You have to go pick this. Maybe half a dozen of this thing and probably another half a dozen of this and that, you know. And you bring ’em all together, the guy mixes and pound ’em and everything and squeezes the juice out and make you drink.

VL: And then what?

RK: What happens is something like he goes like, he sort of offers a prayer or something like that. That type of medicine is known as, the Hawaiian call it, well, it’s a calling medicine.

YY: What does that mean?

RK: Well, it means that after you complete doing all these things put together, what the guy does is sort of like call the spirit to help with the medicine. And to do that, the known kahuna, he’s the one that’s supposed to do that. So he call on the spirit to help with the medicine, that’s why they call it the calling medicine. This medicine that’s supposed to be made by the, like you have medicine man. This kahuna is supposed to be a medicine man.

VL: Did he cure sick people?

RK: Yeah, I think he did. I no can vouch for them because actually it’s something that you don’t see with your eyes. You probably feel ’em but you don’t, you know.

VL: Were there kahunas in Kukuihaele?

RK: Yeah. I met them. Talked to them.

YY: Do you remember their names?

RK: Yeah, but I don’t know if I should reveal their names because what they went through wasn’t that pleasant.

VL: How did people feel about them? Or treat them?

RK: Some would be afraid of them. But then some would be belligerent enough to sort of, “You can’t fool around me because I didn’t do anything wrong to you.” The idea is you afraid because if you did something wrong. The idea back of all the kahuna thing, it’s fear. When you have fear in you, that’s when, the way I understand, fear kills more people than anything else. As far as kahuna goes. Kahunas sort of work on this fear and that’s how they get rid of whoever they want to get rid of. I don’t know. I was told, that was what I was told. If you scared then it really gets you.

VL: So, were you scared?

RK: Nah.


RK: I don’t think I was that scared. To tell you the truth, this couple would give me candy and my sister and brother said, “Hey don’t take that candy. Throw ’em away.” But I used to ask my father, “These guys gave me candy.” He said, “ Remember that before you eat that candy . . . .” Like, we were sort of religious too, that time. My dad used to always tell me, “You ask God to take everything, whatever that’s not good in that candy, to take ’em away." And I start thinking, oh, gee. That’s easy? I’d, sure, for that candy, I’ll do anything. Like, the lady would give me candy. I would take off and I go by one corner where nobody around. I say, “Oh God, if get anything in this candy that is not good for me, you take ’em away because I like eat this candy." (Laughter) And I was doing that, I didn’t get sick, nothing. But my brother, he had ’em. They gave him that manju. He ate one of that and he start . . . his stomach he get and he start to get sore and he wanted to relieve himself and he could not. And with that pain he start rolling in the cane, just like one . . . . My uncle sort of got suspicious and went over there and seen him. “What’s the matter?” “I don’t know, my stomach is hurting. And every time I like go relieve myself, I cannot.”