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Hawaiian Culture is Alive and Well on Maui

Hawaii's rich cultural heritage is one of the grandest flourishing in the Pacific. First discovered by Polynesian voyagers sailing from the Marquesas in the South Pacific in great double-hulled canoes around the year 450 A.D., Hawaii later became the focus for other waves of migrations from Tahiti.

It was in the utter isolation of Hawaii, miles on every side from any other land, that its unique culture developed. The early Hawaiians established a sound system of land and ocean management, a system of chiefs and religious laws, and later in the 19th century a monarchy. The arts in Hawaii flourished and artists were highly respected by society.

Although much about Hawaii has changed since that fateful day in 1778 when Captain James Cook first "discovered" these islands, the Hawaiian culture has proved to be amazingly resilient. In recent years everything from the hula to arts and crafts have seen a healthy revival throughout the islands. On Maui it finds a beautiful expression.


In the absence of a written language, the history, genealogy (critical to the spiritual beliefs of Hawaiians) and the recording of great events were kept in the chants and dances of the people.

A hula dancer was dedicated to a life of discipline and study from early childhood. Dancers, both male and female, left their families to live in a hula halau where they were taught the spiritual as well as physical aspects of the dance. Their place in society was secured.

Through the hula the stories of the people were passed from generation to generation in haunting chants and movements. Hula was accompanied by instruments made from gourds, bamboo, feathers, shark skin and ocean pebbles.

Closely tied to religious as well as secular celebrations, the hula began a decline with the fall of the ancient kapu system after the death of the great king, Kamehameha I. Its closely held secrets became even more so. But, the most devastating blow came with the arrival of Christian missionaries from New England in the 1820s. The unclad bodies and suggestive movements of the dance scandalized the newcomers.

Hula went underground for years and was practiced and passed on in secret until the ascension to the Hawaiian throne of the elected King David Kalakaua in 1874. Kalakaua, nostalgic for the glory of old Hawaii and wrestling with the tumultuous changes of the time, reintroduced the hula in a grand manner at his inauguration on the grounds of Iolani Palace. The Hawaiian people were ecstatic.

The new hula (hula auwana) and the ancient (hula kahiko) continued in the years that followed. The new dance incorporated imported instruments such as the ukulele, guitar, bass and the steel guitar. Hula songs began using English words and the "hapa haole hula" (half-white) was born.

With what is being called the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, hula and related Native Hawaiian arts are seeing a revitalization like never before. On Maui leading proponents such as the late Auntie Emma Sharpe, Nina Maxwell, Hokulani Holt Padilla and Keali'i Reichel have made giant strides in presenting hula in an accurate and respectful manner.

Hula is now celebrated in several Maui festivals including Na Mele O Maui, Haku Mele O Hana, Hula O Na Keiki and Moloka`i's Ka Hula Piko. Through these events the knowledge of the dance is passed to the next generation. Hula is also performed in the resort hotels, at public lu`au and in shopping centers. Free hula lessons in the modern version are offered in many of the hotels.


When you think of Hawaiian music, you probably think of Don Ho crooning "Tiny Bubbles." If you are older, you grew up to the strains of "Hawaii Calls" on the radio. It was the syrupy, nostalgic music of movies and nightclubs.

Music has always been important to every day life in Hawaii. When the missionaries arrived they immediately formed church choirs and translated hymns into the Hawaiian language. Those hymns are still sung in churches throughout Maui.

Many of Hawaii's rulers supported musical talents and wrote music themselves. Hawaii's last queen, Liliuokalani, wrote haunting melodies of a land lost while imprisoned in a room in Iolani Palace by American sugar planters and their supporters. Her most famous composition is the beautiful, "Aloha Oe."

Along with the resurgence of interest in hula came a renewed excitement for Hawaiian music. Contemporary Hawaiian music, with its inclusion of musical forms from reggae, country western and Broadway, is enjoying a new "golden age."

Among Maui's most prominent Hawaiian entertainers are Keali'i Reichel, Pekelo, Uluwehi Guerrero, Amy Hanaiali`i Gilliom, the duo Hapa, and Willie K.


Hawaiians had no precious stones or metals. Their jewelry came from the land and sea -- garlands of flowers, ferns, shells, feathers, seeds and leaves. They are still given to mark every occasion in a person's life, birthdays, weddings, graduations, arrivals, departures and funerals.

