In Search of the Hawaiian Culture in Maui

In Search of Hawaiian Culture on Maui

 Looking for a Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance at the Celebration of the Arts and the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel on Maui

Feature Length Article and Pictures by M. Maxine George

A chance question during a Vancouver luncheon conversation with Charles K. Ka’upu, educator, cultural adviser and chanter from Maui, set me onto a path of discovery in Hawaii. “Charles, how can a person learn about your culture?”  I inquired, thinking the original Hawaiian culture would be hard to find outside of the much acclaimed Polynesian Cultural Center across the Island of Oahu from Waikiki.  His enthusiastic response was, “Come to Maui for Easter.  You can find out what you want to know at the Celebration of the Arts that will be held at the Ritz Carleton, Kapalua on Easter weekend.”  Our conversation led me to suspect that there may be something happening in Maui that I had not heard about here in North America, besides sea, sand and golf courses.

 Arriving early in the week, my friends, Ursula, Lenora and I spent our first few days on the island at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel.  I was in for a big surprise.  We were warmly greeted by two muu muu clad ladies.  With a cheery “Aloha,” they dropped fragrant carnation leis around our necks.  “So much for the traditional stuff,’ I thought to myself.   Not true.  It seems we had arrived at the hotel known as the “The Most Hawaiian Hotel” and may I say, possibly the friendliest hotel in Hawaii.  They set the example of the  “Aloha Spirit.”                                                                                                     Charles K. Ka'upu



 That evening we attended a beach-side reception under tall palm trees with a group of local people.  We watched the Maui sunset.  While the golden orb dropped through the multi-hued sky, to disappear at the edge of the silvery ocean, we began to learn about how a cultural renaissance began in Maui.    The story we heard began in 1986 with the hotel and its new manager, Michael White.  Although not an indigenous Hawaiian, he was born in Hawaii.  His first ancestors began arriving on the island about one hundred and fifty years ago.  At the time he began to manage this hotel, it was unique for someone with first hand experience of the island culture to be in a management position in Maui.  It is obvious he has spent a lifetime loving and respecting the Hawaiian culture.  That same culture was then in serious decline in Maui.  Over the next several days we learned that this hotel really has been at the centre of the resurgence of the Hawaiian culture.  



One of Mike White’s first moves on assuming his new position was to call on the help of the noted entrepreneurial trainer and author, Dr. George Kanahele.  Kanahele had written the book “Ku Kanaka” (or “Stand Tall”) to encourage Hawaiians to be proud of themselves and their culture.  With his help they began the Po’okela (Excellence) Programme, to educate the Ka’anapali staff to nurture and perpetuate their Hawaiianness. 


Michael White of the Ka-anapali with Kim Kessler and Clifford Nao'ele of the Ritz Carlton, Kapalua.


Although some of the staff members were dubious about their need to learn about their own culture, they soon became very enthusiastic about the programme.  They now take great pride in their accomplishments and are committed to keeping the island Hawaiian.  This hotel exudes the attitudes of heart: warmth, hospitality, friendliness, love and renewed pride in themselves and their islands that go with being truly Hawaiian.  The staff considers themselves to be “ohana” or “family.”  The average length of employment amongst the staff is seventeen years. They tell us that this hotel has become an exceptionally happy place to work. (They did not need to tell us.  It is obvious to those who stay there.)



Malahini Keahi demonstrates the making of poi at the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, Maui, Hawaii.


With their manager’s blessing, the staff began to include their culture into the running of the hotel, so that now a visit to the Ka’anapali becomes a truly Hawaiian experience. The staff now shares their culture with their guests.  The hotel hosts regular Maui Artisans Craft Fairs on Aloha Fridays. Throughout the week they teach Lei making, hula dancing, pineapple cutting, how to make the Hawaiian staple food – poi and other traditional foods, they give ukulele lessons, and share many more Hawaiian skills. Various staff members are part of the hotel’s entertainment troop.  They provide spontaneous music and dance at various times throughout the day. They all wear kukui nut leis each day.  Their ancestors used kukui nuts to provide light and fire.   Now their kukui lei makes the silent statement that “We are enlightened by the Hawaiian culture.” 



Sous Chef Chris Napoleon at the Ka'anapali Beach Resort, Maui



Malahini demonstrates flower painting at Ka'anapali Beach Resort, Maui, Hawaii


Michael White encouraged the staff to reach out into the community and help to revitalize their island.  These people are very much into ecology.  They have studied archeological farming sites that are now being restored.  Islanders are involved in the successful restoration of native plants.  The staff went out to learn about historic fishing methods, including spear fishing and net throwing.  Islanders are also rebuilding the historic rock fishing beds, a rather unique method of trapping young fish for later harvest.  Through the Po’okela Program, the staff at the Ka’anapali is well versed in Maui’s historic plants, animals, nature, and geology.  By 1990 the change Mike White was instigating earned him such respect he was asked to fill a vacancy in State House of Representatives.  For five years he  took on the job of legislator also.  It put him in a good position to move his cultural agenda ahead.  After five years, increased managerial responsibilities caused him to leave the legislative work and forge ahead at the Ka'anapali Beach Resort full time.


