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Hula: Hawaiian Spirituality, Ceremony, and Cultural Rebirth


Hawaiian Spirituality, Ceremony, and Cultural Rebirth

Aloha mai, dear reader. The 60th Annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival is right around the corner! Whether you are haumana, ʻōlapa, a lover of hula, or hearing about hula for the first time, we thought it would be a great idea to review some very important aspects of hula origins. This will help expand your understanding and knowledge of hula. Please note that there are myriad versions of moʻolelo (oral histories) and levels of kaona (hidden meanings and knowledge) to any aspect of our beloved Hawaiian Culture, so please take care that what I share here are only some of the aspects of the myriad honua (worlds) that have been shared with me, that I feel can and should be shared with you.

"ʻAʻohe pau ka ʻike i ka hālau hoʻokahi."
"Not all knowledge is held in one school. "

E mālama pono.

19th Century. Hula. 3 dancers and 2 chanters.

Origins: Where did Hula come from?

The origins of hula are recorded in our moʻolelo (oral history), with their first mention described as being practiced by our many akua (deities). This is the honua (world) of what is now referred to as hula kahiko, or the ancient hula, one and the same with traditional ceremony as part of the Hawaiian spiritual belief system.

Illustration by John Webber on Cook expedition 1776-1780.

Well recorded in Ka Moʻolelo o Hiʻiakaikapoliopele (The Stories of Hiʻiaka), hula was danced by the many akua as an accompaniment to pule (prayer) and noi (supplications) for empowerment or aid. It is then interesting to realize that the movements of hula do not originate with any single person, but that they were already existing in the spiritual realm.

Hula were also danced alongside the recitation of histories as a way to breathe life into celebrations of people or events. This was the way to pass down such knowledge through the generations. Thankfully, our kūpuna, our ancestors, were able to do just that. By communicating with the akua and learning hula, they were able to continue the legacy of hula today – after millenia of oral tradition.

Who is Hiʻakaikapoliopele? Why is she so important in Hula traditions?

Hiʻiakaikapoliopele (or “Hiʻiaka carried in the bosom of Pele,” also known commonly as Hiʻiaka) is one of 3 main patron akua of hula along with Laka and Kapo. Who Laka and Kapo are, well that is a moʻolelo for another time. However; to know the story of Hiʻiaka begins with knowing the story of Pele.

Pele is an akua who came from Kahiki (Tahiti, or metaphorically, any far-off place) with her family of brothers and sisters to the Hawaiian Islands. Hiʻiaka took the form of an egg and was not yet physically born into the world until coming to Hawaiʻi. She was carried all the way from Kahiki to Hawaiʻi in Pele's arms as an egg, protected by her power. Pele moved throughout all the Hawaiian Islands from Kauaʻi all the way to Hawaiʻi Island. It was there that Pele and her clan settled at Kīlauea and Pele made her home in the crater of Halemaʻumaʻu (House of the Amauʻu Fern), where she resides today.

1893. Halemaʻumaʻu crater at Kīlauea.

Later through several trials, Hiʻiaka realizes her own powers and her special abilities to cause life to grow from what Pele destroys. Hiʻiaka's kino lau, or many bodily forms, are those of the Hawaiian forest, such as the palaʻā fern, ʻohiʻa lehua, and the uluwehi, or verdant overgrowth of the forest, as well as the new growth associated with lava flows. Hiʻiaka then is the akua representation of the regrowth cycle of living things coming from seed, or really the “primordial seed, so to speak.

Many hula kahiko today are manifestations of such original inspiration passed from Hiʻiaka to early Hawaiians and have continued to be passed down through generations of kumu hula (hula masters) emulating and honoring the cycle of Hiʻiakaikapoliopele to this very day. If you would like to know more than that… then try to join a hālau hula (hula school) and learn hula kahiko.

Hula as viewed by Hawaiians, The West and Christianity

We have already discussed how hula is a complex and ancient art form that has been practiced by the native Hawaiian people for centuries. From the Hawaiian worldview, hula is a form of storytelling that communicates important historical, cultural, and religious messages through movements, chants, and songs. Hula has always been an essential part of Hawaiian culture and was performed on various occasions such as religious ceremonies, royal celebrations, and community gatherings.

