Pacific Northwest MagazineMay 25, home
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Calling on the Kahuna

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Aupuni Iwi'ula and his mother have practiced lomi lomi, a traditional Hawai'ian body-work technique, on his daughter, Leihulu, ever since she was born 20 years ago. In lomi lomi, the practitioner breaks up and pulls invisible toxins from the recipient's body. Students must study two years of Hawai'ian culture and beliefs before Aupuni will teach them lomi lomi.

BEFORE WE GET to the kahuna and the entity in the bedroom, let's start with something familiar, say, the late-'90s real-estate boom in Seattle and a 30-something couple wanting to buy their first home. Bart and Denise look at 70 houses and get outbid on two before finally finding a place they like and can afford. Not much street appeal, but it's newish, hardwood floors, cathedral ceilings, sparkling kitchen — a California split-level in up-and-coming West Seattle.

They move in. Two weeks after, on the way downstairs, Bart thinks he sees shimmery apparitions crouching in the walls. He shrugs it off, doesn't want to scare Denise or seem silly. Instead, he asks casually, "Does it feel cold around here?"

"Yeah, it feels cold by the stairwell," she agrees.

A brief word about Bart and Denise Iaia. Bart is an outgoing 38-year-old Renton veterinarian who wears Dockers, and enjoys water-skiing and movies (comedies). Denise is a 33-year-old human-resources manager for Staples who loves the water, reads novels recommended by Oprah and decorates with hearts, seashells, lavender flowers. This is a couple you'd run into at The Bon, registering for Calphalon pots and pans (before their wedding last October) or shopping for strollers at Babies 'R' Us (expecting their first this October). They're neither stereotypical New Agers nor wacky woo-woos troubled by basement spirits.
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Hawai'ian traditions of healing and "sight" were passed down to Puni from his mother, aunts, uncles and grandmother on the islands of Kaua'i and Oahu, where he was raised. Since he left Hawai'i 30 years ago, he's preserved traditional ways that have since evolved there. Here, in a Lake Tapps guest room, he senses the spirit of an older woman wearing a blue dress.
And yet . . .

A few nights later, while brushing his teeth, Bart notices "a man walking through my bedroom. Cro-Magnon man. Not bearded, but hairy. . . carrying something in his hand. A tool or a spear. I let it be. Then I was sitting on the couch watching TV and a marmot or a ferret ran across the room. . . ." He had to tell Denise there was some weird stuff going on.

That's when they decided to call Puni.

AUPUNI IWI'ULA is a kahuna — an expert and teacher of Hawai'ian spiritual beliefs — or, as he puts it, "a keeper of secrets." In his case, the secrets are Hawai'ian traditions of "sight" passed down from relatives with a reputation for healing.

Early on, Puni's family believed he had the gift of 'iki paplua, loosely translated in English as sixth sense. Not all kahunas have 'Iki paplua, but everyone who has 'iki paplua is a kahuna. To be a kahuna takes discipline, training and kuleana, a sense of responsibility about using the gifts. His Auntie Tita, for example, used her gift of healing to instantly knit broken bones with the help of poultices and prayers, a talent well known among family and friends but hidden from outsiders.

For centuries after missionaries Christianized the Hawai'ian islands, such practices were considered black magic. It wasn't until the 1970s that the state Legislature approved them as a form of healing. "It was underground," Puni recalls. "Meetings at night, in the garage, in the basement of the house. So I grew up with that perspective."

After graduating from high school and traveling around Europe, Puni returned to visit the islands in 1972. Auntie Tita told Puni he should teach about his culture. Other patriotic relatives pressured him to join the military to fight in Vietnam. Though he didn't feel right about it, he registered for the draft, then left Hawai'i for Seattle, figuring it was close enough to Canada. (Turns out his draft number was high.) He enrolled at the University of Washington, earning an undergraduate degree in French literature and a master's in health-care administration. He married, had a daughter and divorced. For 20 years he was an administrator for the state Health Department and community clinics.

All along, Puni carried on family traditions. He welcomed each new year with Pule 'Ohana Ho'omana, a ceremony in which family members discuss issues from the previous year and cleanse any negative feelings toward each other. Every year he returned to Hawai'i to visit sacred sites.