The Ka'anapali Ohana (or Family) entertain at Breakfast


Rance Villarimo, Roger Kawakapu Brigh and Dee Coyle at the Kaanapali Beach Resort, Maui.



Hawaiian Chanter, Wainani Kealoha, in Lahina, Maui.


In the nearby town of Lahina, we saw one of their current projects. The restoration of a Sacred Island is in its early stages.  A human finger bone was uncovered in the local baseball park.  Hotel employees formed the Friends of Mokula Inc. a non-profit organization that worked to obtain a $100,000 grant from the county of Maui to do an archeological survey of Moku’ula.  The survey turned up the foundation of the former residence of King Kamehameha III. Where the ballpark was, a small lake once surrounded a royal residence.    To date the Friends of Mokula Inc. has managed to get $24 million funding - in place to begin the restoration of this huge project.  We visited the site and saw the plans showing what they hope to restore.   It is now one of the top five economic projects for Maui.  Their motto is “Let the glory return.”


 “Come for dinner at Tutu’s House!” the invitation read.  “This evening we’re having a backyard, home-style Hawaiian barbeque!” (Tutu means grandparent in Hawaiian.) This invitation took us into a family home, now belonging to Adi Vierra, an aunt of Lori Semblas, the cultural director of the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel.  We were welcomed into the fold of the “ohana ” or “family”, as we walked through the front door of the house.  Everyone pitched in to complete the last few preparations.  Rance taught me how to prepare the pineapple. Others helped in other ways.  The food was delicious.   Fun, laughter and a blending of friendship prevailed throughout the evening.    Makalapua and Luana sang while Dee, Roger and Rance played the guitar or ukuleles and sang too.  Sometimes we all joined in.   Malahini taught us how to hula and later she and Keli’i danced a hula together.  It was an unforgettable evening. One I will always remember as very special.


Luana Pa'ahana shows table decoration at Tutu's Place, Maui, Hawaii



Rance Villarimo demonstrates how to cut pineapple at Tutu's Place, Maui, Hawaii



We practice pineapple cutting under Lance's supervision at Tutu's Place, Maui



Dee, Rance, Roger and Makalapua from Ka'anapali Beach Resort entertain us with music



Ursula and companions take hula lessons at Auntie Adi's  Maui, Hawaii

Lenora takes a bow after taking hula lessons,  Maui, Hawaii


 We were told that a few generations ago, parents no longer taught their children to speak Hawaiian, as they believed their children would have better opportunities to find work on the Islands, if they spoke English well.  Bernice Pauahi Bishop began Maui’s first school for native Hawaiians to teach them their language and culture.  In 2008 the first class graduated from Punana Leo, that first Hawaiian immersion school on Maui.  Many of those young graduates have grandparents who do not speak Hawaiian themselves.




 While driving up island, we saw another island, Kaho’olawe, which had historically been a sacred island, not far from Maui.  We were told that the island had been used by the American Navy for bombing and artillery practice after WWII.  As a result of the Navy and feral goat inhabitation, the island had been laid to waste.  During the Clinton administration, the Navy turned authority over to the state.   Cultural sites, flora and fauna had been destroyed and unexploded incendiary devices littered the island.  Many people are working to return this island to its former natural state.   Malahini Keahi, from the Ka’anapali, told me that she had been part of a group who had volunteered to go on a working vacation to help with the restoration of the island.  People wishing to help with this project or other restoration projects in Maui can become involved with volunteering too by offering to help.


Voyager, Bill Richards, member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, with Maxine George.


At breakfast one morning we were fortunate to meet Bill Richards, a well-known member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.  He told us the story of the rebirth of the outrigger canoes.  It seems that the last person who could navigate by the stars (non-instrument navigation) was becoming advanced in age.  Without his knowledge the skill would be lost. It was decided that his skills should be learned by the younger generation while he was could still teach them.  Even the kao logs used to build the outrigger canoes were no longer available.  Master Carvers from Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga and the Pacific North West got together to share their knowledge too.  As a result an outrigger, built to historic specs, now plies the Pacific, its sailors exploring the ocean as their forefathers once did.  This vessel is a source of great pride to the Hawaiian people.