In the 19th century, the arrival of Christian missionaries in Hawaiʻi had a significant impact on hula and the Hawaiian language. The missionaries saw hula as a pagan practice that needed to be eradicated, and they began to discourage and even ban its performance. They believed that hula was a sinful activity that encouraged immoral behavior and was incompatible with Christianity. The many diseases brought by the west decimated the Hawaiian people, killing more than 80% of the population, leaving just about 20,000 Hawaiian people alive by the 1920ʻs. The detriment of native peoples as a result of Western diseases were used as a colonization tool by which to both convert Hawaiians to Christianity and take political control.

Contrast the two illustrations above. At left is an illustration by John Webber on the Cook Expeditions between 1776-1780, the period of The West's first contact with Hawaiians and Hula. At right, the illustration by Louis Choris, 1816, just before the first arrival of Christian missionaries, also of the hula dancer. Notice Webber's portrayal of the Hawaiian's face -- features handsomely drawn with an intentional gaze, bodily movements carefully placed with an understanding that this dance, hula, is an intentional expressive art form. In contrast, Choris' work depicts the Hawaiian people as savage and without order, illustrated by the intentional lack of emotional detail in the Hawaiian's faces with almost bug-eyed stares, his view of unintelligible dancing without coordination, and a horde of people sitting on the ground and hidden up in the trees. Really these two depictions contrast The West's view of a people encountered for the first time as they are (hula included) and a people who have been determined savage, recorded by those who plan to exploit their resources in the name of "higher powers."

The missionaries also worked to suppress the Hawaiian language, believing that it was a primitive and inferior language that needed to be replaced with English. They established schools and churches where the Hawaiian language was forbidden, and English was the only language allowed. As a result, many Hawaiians lost their ability to speak their native language, and their cultural heritage was severely impacted, replaced by western beliefs. In many ways, the colonization of the Hawaiian people is directly related to the suppression of hula.

This suppression of both hula and the Hawaiian language had a lasting impact on Hawaiian culture, and it was not until the 1970ʻs that efforts were made to revive and preserve these cultural practices. Today, hula is once again a beloved and respected art form that is performed and taught throughout the world, and efforts are being made to revitalize the Hawaiian language and restore its importance in Hawaiian society today.

The "Merrie Monarch," Ka Mōʻī ʻO Kalākaua

King David Kalākaua, ascended the throne in 1883 through royal election. He was also known as the "Merrie Monarch," and played a significant role in the revitalization of Hawaiian culture and history. Kalākaua was a proponent of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance and believed that the Hawaiian people needed to preserve and celebrate their cultural traditions despite the influence of Christian beliefs.

One of Kalākaua's major contributions to the revitalization of Hawaiian culture was the revival of the hula. He believed that hula was a critical part of Hawaiian culture and history, and he worked to promote and support its performance. The coronation ceremony of King David Kalākaua in 1883 was a grand and elaborate affair that incorporated many

traditional Hawaiian cultural practices, and in 1885 at his 49th birthday celebration, hula was showcased. Kalākaua was a strong proponent of Hawaiian culture and history, and he believed that the coronation ceremony was an opportunity to showcase the rich cultural heritage of the Hawaiian people.

Hula at King Kalākaua's 49th birthday celebration at ʻIolani Palace. 1885 Nov 18

In honor of Kalākaua, a committee of kumu hula and practitioners established the first hula festival in 1963, which would later become an annual event that celebrates the hula and attracts hula dancers from all over the world. Brought back in 1971, the festival is named after Kalākaua, the “Merrie Monarch,” to honor his love of Hawaiian hula, music, and cultural festivities.

The Merrie Monarch Festival has become a significant event in the Hawaiian cultural calendar and has helped to bring attention to the art of hula and its importance in Hawaiian culture. With the inclusion of hula ʻauana, or contemporary hula, the festival is also an opportunity for the Hawaiian people to showcase their talents and celebrate their cultural heritage free of kapu (spiritual taboo associated with the ancient style, hula kahiko). Through the festival, Kalakaua and his legacy have helped to keep the hula alive and ensure that it remains an important part of Hawaiian culture.

Haʻina ʻia mai ana ka puana

- Let the story be told now and forever

We hope that this helps to contextualize the hula of today for you, dear reader. Deeply rooted in our spiritual culture, traditions, history and now, colonization; hula continues to be “the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.

All historical images courtesy of The Hawaiʻi State Archives.

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