In the Northwest, those close to Puni knew of his traditions. Ten years ago, a friend invited him to Oregon to share his culture. Puni imagined a weekend getaway with a few friends. Instead, 30 people had assembled, expecting a class. Puni panicked. Told his host "this isn't cool," hiked up a hill to get fresh air and ask his guardians for advice. Their answer? Welcome. It was time for Puni to face his Kuleana, responsibility.
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Bart and Denise Iaia called Puni to their new home at Lake Tapps after they started having more problems with spirits. They decided to let one spirit stay after Puni determined it was an older lady speaking rapidly in Italian, probably Bart's grandmother or great-aunt. If it had been a discordant entity, the kahuna would have inhaled it, driven Interstate 5 to the Duwamish curves, and then exhaled into the crosswinds above the Duwamish River.
After that weekend, Puni taught at Seattle's Bastyr University, at Breitenbush and in the basement of his modest North Seattle home. Friends of friends asked him to come to Manhattan, where he teaches once a month at the American Indian Community House. He recently opened centers for alternative healing therapies in both New York City and Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. Four years ago, because he needed more time to teach and lead retreats, he gave up his administrative career, let his hair grow and traded his suits for Aloha shirts. Puni is now a kahuna full time.

If you met Puni at a dinner party, you wouldn't immediately guess his occupation. He comes across as the type of Seattle do-gooder who listens to NPR, knows jazz and can recommend a good hole-in-the-wall for lunch. He is tall and slightly pudgy with thick hair and a graying beard. His voice is so gently articulate that when he tells you he can control the weather, communicate with spirit entities and see into people's bodies and bureau drawers, the statements seem, if not reasonable, at least unthreatening enough to be intriguing. Out of the moment, back in the daily electronic rush, such ideas seem bizarre.

"People may look at me and see a charlatan or maverick. That's fine," Puni says. "I don't criticize them for their viewpoints and I don't feel obligated to prove myself. This isn't 1-800-KAHUNA."

Then again, every culture has beliefs that to others appear odd: Buddhists believe in reincarnation; Christians take comfort in the power of prayer; Mariners go through lucky rituals to pump up mojo magic.

BART FIRST CONNECTED with Hawai'i in the bathtub. To be exact, he says, that's where the words lomi lomi first popped into his head. He'd never heard of the Hawai'ian healing technique, never had a massage, never consulted a psychic, never visited the Islands. He logged onto the Internet, typed "lomi" and got a few recipes for lomi lomi salmon. So he let it go until one day, while jogging past a bookstore on Capitol Hill, a blue pamphlet caught his eye. The flier advertised a lecture on lomi lomi by Aupuni. He went.

Bart and Denise had taken four of Puni's classes before moving into their West Seattle house. When they invited him to bless it, they didn't reveal what Bart had seen — partly to test the kahuna and partly because, well, it would've sounded ridiculous.

Puni has been called upon to bless hundreds of homes and vehicles in the Northwest and New York, sometimes because of suspected entities, but most often as a prophylactic and ceremonial measure. Kahuna blessings involve spiritual cleansing in the case of houses, or protection for a voyage in the case of vehicles. Puni charges $150 to $200 per blessing, size doesn't matter, blessee decides what to pay.

The Department of Defense, for example, cut a check for $200 for a blessing of the battleship USS Missouri before it sailed from Bremerton to Pearl Harbor. Hawaiian Airlines asked him to bless a DC-10 before its maiden voyage, and years later has yet to pony up — a not uncommon instance of his skills being valued but not enough for payment.

In Bart and Denise's case, Puni expected the spiritual cleansing would be a breeze because it was a relatively new house. He started with a general walk-through, much as a housing inspector would, but stopped short on the stairway landing. The kahuna smelled something acrid and saw the railing and walls ripple. He walked down the stairs, then back up. The ripples became more distinct. Matted blond hair atop dark-skinned heads, Puni thought. Entities who looked native, he says, but more Amazonian than North American. A whole tribe seemed to be in the house, roasting and drying the skins and flesh of animals as well as humans.
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Twenty-eight-year-old David Cawdrey says he's gotten relief from some symptoms of Lou Gehrig's disease since Aupuni and acupuncturist Andrea Miller began treatments in November. Puni says he uses energetics to disperse and replace toxins in David's body.
"Well?" Bart said.

