The Coconut Tree - Staff of Life?

By Veronica S. Schweitzer

A lone coconut tree towers over the Hawaiian landscape as snow draped Mauna Kea looms in the background. 

The tall coconut tree sways in the Hawaiian trades. Many visitors to the islands expect to see these graceful palms or look forward to an authentic pina colada. They mail the coconuts to their snowbound relatives elsewhere. Ah, how sweet the tropics.

In reality, however, the coconut tree, cocos nucifera, doesn't thrive in Hawaii like it does on islands closer to the equator, and stands for a lot more. The tree symbolizes life itself for the Hawaiian people.

Niu, as the palm was called in the Polynesian language, probably originated in prehistoric times in the Indo-Malaysia-Melanesia triangle and was brought to the Hawaiian islands during the first migrations. But while elsewhere in the South Seas the coconut tree was a staple food source and was planted extensively, the old Hawaiians never used the tree in that role. For them, the food-value in the coconut tree added merely a welcome variety to a staple diet of taro and breadfruit.

Far more important were its many other uses. From trunk, husks and shells, leaves and fronds, the Hawaiians created food containers, hula drums, fans, children's toys, rods and other tools. And the canoes, which brought the precious protein in the form of fish, were lashed together with invaluable sennit, the indestructible, coarse rope yarn spun out of the fibers of the coconut husk. No other rope could withstand the pressure of water, weight, and wind as well the coconut. In Hawaiian legend it is said that the god "Maui" snared the sun's rays with coconut sennit!

Yet there was more to the tree. A sacred function, and a vital meaning.

The early Polynesian voyagers sailed a long way before they found the shores of Hawaii. They were a migrating people, but nostalgic for their permanent home. This foreign home was named Tahiti or "kahiki" and the coconut tree stretching into the sky, flexible and strong, symbolized and served as a powerful reminder of their Polynesian ancestral roots.

There is a well-known legend which tells of a young Hawaiian boy, son of Hina and Ku-the-Leader. The father has gone back to his homeland Tahiti and the boy longs to meet his father. He asks Hina for help. Hina then chants to their ancestor, the coconut tree. She sings, "niu-ola-hiki, o life-giving-coconut of Tahiti." And she sings, "niu-loa-hiki, o far-traveling-coconut".

A coconut sprouts in front of her.

She wakes her son and tells him to climb the tree and hold on, while she continues chanting. The coconut sways and bends, it stretches and grows, it stretches over the ocean till its crown comes down. At last the strong leaves rest on Tahiti.

The boy meets his father. Together they bring offerings to their ancestor, niu-ola-hiki, who, in the form of an eel, arises from the ocean and savors the offered food.

This legend reappears in many different variations. Always, the coconut tree is pictured as a stretching tree with magical powers, an image of Ku, the ancestor of the Hawaiian people and the link to the original home.

The coconut tree offers a pathway to another world, and serves as the bridge between humans and gods, earth and heaven, child and ancestors. This tree is a path to the sacred land and therefore the Staff of Life.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.