View at Napili Kai Beach Resort, Maui, Hawaii


Beach at Napili Kai Beach Resort, Maui, Hawaii


At the Napili Kai Beach Resort, Diane Farnsworth, director of Guest Operations, told us how their resort has also come on-stream with a cultural programme.  The Napili Kai Foundation teaches local children traditional history, arts, crafts, language and dance.  On Tuesday evenings, the children of the Napili Kai Foundation present a Polynesian show at the resort. 


Looking out  from the Ritz Carlton Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii


At the Ritz Carlton, Kapalua we learned this hotel has been involved in the Hawaiian renaissance from the hotel’s inception.  We were told that when bulldozers began excavating to build this huge complex much closer to the ocean, they soon uncovered human remains.  Archeologists were called in and began their work.  They learned that the site was an old grave yard.  As a result the land – some thirteen acres - has been deeded to the State of Hawaii so that the sacred land will remain undisturbed in perpetuity.  The new hotel was built further up the hill with a view overlooking the Hanokahua Burial Site and the ocean beyond. 


The Hanokahua Burial Site, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii


D T Fleming Beach, Good Friday morning, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii


This year the Ritz hosted the fifteenth annual Celebration of the Arts, bringing Hawaiian cultural practitioners and artisans together to celebrate all things Hawaiian.    Beginning before dawn on Friday morning (Good Friday at 5:30 a.m.) participants gathered at the D.T. Fleming Beach for Hiuwai & E Ala E to begin our lives anew with a ritual cleansing in the early morning surf.   We all emerged to awaken the sun with a Hawaiian chant and clapping.   What a fantastic way to start the day!


"Waking the Sun", Good Friday morning, DT Fleming Beach


Awa Ceremony before The Celebration of the Arts, Ritz Carleton, Kapalua, Maui


Shortly after, we were privileged to witness an Awa Ceremony in the Salon Courtyard.  Here practitioners, artisans and Kapuna (elders) gathered to drink the holy Awa while pledging another year’s commitment to all things Hawaiian. 



Awa Ceremony

Kapuna, Sam Kahai at the Celebration of the Arts, Kapalua


Immediately after the Awa Ceremony the participants lined up on the walk in front of the entrance to the hotel for the opening protocol, Wehe I Ka ‘Ipuka.  They individually or in small groups identified themselves and their ancestors as they politely came to seek permission to enter. After an exchange of traditional chants and prayers they were invited to enter by hotel manager, Javier Cano, Chanter Hokulani Holt-Padilla and Clifford Nae’ole, the cultural advisor at the Ritz.  Clifford was responsible for the organization of this very special event.  He did a remarkable job.


Hokulani Holt-Padilla, Javier Cano and Clifford Nae'ole opening the Celebration of the Arts,

 Ritz Carlton, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii



Opening Protocol at Celebration of Arts



Hoaka Delos Reyes, carver, enters the Celebration of the Arts, at Ritz Carlton, Kapalua,


  For the next two days, the Celebration of the Arts was the center of Hawaiian culture on Maui.  Following the ceremony,  music and dancing greeted us whenever we entered the lobby with a succession of hula dancers, singers and musicians entertaining through much of each day and even well on into the night. 


Young dancers waiting to perform in Celebration of the Arts



Children dancing the hula in lobby of Ritz Carlton,  Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii


Contemporary artists gave hands-on demonstrations throughout halls and open areas on the lobby level of the hotel, showing the great variety of art forms native to Hawaii.  Meanwhile, traditional practitioners and a list of speakers gave workshops in packed conference halls.  Here were the committed Hawaiian people renewing their commitment to all things Hawaiian for another year. 


Lei makers demonstrating their art at the Celebration of the Arts



Hoaka Delos Reyes, carver, telling young boys how to carve stone at Celebration of the Arts



Drum Carver demonstrates his art at the Celebration of the Arts, Ritz Carlton, Kapalua



Artisan displays  her shell leis at Maui's Celebration of the Arts


Makalapua admires $15,000 shell lei at Celebration of the Arts






It all concluded with the Celebration Luau and Show, music and dance while we feasted on an amazing array of Hawaiian food including the traditional roast pork.  (It has got to be the best luau on all of Hawaii!)






Guest star Uluwehi Guerrero performs for  Luau guests at the Celebration of the Arts




 Yes, I found that a cultural renaissance is taking place in Maui.  It was wonderful to see so many people actively involved in renewing the historic values of their ancestors, in their own lives and that of their island.  The people are reclaiming the island of Maui.  I came home very impressed with “All things Hawaiian.”  -  Especially the people!

 Article and Pictures by M. Maxine George


The 20th Annual Celebration of the Arts Festival will be held April 6 - 8,  2012


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Last Updated on February 28, 2012 by M. Maxine George editor.

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