Haunted by Kristin Farr

Editor Carrie Ivy, Editor's Choice, September 25th, 2017

" ...used as a tool across race and time to create -- and preserve -- extreme social stratification."

Kristin Costello essay nailed magazine

An essay by Kristin Farr.

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I see palm fronds. Rolling black lava and soft white sand beaches, flowers and birds and the sea. The air is tropical, warm and slightly muggy. Just a few minutes away, warm waves break gently on the sandy shore. Paradise.

Yet, underneath, something is lurking. I can feel it. Our rented condo sits on a manicured golf course lying like a green toupee on top of sharp craggy black lava flow carved with ancient petroglyphs.

Underneath the tan and the sand in my hair and the alohas and mahalos and Auntie Tutu directing the rolling hips of the hula dancers at the luau, I feel uneasy. Emotionally queasy. There’s something off-kilter, menacing, gliding under the surface, skittering out the corner of my eye. A fin, a sharp toothy grin flashes below the surface and disappears underneath.

I turn my head to look at it.

I can even smell it, the sickly sweet and fetid rot of dark decomposing human history, a whiff just around the edges, almost masked by the scent of flowers blooming outside our window. Where’s it coming from? Dammit. Where’s that mai tai?


We visit the Pu’ukohola Heiau, the last sacred human sacrifice temple built before European contact. The heiau was built on the order of King Kamehameha to fulfill a prophesy of conquest and domination, a personal destiny to rule all of the Hawaiian Islands.

We start at the visitor’s center, an open air structure built out of stacked lava rock. There’s a graphic on the wall describing the social castes of Ancient Hawaii, back when the temple was built in 1791. I’m blasted open by how much ancient Hawaiian society looks like America today:

Kristin Costello essay nailed magazine


Another display talks about the history of human sacrifice in Hawaii, reminding me that human sacrifice has been used as a tool across race and time to create — and preserve — extreme social stratification.

Here in Hawaii, it was all held in place by a rigid taboo system called kapu. Laws were created by the royal class to maintain social order and separate the spiritually pure from the unclean, the royal from the servants, the top from the bottom.

Punishment for breaking kapu was instant death. You would be ruthlessly hunted down by the i’lamuku (law officer).  Killed on the spot by strangulation, clubbing, stoning, burning or drowning. Or used later as a human sacrifice.

Examples of Hawaiian Kapu:

Kapuhili: Contact with chiefs or other spiritual leaders

  • Coming into contact with the chief’s hair or fingernail clippings
  • Looking directly at the chief
  • Being in sight of the chief with a head higher than his
  • Touching the chief’s clothing or personal items
  • Wearing red and yellow feathers
  • Shadow falling on a chief’s house or anything that belonged to him
  • Stepping on the King’s shadow

‘Ai Kapu: Contact between women and men

  • Men and women could not eat meals together
  • Men and women had to use different ovens to cook their food
  • Women could not eat pork, most types of bananas, coconut or some large fish
  • Women could not enter the eating house of her husband while he was eating.

Jump forward to 2017.

Ruling class promises to renew law and order to stop the “American carnage of crimes and gangs and drugs” despite the lowest national crime rate in many years.

Unarmed black people regularly hunted down by law enforcement, snuffed out on the spot for committing similar “crimes”.

Black Lives Matter signs in windows to protest.

We have our own kapu.

Being Black and Holding Things Kapu:

  • Selling loose cigarettes (Eric Garner)
  • Holding a toy gun (John Crawford, Tamir Rice)
  • Holding a pill bottle (Rumain Brisbon)
  • Having a switchblade (Freddie Gray)
  • Talking on a cellphone (LaTanya Haggerty)

Being Black and Being Somewhere Kapu:

  • Walking into a dimly lit public housing stairwell (Akai Gurley)
  • Sitting on your front porch (Yvette Smith)
  • Standing in alley with friends (Rekia Boyd)
  • Being in the bathroom of your apartment (Ramarley Graham)
  • Going on a walk at night (Trayvon Martin, Gregory Gunn)
  • Playing in a park (five unnamed boys in Grand Rapids, Michigan)

Being Black and Being in a Car Kapu:

  • Being a passenger in a car (Jerame Reid, Kendra James, Jordan Edwards)
  • Missing a license plate (Samuel DuBose)

Being Black and Being Human Kapu:

  • Having a disability or mental illness (Ezell Ford, Dontre Hamilton, Tanisha Anderson, Natasha McKenna, Shereese Francis, Manuel Loggins, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, Ronald Madison, Charleena Lyles)
  • Being homeless (Brendon Glenn)
  • Being an immigrant (Amadou Diallo)
  • Running away (Walter Scott)

In ancient Hawaii, there was only one way to survive if you broke a kapu. You literally had to outrun the law. If you raced to the nearest pu’uhonua, place of refuge, and made it inside the Great Wall, you were saved.  There, you would be forgiven your transgressions by a kahuna (priest) in a purification ceremony. You could go back home with your sin wiped clean, get a fresh start.

America 2017 has places of refuge too. They’re called Sanctuary Cities. Here, if you are brown and can make it across the border, you’re promised safety and protection from white power American policies, law officers and vigilantes. Safety and protection from family and constitution-breaking deportations, trap-you-in-the-airport travel bans, violent hate crimes. Paradise.