Puni told all, except the part about the human flesh because he didn't want to give Bart and Denise the creeps. The disturbances, he said, were people from a warmer age. They seemed to be nomads, and wouldn't bother whoever lived on their turf for three sets of seasons, but after that, the kahuna believed the tribe would become aggressive.

In most cases, when Puni sees only minor disturbances or benign entities, he leaves them alone, advising homeowners to live with it. Sometimes, if entities are discordant — a disembodied head in a closet, for example — the kahuna will coax the entity to enter his body, often by inhaling it. (Usually it's not difficult to sell a change of scene to an entity that's spent years in a closet.) Then Puni drives away in his decade-old black Isuzu Trooper, opening the sunroof and windows and exhaling the entities over water graced with crosswinds so the spirits will become confused and not return to their previous haunt.

For blessings south of Seattle, Puni exhales on Interstate 5 over the river at the Duwamish curves. North, east and in-city, he uses breezes blowing over the University Bridge.

What nagged Puni was his belief that the tribe of skilled trackers could trace spiritual presences, such as himself, as well as they could hunt animal prey. Usually, Puni says, he's able to "blend in" with entities when he "crosses over" to their space and time. Not in this case, and he didn't want to mess with them.

"Are you two Catholic?" he asked Bart and Denise. They nodded. "Well, good. My recommendation is for you to call the nearest parish and have a Catholic priest bless this house."

Denise phoned a couple of churches, didn't mention an exorcism, simply said they'd recently moved into the neighborhood and wanted their house blessed. Not members of the church, the parish said, then it's no go.

What started out as a real-estate investment became a paranormal turf battle and wound up tangled in spiritual bureaucracy. Bart and Denise decided to skip the whole blessing business, and before the third set of seasons, moved.
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On a Saturday morning in the basement of Puni's North Seattle home, students learn how to get in touch with their ike, core essence, and use various forms of mana, or energy.
BEFORE BECOMING an active kahuna, Aupuni Iwi'ula was best known for starting the Maple Leaf Community Council.

"Puni has always been kind of a visionary," recalls Jack Remick, who served on the council's executive board in the mid-'70s during a period of vast rezoning and debate over nearby Northgate Mall. "It comes out of his Hawai'ian background. He convinced us we are members of a social unit and that anything that happens to one of us happens to us all. He understood how power flowed. He was always proactive, not reactive." Friends coined the term "the Punitwist" to describe his ability to look at situations from various angles and find a creative solution.

Puni, says Remick, "helped us dream and get things done."

That's more or less what students these days say about Puni's Kalama Foundation classes.

"In the classes, definitely, you learn how to fly," says Andrea Miller, a 30-year-old acupuncturist who practices in Fremont. "Most people believe life is what happens to them. But your life can be as happy and full as you'd like it to be, which is actually extremely scary, like the adage about the edge of a cliff. Do you learn to fly in the moment? Or do you just sit and watch the birds go by?"

The classes combine Hawai'ian language and culture with confidence-building, finding-your-inner-being processes common to self-improvement programs. There's also magic and touches you'd only get from a kahuna. Puni "visits" students, in spirit, every night to make sure their energies are OK. He claims he can influence the weather. Before the war started, he reassured his students there'd be no war this year, but watch out in 2005. (In retrospect, he attributed his faulty prediction to this being a "black sheep year" in the animal zodiac calendar, meaning everything behaves the opposite of what you'd normally expect.)

"Obviously, everyone in the classes is searching for something," Denise Iaia says. "For me, it was believing in myself. The whole self-esteem, self-power piece." As a human-resources manager, she's familiar with the self-empowerment genre. "If reading 'The Road Less Traveled' is enough to motivate you, that's great. But that doesn't speak to everyone." Most important, she says, "is realizing you can kind of reclaim yourself, knowing you have the power to stand up against all these paradigms that you're born into: the religions, the do's and don'ts, and still, there's a genuine you."

