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Hawaiian Culture on Molokai

Article about ? See also more About Molokai, our guides to other Hawaiian Islands and our Hawaii Travel Guide.

On Moloka'i, Hawaiian Culture Is Not Just Preserved - It’s Everything.

In terms of native culture, every Hawaiian island is rightfully proud of its past. The Big Island, for example, was home to the great war chiefs, particularly Kamehameha. O'ahu, of course, was where the chiefs established the capital of their kingdom. Maui and Kaua'i have their own histories, evidenced in archeological sites and traditions. But Moloka'i is distinct. Its Hawaiian-ness is not only a thing of the past but also very much of the present. Consider that Moloka'i is the only island in which native Hawaiians constitute the majority of the population. Add to that the fact that Moloka'i is almost completely rural - which means that the islanders still predominately practice traditional livelihoods such as farming, fishing, and hunting. As you drive around the island, you see evidence of subsistence living - ramshackle unpainted houses, boats in the yards, fishnets hanging from the trees, chickens running loose.... In some parts of the world, sights like these are taken as images of poverty. Here, though, they are signs of freedom and continuity - signs that native culture is not so much "preserved" as it is simply lived. Hawaiian-ness isn’t saved for special displays; it permeates everyday life. Take Moloka'i’s Ka Hula Piko Festival, for example. Visitors are welcome here, but this is very much an event by and for the Hawaiians. It takes place over a week of classes and lectures, culminating in a ho'olaule'a - a day of celebration - that happens each May. The day begins before dawn on a wild hilltop where, according to legend, the art of hula first began. Hula halau, or schools, come here from all over the state to participate in a solemn sunrise ritual. The chanting takes place on a pa hula, or traditional stone platform, that was constructed just two years ago.

This is one of very few places where you’ll find "ancient" architecture practiced by contemporary Hawaiians. Then the event moves to Papohaku Beach Park for an all-day party featuring the dancers and musicians of Moloka'i in styles ranging from ancient to rocking, amplified contemporary.

What’s remarkable about Ka Hula Piko is that it’s not a "visitor attraction" or a "hula show." It’s a free-of-charge renewal-gathering by Hawaiians, for Hawaiians. The same holds true for the island’s Aloha Week festivities in October or the traditional Makahiki events each winter. Guests, fine - but that’s not the point.

For another example, look at Moloka'i’s ancient fishponds. The ancestors created twenty-six of these massive stone aquaculture pens that ornament the entire south shore. Collectively, this is one of the most amazing archeological sites in the islands. Contemporary Moloka'ians have undertaken the enormous challenge of repairing and restoring these old structures - partly out of respect for them, and partly in hopes of putting them back in service to the island economy. This effort has begun to inspire similar projects on other islands, where the Moloka'ians are regarded as experts and consultants.

There’s a history to Moloka'i’s uniquely contemporary Hawaiian-ness. Part of this history reaches back to 1920, when the territorial government passed the Hawaiian Homestead Act. The bill put displaced native people back in control of their ancestral lands - primarily here. Not only that, a lot of this homestead land is coastal. Moloka'i will never have its shorelines sealed off by crowds of luxury developments. The size and location of the native population has a profound effect on the look of the island and the tenor of the visitor’s experience.

But this independent history goes back much further than 1920 - back to times of legend. According to one authoritative native history, "We were a sacred line, here from the beginning of time". Moloka'ians think of themselves as maoli - the true natives. When the first great war chiefs began their bloody campaigns to conquer the islands (theoretically, five or six hundred years ago), Moloka'i resisted.

Here’s the story: When the invaders came, they found the people of Moloka'i standing on the shoreline, waiting for them. "They stood there as a silent army. No fist was raised. When the warriors began to beach their boats, the chanting began. It began small and became a mighty roar. The warriors threw their spears, but they fell short of hitting anyone. Men trying to come onto the beach were falling back into the surf choking...."

Calling the island Moloka'i pule o’o - powerful prayer - the warriors chose to assimilate its wisdom rather than slaughter its people. Moloka'i was always renowned for its powerful shamans and wise prophets.

In their wisdom, today’s Moloka'ians are trying to fend off another invasion - the force that most of us call modern life. Life on Moloka'i is so non-commercial that visitors at first might wonder, "Where’s the Hawaiian stuff?" The answer is - it’s everywhere. Impromptu performances at Kaunakakai’s Saturday street market. A group of men standing out on the reef hauling a net together. Young girls dancing during the dinner hour at one of the small hotels. The baggage handlers playing 'ukulele in the lull between planes. It’s normal life.

If you want to feel hopeful about the struggles of an aboriginal people in the face of escalating global change, go to Moloka'i. If you want to get past the performance barrier, and feel what it’s like to live and be Hawaiian on the day-to-day, this is the heartland.

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Article Courtesy of the Molokai Visitors Association

Articles About Molokai Island

Molokai Travel Guide

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