Kumu hula awarded highest U.S. folk arts honor
George Naope helped found the Merrie Monarch Festival
The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded its highest honor for the folk arts to George Naope, the Hilo-based kumu hula and co-founder of the Merrie Monarch Festival.
Naope was among 11 recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship award, which includes a $20,000 prize.
Naope left Wednesday for a week in Japan, where he had been invited to do a workshop, said Luana Kawelu, who runs the Merrie Monarch Festival with her mother, Dottie Thompson.
Kawelu spent two hours in conversation with Naope before he left, during which he mentioned that he had been invited to Washington, D.C., in September to receive some kind of honor, she said. He did not tell her any details.
"He's excited about going," Kawelu said. At 80, "he's as sharp as a tack," she said. "He's got ideas about what he still wants to do."
The nationwide honorees were selected for their artistic excellence, cultural authenticity and contributions to their field.
"In this 40th anniversary year of the NEA, it is particularly appropriate that we honor these master artists whose dedication and exceptional artistry have enriched our nation's cultural landscape," said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Naope is revered for his knowledge of traditional hula and chant. Born on Oahu and raised on the Big Island, he began his study of hula at the age of 3 under his great-grandmother Mary Malia-Pukaokalani Naope.
In 1963 he founded the Merrie Monarch Festival, the largest and most prestigious hula competition in Hawaii.
Recognized by the state as a "living golden treasure," Naope has welcomed Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy to Hawaii. More recently he represented Hawaii at the wedding of Japan's Emperor Akihito.
The kumu hula received a Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement award earlier this year. He also received a Music Foundation of Hawaii Legacy Award.
Recipients of the NEA fellowship were chosen from 217 nominations by the public, according to the endowment.
Other recipients of this year's fellowships are carver and painter Charles Carrillo of Santa Fe, N.M.; American Indian storyteller Esther Martinez of San Juan Pueblo, N.M.; bluegrass singer Doyle Lawson of Tennessee; weaver Delores E. Churchill of Ketchikan, Alaska; blues pianist Henry Gray of Baton Rouge, La.; instrument maker Diomedes Matos of Deltona, Fla.; lap-harp player Wilho Saari of Naselle, Wash.; gospel and rhythm-and-blues singer Mavis Staples of Chicago; and the Treme Brass Band of New Orleans.
A series of events in September will honor the recipients, including a banquet, concert and awards presentation.
The Associated Press and Star-Bulletin reporter Rod Thompson contributed to this report.