View Point

By Leslie Lang

Saturday, August 7, 1999

Hawaiians honor
past, look ahead

WE watched, at opening ceremonies for the World Indigenous Peoples' Conference on Education in Hilo's Wailoa Park last Sunday, as one of the alaka'i (leaders) -- in hula attire with beautiful green lei atop her head and on her ankles -- used the antenna of her cell phone to point out where visiting dignitaries would alight from canoes.

Dignitaries were brought on the Polynesian voyaging canoe Makali'i into Hilo Bay, where thousands of Hawaiians chanted a welcome.

Then the VIPs were transferred to smaller canoe and taken under the Kamehameha Avenue bridge and into Wailoa State Park, where another group waited to present them with lei.

More than 3,000 indigenous people came from outside Hawaii for the week-long conference, as well as the same number or more of Hawaiians. For weeks, people in Hawaii practiced the welcoming chants and hula in separate groups that met around the islands.

On Sunday, we came together for the first time and welcomed the visitors to Hilo, most of us dressed in kihei that we made. That's the traditional clothing that ties at the left shoulder, its design made by carving an 'ohe kapala (bamboo printing stick) and then printing the pattern onto the cloth.

It was a perfectly clear and sunny Hilo morning, with Mauna Kea shining down upon us. Ceremony organizers communicated between the bayfront, where thousands were chant-ing and dancing hula, and Wailoa Park by cell phone, a modern anomaly to their traditional dress. Occasionally an inter-island jet screeched through the air and drowned out the chanting.

But tradition was firmly there amidst the English, the cell phones and the roars of occasional planes. The crowd was casually bilingual.

"Look, Grandma, I see the Maka!" shouted the immersion school boy dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, covered with the orange kihei he designed and printed himself, pointing at the voyaging canoe Makali'i.

When the alaka'i called out a chant, the energetic boy chanted and danced hula without shame.

At one point during the long, hot wait for the canoes to arrive, someone called over the public address system to the children: "E na kamali'i!" The children, some chattering in English, some in Hawaiian, heard themselves being addressed in Hawaiian and turned to listen.

THEY were asked to come to the pavilion, get cups of water, and take them back to the kupuna. Later, they were asked to gather up cups and other trash before the ceremony started. Children scattered, looking for 'opala.

When the dignitaries arrived at Wailoa Park, representatives from the districts of Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Kona, Ka'u and Puna welcomed them with chants, and then the visitors were presented with ti lei.

Afterward, at the recently constructed Hawaiian village of traditional hale, there was an 'awa ceremony. Hawaiians and indigenous visitors and tourists alike sat respectfully on the ground in the sun for more than an hour and a half.

I thought of the old days, when our ancestors chanted the same chants to their visitors, dressed also in kihei. Like us, they watched the sea for the voyaging canoe, talked story while waiting in the sun, and snapped to attention at the sound of the pu (conch shell).

It was heartwarming to be among so many thousands of people, Hawaiians and others from more than 25 countries, all gathered this week for the purpose of honoring their pasts and shaping thoughtful and responsible futures. Imua!

Leslie Lang is a writer and airline employee
who lives in Pepeekeo on the Big Island.

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