The search for self and spirit is nothing new in the Seattle area. Compared to the rest of the nation, membership in traditional churches and religious institutions here is low. Exploration of alternatives is high. "People here are familiar with outdoor spirituality," Puni says. "They are looking to commune in the forest, experience a Native-American sweat lodge."

For the Kalama Foundation, this is double-edged. It means people are open to learning about the Hawai'ian belief system, but are sometimes unpleasantly surprised by the curriculum. The classes have levels. There's a protocol.

Those who complete it, which takes about two and half years, learn to use various "energies" and can visit sacred and historical sites in Hawai'i with Puni. Only advanced students may study lomi lomi technique. In the healing form of lomi lomi, the practitioner calls upon protector spirits and energetics to disperse and remove toxins in the recipient's body.

FOR PUNI, THE BEST thing about being a kahuna is the chance to treat those who really need his help. In November, he started working with David Cawdrey, a 28-year-old former professional skateboarder and construction worker who has ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Two years ago, David began falling. Now he can barely walk, his muscles are wasted, his speech slurred and he's so thin, flesh sags between bones in his hands.

Because David recently fathered two children, Puni sensed David's root was strong. Because skateboarders are on the edge of society, the kahuna thought David would be open to alternative treatments. Also, since Western medicine had little left to offer David, Puni felt it was his kuleana to do whatever he could.

The first time Puni surveyed David's body, he sensed deep, dangerous toxins. Initially, he stood across the room when directing energetics into David's fragile body to break up the toxins. A recent session was mostly hands on. Puni stroked oils into David's forehead and temples, let his hands vibrate above David's body, kneaded flesh, offered reassurance, advised him to eat dark green vegetables and ice cream, drink water, wear a hat.

David felt cold. As Puni chanted over him and flung invisible toxins from his body, David said he felt warmer, more comfortable.

In the four months Puni and Andrea, the acupuncturist, have been working with David, he's gained eight pounds, appetite and strength; he sleeps better, too.

Who can say why. Maybe David would have gotten better anyway. Maybe it's the caring and touch Puni and Andrea lavish on him. Perhaps Puni's guardians are replacing toxins in David's body with powerful energetics.

"I was skeptical coming in here," David says. "I've been raised Catholic and I went to Catholic schools, and my parents are practicing skeptics and I kind of have that skeptical outlook. But I've grown to feel, it's unexplainable, but (the Hawai'ian healing) is working for me. It's helping me out tremendously."

Whatever the reason, without a doubt, I felt the temperature rise in that room, too. Heat radiating from David's body. The unmistakable warmth human beings crave.

MEANWHILE, BART and Denise were having problems at home.

When they moved to a house on Lake Tapps, Bart opened a closet door and saw a dangling green head. "Oh no, not again. But actually, it was much better having one dead person in the closet than Cro-Magnon man and a tribe walking through my bedroom. I felt like we'd moved up in the world."

Puni came. He determined the closet had been a garage before the house was relocated from Puyallup, persuaded the asphyxiated green entity to be inhaled, then released it on the Duwamish curves.

For a year, things seemed normal. Bart and Denise were married on the East Coast, Denise got pregnant, they visited Bart's family in Florida during the holidays and hauled back wedding presents his parents had stored for them. That's when Bart sensed strange vibes in the lavender guest room.

Puni arrives, saying immediately he senses something unusual involving a picture frame. He enters the guest room, picks up two glossy gift bags, ruffling the tissue. Ah! A picture frame. He senses a presence, an older woman talking rapidly in Italian.

Turns out the picture frame was a gift from Bart's second-cousin, Mary Lou. Bart phones Florida and after a spirited conversation with his mother, Puni and, in a strange, long-distance way, the entity, they determine the presence is Bart's grandmother or the mother of Mary Lou.

"Well, if it's Ella or Grandma, she can stay," Bart says, turning to Denise. "That all right?

Denise: "Yeah. Fine."

Puni: "Wait, she's talking about the baby. She says it's going to be a girl."

Bart and Denise have decided to wait until October to find out whether the entity is right.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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