Sacred site caretaker marches to his own drummer

Joan Conrow
Jim Alalem cares for sacred sites along the Wailua River.    Photo by Joan Conrow

KAUAI—Jim Alalem has no question about his calling. He knows exactly what he’s supposed to be doing in this life: teaching children, sharing the Hawaiian culture, and serving as kahu, or caretaker, to heiau along the Wailua River.

He knows because he’s been informed, in dreams, visions, and messages that come from the spiritual realm, Alalem says.

“I always thought I wanted to be like everybody: make money, buy a house, get married, have children,” Alalem says. “But it didn’t happen like that for me. It took a while, but I finally got it. I know who I am and what I was supposed to become.”

Alalem, born and raised in Waipouli, has heard voices and seen things that others didn’t since he was a child. “I knew I wasn’t crazy, but my Mom told me never to speak of those things,” he says. “It was forbidden.”

His sense of being different increased when he attended school, Alalem says. Because he was living in a violent family “that was beyond child abuse,” and suffered mild dyslexia, Alalem never spoke up in class for fear of getting hit with the teacher’s ruler.

As a result, he went through high school without learning to read or write, and escaped from class to “hang out with the cafeteria ladies,” Alalem says. “They adopted me, and that’s how I got my nickname Jimbo. I never knew kind people existed until I met them. Those ladies showed me how to care, how to love, and it’s OK to feel hurt.”

“I love working with the children,” Alalem says. “My main goal is to teach them about the culture, along with respect, honor, and their responsibilities as local children. I really do feel I’ve had an impact.”

After graduating and spending four years in the Army, Alalem returned to Kauai in 1979 and had a profound spiritual experience. “The knowledge and wisdom was given to me and I promised I would teach the children and the people,” he explains. “My whole life changed 360 degrees to not only knowing things I never knew, but things people haven’t learned yet, or have forgotten.”

Alalem says he was shown through visions how to carve wood and stone and make drums, feather capes, and Hawaiian weapons, and he’s created a large collection of weapons. He has been sharing that knowledge with kids of all ages for more than 20 years, teaching them about Hawaiian warrior culture and how the weapons were used.

Most recently he was working with an interpretive program at the Aloha Kauai Beach Resort that included visits by school children to the heiau adjacent to the hotel. But that ended after a management change.

“I love working with the children,” Alalem says. “My main goal is to teach them about the culture, along with respect, honor, and their responsibilities as local children. I really do feel I’ve had an impact.”

All of his educational work is done without compensation: “People wonder why I give so much of myself, but this knowledge is not for me to make money from, but to give back.”

Alalem was given spiritual knowledge that guides him as well in his role as kahu for five sacred sites in Wailua. Working mostly alone, and occasionally with a helper or two, he mows, weed-eats, picks up litter, and tends the stone walls.

He also cleans up offerings of crystals, money, flower lei, stones wrapped in ti leaf and “all kinds of weird stuff” that people leave at the heiau, and scolds people engaged in what he considers inappropriate behavior at the sacred sites.

That includes conducting weddings, walking dogs, building fires and lighting candles, having parties, meditating, sitting on the walls, and moving stones. He even broke up a tour group whose leader was re-enacting a birth on the birthstone.

“I try to make the people understand,” he says. “I don’t go off on them. You can look at the heiau, but walk only on the outer perimeter, not the inside. Our tourists, they don’t know. Our young people, they don’t care, because they haven’t been taught.”

Alalem also objects to hula being practiced in the Wailua heiau: “The hula people who want to practice in there do not realize these sites were not used for hula. There’s protocol to the culture and these are religious heiau. Hula does not belong here.”

“For me, as a kahu, it’s very upsetting,” he adds. “Our own people need to be taught. The culture is getting very, very diminished.”

Although it hasn’t always been easy marching to the beat of his own drummer, Alalem says he suffers more when he veers off the spiritual path.

“My calling was different,” he says. “I had to just accept it or go crazy for the rest of my life, and it’s been a wonderful journey for me.”