The Mud Women of Haleakala
The island of Maui has long been a haven for seekers and those longing to escape the absurdities of modern civilization. Few have gone as far from the traditional culture as the Mud Women of Haleakala. Founded as a reaction to the missionary influences, this elusive community has long been a part of local folklore. I feel privileged to have been allowed to photograph their society.
Here clothing has been discarded as superfluous in the mild tropical climate; discarded along with such concepts as shame and urban complexity. While their ideal is one of subsistence living off the land, this goal has only partially been met. They supplement their income by working as tour guides, craftspersons, and serving as beaters for the wild boar hunts on Maui.
Few things are more indicative of their culture than the mud ritual. While many urban dwellers regard the earth as something unclean, using works like “soiled” and “dirty”, those who seek to live off the land, hold it with more reverence. There is a special affinity for the red volcanic soils of Maui. Each area has its own shades and characteristics. It is also very pervasive, only a fool would paint his house white. The mud always wins. While there is dirt everywhere, the mud used for the ritual comes from special places, such as from under a waterfall, or a notable hill. Red is traditional, but sometimes green, gold or blue pigments are used.
The first step is the decorating phase. Here companions are chosen in an act of artistic reciprocity. Each individual serves as both an artist and as a work of art. Most use traditional symbols, but others take this as an opportunity for a more free form expression. While this may look like fingerprinting for adults, there is a trust involved here, and a transference of identity. The effect is tribal.
Then the designs are obliterated in a total covering with the mud. Here one emerges not naked, not designed, not traditionally clothed, but literally dressed in the earth. This is now a time for discovery, a time for dancing, for enactment, and to become one with the earth. One hates to use the word “earthy” in conjunction with this ritual, but that is perhaps the best description of the process. There is a certain basic sensuality as they seek to re-affirm their place in nature.
The final stage is the bathing to remove the mud, not so much as a ritual cleansing, but as a return to a worldly existence. Nature is a special place, but none of us humans fully live there any more. These mud women come closer than most. They have learned to accept that the mud always wins.