Tugging at Hawaiian roots
When I took Ka Honua Ola into my hands, it thrummed with energy, practically vibrated.
I am not a Hawaiian. This is a book written about Hawaiian geneaology, cosmology, chant and mele. It is for Hawaiians by one of the most prominent Hawaiians in our community, a kumu hula, writer, researcher, educator, stage and film director, community leader, public speaker with a doctoral degree and an impeccable Hawaiian pedigree.
Her son-in-law, Taupouri Tangaro, writing the introduction, calls her a mano honua, a land shark. “When she steps into a space, there is an organic rendering of energy.”
It is so. I have been in her presence. I have seen her halau dance. I know some of her haumana personally. When she dances, or her students dance, it is the power-driven, stage-rumbling ai haa style of clean, correct movements, concentrated eyes, muscles on full alert. You think, the first time you see them (which you can do free at the Hoike they host every Wednesday of Merrie Monarch week, or on one of their films such as Holo Mai Pele), you’ve never seen hula before–“Lovely Hula Hands,” it ain’t.
I trembled. I am not a Hawaiian. Should I even be the one writing about this book? But it was given to me as my kuleana, my responsibility, and I accepted.
Surprising was that this, an old manuscript, started perhaps three decades ago, but not published until now. She might, Tangaro says, write a different book today. Who knows?
Much of the work here, however, will be revelation to anyone who takes the trouble to read slowly and carefully, as she encourages her readers to do.
Each segment is built around a chant, all of them are translated into English and all are accompanied by insight from her research–much of it in the relatively newly translated body of work from Hawaiian language newspapers of the 1800s–and her experiences and the teachings of her teachers, including her mother, the late kumu hula Auntie Edith Kanakaole.
Her message: Be Hawaiian if you have the koko (the blood). This is more than eating poi or learning hula or some other art, or naming your children with Hawaiian names. It is understanding the proper way to do all these things, it is going back to the aalii — the small shoots that sprout out, and birthing a strong plant from there.
Again, quoting Tangaro, he tells of a day when Kanakaole declared she didn’t believe that the culture should be preserved merely for the future of the children. “It sounds like a bunch of adults wanting to linger for one more generation on the periphery of the culture instead of sacrificing at the center of it.” This is her belief. “She will not recant,” he writes.
Here, in translating chants of geneaology, migration, protocol, ceremonial offerings, hula, a balanced life and catastrophic eruptions (the seven chapters), she remains as close to the center as she can get. She is fearless and she is clear and informative, as well.
You may, as I do, stand at the far edge of the caldera, with one pebble’s worth of Hawaiian knowledge in your hands, peering through the tufts of smoke. She dances at the edge. She beckons you on, to go close, where it is more dangerous, more powerful, more demanding and exacting; the rocks are huge, the fire is hot. You must step carefully. You must look about you, watch your feet, sniff the air.
There is much that is practical: from the correct measure for a lei or how to respectfully approach the hula pa (surface or stage). But there is much that is of the unseen, that requires thought and feeling and caring and work to understand.
Ancestral knowledge is not just for scholars, not just for practitioners of certain craft, not just for the “fun” of learning, she writes: “This gift is all we have; it is a start to our life.”
The book rightly won the Isles’ top publishing honor, the prestigious Samuel Kamakau Award for 2012.
Kamehameha Press, 2011
182 pages $24