''Without the hula, there is no Hawaii,'' says Emily Kau'i Zuttermeister, the only remaining active hula expert of five cited by the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu in 1970, and a National Heritage fellow named this year by the National Endowment for the Arts.
''We are still feeling our way in picking these fellows,'' says Bess Lomax Hawes, director of the Folk Arts Program at NEA, ''and we're trying to be careful to pick out the real experts in each field. But we know we succeeded with Mrs. Zuttermeister because when we picked her, people said, 'It's about time.' ''
Sitting demurely with her daughter in a corner of the Mike Mansfield Room in the United States Capitol, where she was to be honored along with 16 other fellows by members of Congress, Mrs. Zuttermeister - wearing a fresh green lei made by her students - explained the importance of the hula: ''Hula involves the beginning, the creation,'' says the Hawaiian native. ''The music, the chanting was the language of the gods,'' she explains.
''Hula originated by people listening to the chanting, observing the movement of the clouds and waves, and starting to sway for grace. It is a form of prayer.''
Learning this moving prayer took her three years - six hours a day, six days a week, she reports. ''My uncle knew it for a long time, and when he was older, he decided to teach it. So he opened a hula house,'' she says, where he revealed his long-cherished secrets.
Mrs. Zuttermeister was not an enthusiastic student, however. ''My husband (a German immigrant who came to treasure the culture of Hawaii) make me go every day,'' she says with no apparent regret. ''For six months I tried to get out of going every day, but he told me, 'No, we've got to go down today.' Then I decided I better join them, I'll never get out of this.''
She was a young mother at the time but managed to obtain instant day care by following an old Hawaiian custom. She explains: ''When a child is born, the family puts him up for adoption to the older relatives. I was adopted by my great-aunt and -uncle, who taught me how to speak Hawaiian, and about the old customs and prayers. My mother took care of my children - they call her their hanai mother.'' She, in turn, took care of her daughter's children while her daughter worked, she says.
''It's better this way,'' she thinks. ''The parents have no time, they have to make a living, always in a hurry. The grandparents can listen to a child.''
But for three years, Mrs. Zuttermeister was the one who listened to her uncle lecture on the meaning of the dances and teach her hula, chanting, and drumming. ''This is only the traditional dance,'' she says. ''What the tourists see is all modern, imported, some Tahitian even.''
Efforts are made periodically to sponsor strictly authentic Hawaiian hula performances, but Mrs. Zuttermeister admits they are less than successful. ''It is like all traditions - very boring,'' she says without guile. ''To me it is interesting, because I know all the stories. But if you don't understand it, you wonder if it will ever end.''
Passing along such stories, though, is essential to the future of the Hawaiian culture, she believes. ''All the history, the prayers, the customs of Hawaii are in the hula. If a very learned professor wants to know what happened at some time way back in history, he listens to a chant. This is how we pass along our culture, from one generation to the next.''
Mrs. Zuttermeister has passed along her knowledge to her daughter and granddaughter, as well as to countless others at the family's studio.
While she and her daughter went to Washington to receive the award and its $5 ,000 fellowship, in fact, her teen-aged granddaughter managed the shop, giving all the lessons.
''I have very loyal students,'' explains the Hawaiian hula expert, who willingly takes on students of all races, ''and I tell them to do everything exactly as I show it. If they change one little step, we will lose a part of our tradition, our authenticity.''
''To learn the hula,'' she says, ''you must be disciplined, and you must be humble. I have spent hours and hours learning and relearning the same four lines of chant - that takes humility.
''But it is such a beautiful thing, the hula. It has everything: music, coordination, grace, rhythm, and a way to learn culture,'' she concludes. ''It's beautiful, the way nature is beautiful - it follows the beauty of nature.''