Game on: Annual Ka Moku o Keawe Makahiki returns to Waimea Jan. 21

  • Kaniela Anakalea-Buckley assists preschoolers with hakamoa, or a standing chicken fight, at Makahiki in 2015. This year he is leading the games in Waimea. (COURTESY PHOTO
    Kaniela Anakalea-Buckley assists preschoolers with hakamoa, or a standing chicken fight, at Makahiki in 2015. This year he is leading the games in Waimea. (COURTESY PHOTO
  • Lei’ohu Colburn (far right) wins the decathlon for wahine division again. She co-leads this year’s Makahiki competition. (COURTESY PHOTO)
    Lei’ohu Colburn (far right) wins the decathlon for wahine division again. She co-leads this year’s Makahiki competition. (COURTESY PHOTO)

WAIMEA — This year, Kanu o ka Aina graduates Kaniela Anakalea-Buckley and Lei’ohu Colburn will step into leadership roles at the 11th annual Ka Moku o Keawe Makahiki in Waimea. The two grew up practicing for the games — an intergenerational rite of passage for students who begin participating when they enter school.

“I was in the first kindergarten class at Kanu and the older kids would come and help teach us a sport. As we got older the caliber got raised every year. We went from being introduced to the game, to being veterans of the game, experts of the game,” said Anakalea-Buckley.

Training for the games supports the holistic learning approach of traditional Hawaiian culture and is a way to hone physical and mental skills through high school and beyond.

Colburn, who started at Kanu o ka Aina in third grade, said, “As I got older I started to see it wasn’t just go and play, but like a goal. In order to win the ulu maika, you have to hold the maika like this or to be the fastest. You need to straighten up your hands, fine tuning.”

Molokai revived the tradition of the Makahiki games more than 30 years ago and is now the pinnacle of competition for the entire state.

“Everybody comes to their own Makahiki and plays, and then all the different schools started to come up to Molokai. It sets the foundation for what it could look like. We bring back home what we learned over there and share with everybody. And that’s kind of what we have now where we’re expanding. Last year we had around 500 participants,” said Colburn.

Competitors from Hawaii Island have been participating in Makahiki games on Molokai since 2003, inspiring participants to do their best in the hopes of placing well enough to compete on Molokai.

“One year we started to go up to Molokai. That’s when I started getting to see that this was a big deal,” she said.

Colburn remembers her first Kuakini run on Molokai. “I was in fifth or sixth grade. We’d go up to this place, Nai’iwa. It’s basically a pasture and you run from one side to the other and the first person to get to the other side wins. It’s grass that’s up to your waist, so you’re high-kneeing the whole time. That was so much fun.”

Participants can either choose individual games or sign on for the decathlete, which means competing in all 10 events.

“I do the decathlete, so I play all the games. I like that because you get to play the skills and strength games, and just because you’re the strongest person doesn’t mean you’re going to win. I like that being a decathlete makes you be more open,” said Colburn.

Each year brings new depth and insight, and for many the Makahiki games have become a rite of passage.

“Keali’i (men’s champion from Oahu), would always smoke everybody on the 100-yard dash. Every year my goal was to beat him. It got to the point where we’re not playing to go to Molokai anymore, we’re playing to be able to stand against these men, to stand on the field with those warriors,” said Anakalea-Buckley.

Colburn’s rite of passage began, “When I was in seventh grade, going up to Molokai and they had the decathlete. It was only for the adults, but I wanted to try. I did alright but there were these big aunties, women playing. So playing them made me think, ‘OK, this is what I got to get ready for next year.’ I practiced and the next years I would place higher and higher. When I was a sophomore or a freshman I won the women’s decathlete.”

Now these two young leaders are stepping up to a new game: passing on the wisdom they learned over the years as the games evolved.

“The caliber is being raised every year. The kids are getting creative with their strategies and how they’re playing the game. They’re working together,” said Anakalea-Buckley. “Me and my generation all worked together to hone our skills. You came up with our own little repertoire of skills, and I wonder what they can come up with. Last year I saw speed demons, some demigod strength and I remember when these kids were in middle school. Now they’re like animals on the field.”

With their years of experience participating and refereeing, and the guidance of Aunty Keala Kahuanui, Anakalea–Buckley and Colburn feel ready to take on the challenge of leading the games.

“Before it was about getting faster, getting stronger and figuring out different skills and training with your friends. Now it’s about understanding the game, how to play it and how to help that one guy that trains all year and loses,” said Anakalea–Buckley.

Following Aunty Keala’s lead, “Being a jack of all trades is the best way to anchor anything — how Aunty Keala usually does it: jumping all around, making sure we have water and snacks. It’s a big endeavor having everyone working together, but at the end of the day it’s about having fun, trying to make sure that the sport is fun and active,” said Anakalea-Buckley.

Or as Colburn put it, “We’re going to get all of the refs and the scorekeepers together, make sure we all have the plan, set up the field and then game on.”

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