When I visited Hawaii’s Big Island last year, I stopped by the Hulihe’e Palace in Kailua-Kona, once the vacation residence of Hawaiian royalty. In one of its lovingly restored rooms, I spotted a diorama featuring what looked like a sled. A sled? In Hawaii? I was intrigued.
Before the European missionaries arrived, he’e holua or Hawaiian lava sledding, was a sport practiced by the Ali’i, the Hawaiian ruling class. It involved a man hurling himself headfirst down a slope on a narrow sled made of native hardwood attached to parallel runners. The papa holua, or sledding platform, was generally 12 feet long but only six inches wide. The sledders could reach speeds of 50 miles per hour.
He’e holua was a competitive sport but it also held religious meaning for Hawaiians. The British missionaries didn’t like it, however, and seeing it as a frivolous waste of time, prohibited its practice. The last documented he’e holua was in 1825. That is, of course, until surfer and cultural studies lecturer at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, Tom “Pohaku” Stone, a Big Island native, came along. He’s reviving the 2,000-year-old sport and has uncovered more than 50 man-made and naturally occurring courses. He found one course that’s 60 feet in width and some 5,200 feet long.
I caught up with 50-something Stone to learn more about he’e holua.
Why did Hawaiians go lava sledding? What was its significance in terms of native Hawaiian religion and cosmology?
Well, for the most part it was about worshiping the goddess Pele who made the islands through fire. Throughout Hawai’i what we know about Pele and her migration to the islands is based on her ability to create the fire and lava from which the land was created. At the same time we feared her wrath we also worshiped her or at times challenged her by riding down the the steep hardened lava slopes to prove we could overcome her anger. Most times we lost. All holua slides are constructed around heiau, sites of worship for Pele. Each heiau I found included a holua slide.
The sledding looks dangerous. Is it?
It is very dangerous on lava rock or on grass slopes today. Crashes in the old time could mean death or a lifetime injury. It hasn’t changed much today; crashes and injuries still remain horrific. All being said, it’s fun when done properly.
How many people are trying it these days?
It has grown beyond Hawai’i, but in Hawai’i and the Pacific there are more and more riders today. In Hawai’i there are nearly 100 active riders.
Are he’e holua courses located throughout the Hawaiian Islands or are they concentrated on certain islands?
The number of holua sites has grown over the year and they are or were located on all islands in abundance, making these one of the most prominent physical architectures created by my ancestors.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Was it only men who went lava sledding before the missionaries arrived?
No, women excelled at holua and were very competitive, though the history as written by missionaries features men as the true participants for it. Missionary history tells of men competing against one another in preparation to compete against the female gods or the Ali’i wahine (Chiefess).
I read online that you’re trying to organize a surfer versus sledder sort of event that would involve a surfer riding a wave and a sledder heading downhill to see who reaches the beach first. Has this sort of event ever happened before?
I am definitely working on reviving this traditional event, one that it is without a doubt a celebration of traditional Hawaiian sports. The last time an event like this happened was in circa 1825, but really it has not happened in its truest sense for hundreds of years. I want to bring back this unique event: feature the use of a traditional wood surfboard weighing about 100 pounds with the rider needing to catch a wave while the sledder is coming down the mountain. Through our non-profit KANALU, we are working on having traditional sports event in two parts—surfing & holua—each performed individually; eventually this would lead to both those traditional sports combined into one.
Photos courtesy of Tom “Pohaku” Stone