Kava Ceremony Etiquette

Posted by on Jan 5, 2009 in The Mind of Makaira | 2 comments

Kava Ceremony EtiquetteAloha!

Happy new year, my cyber-friends! 2008 was a very difficult year for many people across the globe. 2009 is so full of hope and new beginnings. I wish all of you nothing but the very best in this newest of new years!

I’m consistently inundated with requests on how to conduct oneself in a kava ceremony while on the islands – or anywhere, for that matter. So, I thought I’d take a moment to address your concerns.

The kava ceremony plays a crucial role in bond-making and diplomacy. All important events on the islands of Oceania involve drinking kava. Kava is the social lubricant, the deal closer and the comrade creator.

Local customs vary from island to island, and from village to village. However, it is a widespread custom that visitors to a village must come bearing gifts of fresh kava root, and it is wise to never arrive empty-handed. That sets a bad tone for the kava ceremony, and you may just risk getting thrown into the kava cauldron – I’m joking of course!

This type of formal ceremony appeases both the Chief and the ancestral spirits. When you find yourself at a formal kava ceremony before a Chief, the ceremonial kava bowl will take center stage. Realize you are a guest of honor. There will be an intricate ceremonial “welcoming” at the onset of the ceremony, and the whole experience will be full of ritual. A feeling of “yes, all is well in the universe” will saturate your being.

You must first ask permission from the Chief to enter, and by offering a gift, you most likely will be given permission to participate. However, this permission is not guaranteed, so proper manners of the locals (do a little research first beforehand), and respect must be paid to those present.

Traditionally, kava was prepared by chewing the root into a pulpy mass, spitting it into a bowl and then mixing it with water. Most kava today is pounded by hand into a powder, using a mortar and pestle. The powder is then placed in a cloth, dipped in the kava bowl’s water and is rubbed, then squeezed – repeat – until your heady kava brew is ready. The kava is then poured into coconut shell, from which you drink it.

You will sit in on a traditional woven mat in a semi-circle facing the Chief in a formal kava ceremony. Respect the chief by keeping your head lower than his, remaining quiet, and sitting cross-legged while keeping your feet pointed away from the kava bowl.

The ceremony will be conducted in the area’s native tongue. It is wise to travel with a guide, who will then act as your translator and spokesperson. Be aware that you may be called upon to give a short speech. Most Oceanic peoples speak at least a degree of English, so you may deliver this ceremonial speech in English. However, I think it’s a good idea to always try to learn a few local phrases in the native tongue and throw them in to color your speech. This is a sign of respect.

It’s a lot like the old American perception of the French being rude and snooty. Many Americans come into France, or any other foreign country they might be visiting, expecting the locals to speak English and they make no attempt to speak the native language. In my experience, and those of my American friends who have traveled to France, the French are lovely people who are very accommodating to you if you make an attempt to speak to them first in French. Often, if they witness you struggling to communicate with them in their native tongue, they will start to speak to you in fluent English. It is much the same the world over.

There I go again! Off on one of my tangents. Back to kava ceremonies!

The Chief will drink his kava first, and then the coconut shell will be dipped into and refilled from the kava bowl, and eventually it will make its way around the circle. The most important people drink first. Before accepting the coconut shell, many customs dictate that you clap once and shout the local phrase for gratitude and thanks. Again, this is where your homework, and/or that of your guide, if you have one, will come into play once again. You take the shell with both hands, and down it all in one gulp like a shot. It will taste like peppery dirt. If you do not like the taste, never EVER wince or show that you do not like it. Always be graceful and grateful. Hand the shell back to the Chief, then clap three times with hands cupped, and once again shout out the local phrase of thanks.

Proclaim that your cup is empty, and if the natives sense your appreciation, they will test your zeal by asking, “High tide?” (the phrase varies from region to region, island to island). They are asking how much kava you want in your next shell. In my opinion, you can’t really drink kava to excess. Most likely you will fall into a blissful slumber before you know it.

So, I hope this helps those of you who have been asking me for proper kava ceremony etiquette. If you ever find yourself on the islands, seek out a guide and find a local kava ceremony – don’t forget to stop by a local market and pick up some fresh kava root to bring as an offering. It will be an experience you will never forget.

Aloha no!

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  1. Jerry! I am so excited to hear that you and your wife are having a small ceremony. I find that taking Kava in a ceremonial setting really allows you to appreciate the true beauty and love that awa has to give to us. Even if you are not able to take part in a traditional ceremony, I think that those ceremonies that we create ourselves out of love and respect for a healer plant and for each other can be the most powerful. And I’m sure some day if you travel to the right place you will be able to take part in a traditional kava ceremony and experience the real “roots” of the plant 😉

    Have fun!!

  2. I’ve read this several times since it was posted; thank you for sharing this.

    At least once in this life I hope to be granted permission to participate in the ceremony you write about here…it would be an absolute honor that I would cherish the rest of my days.

    I love awa and don’t get to enjoy it as often as I would like…reading this today has prompted me to have a little ceremony with my wife this weekend…we reenforce our bond when we take the root together.

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