But, really, there is no sanctuary here. If you’re brown, the Great Wall is designed to keep you out. If you’re brown, you can’t really ever get absolved or purified no matter what you do. Even if you play by all the rules. Even if you’re a documented US citizen or make it to a Sanctuary City. You’re always at risk, always vulnerable, always not-white. Always hunted down.

There is no sanctuary.

Run, runner. Run.


I feel freaked out, on edge, like something is going to jump out around the corner. And we haven’t even made it out of the visitor’s center yet.

We head out and make our way to the heiau. It’s built on a blasted landscape, sits under a scorching sun. The narrow concrete path up to the temple is hot, steep and dry, leading us up a black lava flow hill to a stark wall of carefully stacked red lava rocks. Inside the temple are the sacrificial altars, the stones where the blood work happened.

The temple overlooks the Hale o Kapuni, a submerged ocean heiau dedicated to the shark gods. Some say it’s really a continuation of Pu’ukohola, that the temple extends down into the water. Legend has it that when the tide went out, the heiau was revealed. The human sacrifices were carried down the path and laid here for the shark gods.

If you worship the shark, it won’t eat you. If you are the shark, you eat.

On the shore above, in between the sacrifice heiau and the shark heiau, a large phallic stone rises up from the ground.  The Chief once sat here, leaned up against the stone to watch the feeding of the sharks. The stone is named Pohaku o Alapa‘i ku palupalu mano, translated as “the rock of the chief named Alapa‘i of the one who puts the human shark bait out.”

In the early morning hours, you can see the sharks swimming in the water just offshore. Maybe their ancestor instincts guide them here, swimming in circles waiting for human shark bait.

It’s quiet and heavy here, just a faint breeze from the ocean. Ominous and old. The traces, the ghosts of power tripping and heavy labor. Dehumanization. Suffering. Terror. Silence. Sacrifice. Loss. I can feel it, underneath. A kapu symbol of crossed sticks topped with fabric-covered balls blocks the entrance to the temple. I dare not enter.

Kristin Costello essay nailed magazine



King Kamehameha forced fourteen miles of outcast Hawaiian people to build the heiau. They labored in the heat day after day, making a chain of their bodies, tossed rock after rock to each other across the blasted landscape to build this sacrificial temple to their own oppression. If they dropped a rock, they couldn’t stop to pick it up, had to keep going. The long trail of human suffering is still here.

The very same year back on the mainland, African men, women and children were ripped from their homes, pulled apart from their families and forced to do the very same thing in Washington DC. They carved sandstone, made bricks and built the White House and the Capitol Building in the name of a similar Manifest Destiny.

And just a few decades later, the US militia forced thousands of native men, women and children shark bait to leave their ancestral lands because they wanted the gold discovered there. Yet another long trail of human suffering, the Trail of Tears, justified by Manifest Destiny.

If you worship the shark, it won’t eat you. If you are the shark, you eat.


Once the land was just a volcano erupting and cooling and erupting again.

The first seeds blew in off a storm, the first animals flew and crawled out of the sea. Their evolution went on for millions of years, undisturbed.  Paradise.

And then the people started coming. The first navigators arrived. The Polynesians became the Hawaiians and built the Pu’ukohola Heiau. The Europeans showed up and colonized. The Americans claimed and annexed. This centuries-old layer cake of slicing dicing using abusing human history is still here on this island, at this temple.

Does our brutalism originate in the ancient shark, the reptilian brain that still lives in us today, underneath?

Or can we evolve?

This land tells me it’s all here, the answers to my questions. Just look. Keep looking. The microcosm is the macrocosm. As above, so below.

For what it’s worth (and it might be worth a whole lot), I hear that Queen Ka’ahumanu ended the centuries-old Hawaiian kapu system in one day by sitting at a table with her son and eating a banana. One day, she just acted like a mammal and the whole thing fell apart. The simplicity and audacity of her action inspires me. I wish there was something that easy, that accessible, that available for us too.

Evolution wrapped a mammal brain around our shark core, hard-wiring us for social connection and empathy. But some say we mostly just feel empathy for those who look and act like us.  They say we need to bring our post-mammalian logic into the equation to create true equality.

I wonder if they’re talking about our next evolution, an intentional one this time.

Could we intentionally forge new neural pathways between our shark, monkey and human brains?  Create a checks and balances system between our drives to survive, connect and understand? Would we quit sacrificing each other – and the planet – for personal gain?

It would take a long time to really bake it in, probably many generations. But why not start trying? What do we really have to lose?


It’s hot back at the sacrificial heiau. We look down at the sharks, their fins slicing the shallow water as they glide over the ancient ruins of the human shark bait temple.

We stop, take photos and joke about how Wicker Man it all feels. We fall silent when hot wind blows through the grass.

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Header image courtesy of Adam Martinakis. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

Kristin Costello essay nailed magazineKristin Farr lives in Seattle with her family. She drives kids around, studies writing with Lidia Yuknavitch and Zinn Adeline at Corporeal Writing and co-runs Valhalla DSP, an audio software company.


Carrie Ivy

Carrie Ivy (formerly Carrie Seitzinger) is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ivy is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.