Behind the Heartbeat of Hawaii

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In the imagination of many mainland Americans, hula may mean coconut bras and cellophane skirts. It may conjure visions of a figurine jiggling her hips on a car dashboard or smiling serenely as she is used as a bottle opener.

But hula is, in fact, an ancient and often sacred dance indigenous to Hawaii.

For the past 60 years, some of the best hula schools in the United States have gathered in the sleepy town of Hilo on the Big Island to compete in the annual Merrie Monarch Festival.

The festival features a parade and a traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts fair, however it’s best known for its prestigious hula competition, which locals often call the Olympics of hula.

The festival honors King David Kalakaua, known as the Merrie Monarch for his patronage of traditional Hawaiian arts. King Kalakaua was the last king to rule Hawaii before an association of English and American businessmen illegally overthrew Hawaii’s constitutional monarchy in 1893 with the help of American Navy sailors from the U.S.S. Boston.

In reporting my article, “Preserving Hula, the Heartbeat of Hawaii,” I learned that hula is far from the stereotypical idea of it as just a pretty Polynesian dance. Hula, and the longstanding Merrie Monarch Festival, have preserved and propelled the reclamation of Hawaiian culture, language and identity.

Lucky for me, my good family friend Keiko Bonk was born and raised in Hilo. I stayed with her while reporting this story. Her father, William Bonk, who was an archaeology and anthropology professor, worked with Edith Kanaka‘ole, a venerated kumu hula (master hula teacher) and cultural practitioner, to establish the first Hawaiian Studies program at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, in the late 1970s. This March, the U.S. mint released a quarter with Ms. Kanaka‘ole’s face above a line from one of her most famous chants, “E ho mai ka ʻike” (“Grant us wisdom”).

“Her U.S. mint recognition, that was one of the hugest, I mean, literally one of the hugest achievements of any Hawaiian, period,” Ms. Kanaka‘ole’s grandson Kuha‘o Zane said. To commemorate the recognition, Mr. Zane released a streetwear collection inspired by his grandmother’s work. A T-shirt in the collection bears the cover art of one of his grandmother’s most influential albums, “Hi‘ipoi I Ka ‘Aina Aloha” (“Cherish the Beloved Land”), released in 1979.

“What my grandma was pushing was the idea that we need to have this reciprocal relationship with land to be able to survive on an island where there’s finite resources,” Mr. Zane said.

Reciprocity with the environment has always been a central concept in Hawaiian culture. During the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1960s and ’70s, that philosophy gave rise to a political movement for Hawaiian rights and ecological preservation called “Aloha ‘Aina,” which continues today.

Craig and Luana Neff, a married couple who helped successfully oppose the U.S. military’s target practice bombing of the island of Kahoolawe in the 1970s, led a group from Aloha ‘Aina in this year’s Merrie Monarch parade. “Aloha ‘Aina is the love of the land, but it’s more than that,” Mr. Neff said. “Hawaiian thought is the land is the religion.” Members of the group held signs protesting the construction of a 30-meter telescope on Mauna Kea, considered to be one of the most sacred mountains by Native Hawaiians, and the continued use of the U.S. military’s 133,000-acre Pohakuloa Training Area.

According to Ms. Neff, Aloha ‘Aina’s primary focus now is the environment. “At this moment in time, it is about the interdependence of the planet,” Ms. Neff said. “She’s drying up, she’s hurting, she’s not producing food. She’s become toxic, weary, worn. There needs to be systems set in place that consider the land first.”

I hope you spend time with my article to learn more about Hawaii, hula and how younger generations of locals and Native Hawaiians are working toward a brighter future. I’d also like to suggest that you visit the new Smithsonian exhibition “1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions.” The exhibition features a portrait of Queen Lydia Lili‘uokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii, who traveled to Washington to protest the U.S. annexation of Hawaii in 1898 — the same year the U.S. gained control over the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.

On her trip to Washington, Queen Lili‘uokalani wrote a letter stating her “protest against the assertion of ownership by the United States of America of the so-called Hawaiian Crown Lands amounting to about one million acres and which are my property, and I especially protest against such assertion of ownership as a taking of property without due process of law and without just or other compensation.”

“We’ve always been made to believe ‘you’re less than,’” Ms. Neff said referring to the decades post-annexation when Hawaiian language and cultural practices were either banned or suppressed. “I think this generation, they have the opportunity to just shift everything in a positive way. But you need to go through the darkness right now in order to get to that light.”

Read Miya’s full story →

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