Updated: Nov 22
By Gerry Chisolm
A quick internet search will reveal that Michelle Manu is a rare individual. A 10th-degree Kumu (teacher), she’s the only female disciple and inheritor of Hawaii’s ancient combat art of Lua. She’s also a multidisciplinary practitioner and the only woman to receive the designation of “knight commander” from the royal order of King Kamehameha. Fierce, fascinating and formidable, she represents the Hawaiian woman warrior, or Wahine Koa. In this Black Belt exclusive, Manu talks about her art and her devotion to it.
Photos courtesy of Michelle Manu
As an inheritor of lua, what are your responsibilities?
My responsibility is to represent the woman warrior — specifically, through lua, which is kuia’ lua, the ancient and only native warrior art and cultural practice. It wasn’t just martial; the cultural practice of lua entailed warrior massage, the metaphysical [and] spiritual aspects, the connection with nature and all things. Then they had the hula, which concealed the war arts — that was mandatory.
So you have all these elements that made up the cultural practice of what a warrior, or koa, was.
More women are joining, and they’re learning the ways of the ancient women. I also teach men, and they’re learning this. That’s the cultural aspect bringing the old into the new.
Tell me about the ancients.
The women in lua were deadly. They needed to finish things quickly because they were tied to the land — those that weren’t nomadic, the ones that stayed in one place. They had to govern over the land, the individuals of the tribe, the animals.
And then there were others who were nomadic. They did not have children, or if they did, they fought pregnant and gave the child up for adoption. They didn’t take a spouse because their job, mission and purpose was to protect. This was about maximum kills and about women being able to infiltrate areas where the male koa could not.
What weapons did they use?
They used the strangling cord, and they used the pikoi, which was like a lasso that had a jagged tree root on the end or a sharp rock. It was the favorite weapon of the ancient women. The Hawaiian culture was also big on poison. They were very good with their daggers, pahi (swords) and knives. They used pohaku rocks, slingshots...
Slingshots were much better than bows and arrows beca
use when it started raining in battle and the wind started picking up, the bow and arrow would be rendered useless.
This made the slingshots very effective. You’ll see a lot of the leaders and chiefs, even the king, wearing a gourd helmet because it deflected the flying rocks from the ma’a, or slingshot.
Kauai was the only island that was not overtaken by King Kamehameha. They were experts [with] the slingshot. And so they entered into a treaty with the king and were never defeated — only because of that weapon.
How do you help modern women step into new versions of themselves?
We learn differently. We shadow differently. Our experiences are different. We process differently. Our responsibilities are different. Our upbringing is different based on demographics and our economical status with our parents, their maturity level, their levels of abuse, etc.
My women’s program is for everyday women. They learn how to be wise in their environments, how to powerfully and elegantly move. They learn basic lua techniques for safety in elevators and cars, in public, at work and at home. These are things for survival.
We are weaponizing women today to be educated and knowledgeable on how to navigate through this world. I’ve also been able to teach women that work in high-risk professions: medical, health care, real estate, air travel. And I love working with college students. I’ve actually been asked to work with some of the adult entertainers —strippers — because they are at high risk.
How do the women benefit from training?
I try to meet my students where they are right now and let them evolve as they evolve. I think having the only female teacher that’s proficient in this art at this time, that accepts all different types of people and not just Hawaiian people, is a benefit. They get to see me manually manipulate men because it is just physics. It doesn’t matter what genitalia we have.
Working through hula or getting their foot movements, translating that into lua where it becomes non-contact into full contact — they get to see that it’s possible. They start to learn and manipulate their koa brothers, and they start to really step into their power.
What emphasis do you place on the warrior mindset?
This is the huku principle in Hawaii. If you give me aloha love, I will reflect that back to you and then some. If you come to me with ill intentions, you will get that back and then some. We need to teach our young ladies and our young boys that if someone touches you, you have the right to touch them back.
And it’s time to be wise and use our wisdom so we don’t get ourselves killed or create collateral damage. We step into our space rightfully, how to throw down if we need to.
To read more about Michelle Manu, visit MichelleManu.com.