Hawaiian Traditions Attract More Than Just Tourists

Interest grows for island people to learn of their past

On a bright November day in the shadow of Diamond Head just a stone's throw from the glitzy stretch of hotel-studded Waikiki Beach, hula dancers sway and dip in unison at Oahu's World Invitational Hula Competition.

Traditionally the movements paid homage to ancient Hawaiian gods and goddesses - but today many of the dancers are from Japan, California, and even Mexico.

The festival is one of a growing number around the world and in Hawaii, which is the birthplace of hula. But hula is only one facet of a resurgence of Hawaiian culture that is gathering momentum here.

Hawaiian language, traditional Polynesian sailing and navigation techniques, Hawaiian healing arts, and other long overlooked areas are enjoying renewed interest from a younger generation of Hawaiians searching for stronger ties to their native roots and history.

Hula dancing banned

When Christian missionaries first landed on Hawaii's shores in the early 19th century, they were appalled to find scantily clad people performing what they perceived to be lewd religious ceremonies, and living careless, idle lives.

In short order, they set about to change the culture, imposing strict dress codes and discouraging or banning hula dancing, surfing, and numerous other cultural traditions.

In 1896, speaking Hawaiian was outlawed by a territorial legislature dominated by white business interests - a law that stood until the 1970s.

"There is what we call the missing generation," says Kalani Akana, a Hawaiian language teacher and president of the Hawaiian language organization, A Hui Olelo Hawaii.

"My father's generation did not speak Hawaiian because their parents didn't want them to. It was part of the assimilation process. You had to speak English to get ahead."

A nascent Hawaiian political movement in the 1970s served as a catalyst for renewed interest in Hawaiian culture. Hula halau (schools) began to grow, as did interest in Hawaiian history. A group of native Hawaiians recreated the voyage of their Polynesian ancestors aboard a traditional double-hulled sailing canoe named the Hokulea.

In recent years, the resurgence has broadened. At Waiau Elementary School near Pearl Harbor, Mr. Akana's students speak only Hawaiian.

Waiau is one of 11 public Hawaiian language immersion schools. According to Akana, there are close to 1,000 students in Department of Education immersion programs on all five major islands - significantly up from the 40 students that first entered the program in 1987 - and thousands of other students are learning Hawaiian in private schools.

Likewise, the number of students taking native language classes at the University of Hawaii's various branches has increased exponentially over the last decade. Adult education community schools around the state offer free classes in everything Hawaiian ranging from language to hula to ethnobotany.

Interest in Hawaiian culture grows

There are hundreds of hula halau throughout Hawaii, as well as hundreds more in Japan, California, Mexico and other parts of the world.

"Twenty-five years ago, you could go to a dance studio and all you saw was modern dance - no traditional hula," says Keahi Allen, executive director of the State Council on Hawaiian Heritage. "Now you see an increasing number of groups that are catering only to the traditional styles."

Perhaps more important, the interest in Hawaiian culture has also deepened. According to Akana, in recent years many kumu hula (hula teachers) have learned to speak Hawaiian, which is now the only spoken language in many halau.

Popular native Hawaiian musicians, such as Keali'i Reichel (whose albums routinely top the Billboard World Music charts) have incorporated more Hawaiian language into their songs and are actively supporting the study and teaching of Hawaiian culture.

There are also concerted efforts now under way to find and preserve aspects of Hawaiian culture that are in danger of disappearing forever, including traditional taro farming and land-management techniques that maintained the islands' fragile ecological balance for centuries.

Akana hosts programs on public television where he interviews native speakers of Hawaiian - of which there are probably less than 5,000 remaining in the state.

"All the language that accompanies farming and fishing is really a living language for them," explains Akana. "When I get up, I don't have to go out and farm and fish. I don't need to know the names of the clouds or the names of the stars so I can tell when I need to plant a certain crop."

Scholars modernize language

From this search for the past has emerged a road map for the future. Scholars are now hard at work modernizing the Hawaiian language to allow it to function in these technologically and culturally different times while still preserving the essential aspects of Hawaiian expression and thought. "Hawaiian culture is a living culture. Just because our ancestors used an 'o'o stick (digging stick) to dig their taro patches does not mean we won't use a shovel," explains Victoria Takamine Holt, a noted kumu hula and instructor at the University of Hawaii. "If they had a microwave, they would use a microwave. The values remain the same. The traditions evolve."

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