Kahunas are healers who often acted as both teachers and priests in their family and community. They studied medicine for 15-20 years beginning at a young age. Their studies included anatomy, herbs, conservative treatments, simple surgical procedures, and prayer. They studied in special temples called heiau. Certain areas on islands were believed to have special healing abilities.
Traditionally, kahunas were very secretive about their treatments. In fact, kahuna means “keeper of the secret”. Huna (knowledge) was considered secret and only passed from one kahuna to the other. This makes learning about Native Hawaiian medicine challenging.
Fortunately, we can study letters describing Native Hawaiian medicine from the 1700-1800s. Like modern Western doctors, kahunas could specialize in many different types of medical professionals. These include:
• Kahuna la‘au lapa‘au – specializes in herbs
• Kahuna haihai iwi – sets broken bones
• Kahuna haha – feels with their fingers to diagnose illnesses
• Kahuna hoohapai keiki – a kahuna who induces pregnancy
• Kahuna hoohanau keiki – a kahuna who delivers babies
• Kahuna lomilomi – a specialist who focuses on skilled massage for physical and spiritual health