When a building is dedicated fragrant strands of maile are untied at the entrance to signify good tidings. Sweet smelling lei such as pikake (jasmine) or pakalana are given to women to be worn as a seductive perfume. A man celebrating an important occasion will be given a lei such as maile entwined with bright yellow ilima.

Maui's school children celebrate May Day as Lei Day and come to school wearing lei of every conceivable sort. Even candy and money lei are seen. Lei making contests are held to show off the diversity of materials and styles. Lei are worn as hat bands, on the wrists and ankles of dancers, encircling the heads of brides and canoe paddlers. Even horses have their special lei for parades.


When the missionary wives unpacked their trunks from New England and Hawaiian women spotted their quilts a new art form was born.

Hawaiian women learned to stitch and quilt their own designs cut in one piece out of cotton calico. The result was spectacular. Soon designs were kept secret as other Hawaiian crafts had been in ancient times. They obtained great spiritual and artistic significance. Quilts were designed with subtle meanings and named accordingly.

When the Hawaiian kingdom fell and Hawaiians were no longer allowed to fly their flag, they quietly made their bed quilts into flags so that each morning they could still wake up "under the flag of Hawaii." Today the Hawaiian quilting technique can be seen in pillows, children's crib quilts, beach totes and even Christmas ornaments. Hotel lobbies have beautiful quilts hung as decorative pieces and the designs are silk screened onto bed comforters.


Ancient Hawaiians pounded the bark of the mulberry, or wauke tree, into a felt-like fabric called kapa which was used for everything from sails for canoes to bedding and clothing. The pounded fabric was then decorated with colored natural dyes and primitive geometric designs. Experts on Polynesian crafts consider Hawaiian kapa some of the best quality in the Pacific.

Kapa is almost considered a lost art. It is so prized that when you see it displayed in museums such as the Bailey House Museum in Wailuku or hotel lobbies, it is almost always under glass. One of Maui's most gifted kapa makers is Pua Van Dorpe of Lahaina.


Feathers were used to create the highest forms of Hawaiian jewelry and adornments. Only men and women of the highest ranks wore feather lei, helmets and capes. The native birds which supplied the feathers were carefully cultivated. A natural glue was applied to the limbs of trees and the birds were caught. A few feathers were taken from their tails and they were then released. Unfortunately, many of these early birds have died off due to the urbanization of Hawaii and the importation of diseases.

Today the most common featherwork is seen in lei and hat bands. Craftspeople can be found at community sales throughout the island.

WOODCARVING Hawaii's forests yielded many beautiful woods such as koa, milo and ohia -- hardwoods of exceptional beauty that were used for furniture, flooring and containers. Hawaii's cabinet makers flourished in the years after western contact in the 1800s and early 1900s. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in working with Hawaiian woods. Many Maui art galleries and craft fairs feature the contemporary work of island artists.


While language is not strictly an art form, it is essential to any cultural expression. Native Hawaiian language belongs to the same root group as Tahitian, Samoan and Maori. Once spoken throughout the island chain, it is now used mostly in songs, dance and for ceremonial purposes. Many Hawaiian words have survived and are used in everyday conversation such as pau hana (finished work), ono (delicious) and mahalo (thank you).

Today many Maui children are taught the Hawaiian language at the Punana Leo pre-school in an immersion program or at the University of Hawaii. There are efforts at all levels to relearn and use the language in a correct and accurate manner.


Maui Historical Society, Cathy Riley, 2375-A Main Street, Wailuku, Maui, HI 96793; 808-244-3326

Hawaiian Quilt:
-Baldwin Home Museum, Front St., Lahaina; 808-661-3262
  • Ms. Wailani Johanson, 808-661-0325

    Music: Henry Allen, Hawaiian Steel Guitar Expert, Lahaina, Maui, HI 808-669-6189

    Hula: Nina Maxwell, Pukalani, Maui, HI; 808-572-8038

    Lei: Gordean Bailey, Bailey Farms, Kula, Maui, HI; 808-878-3828

    Hawaiian Carving and Implements: Sam Kaai, Pukalani, Maui, HI; 808-572-0076

    Hawaiian Language: Kiope Raymond, Copp Road, Kula, Maui, HI; 808-878-3564

    Lauhala Weaving: Pohaku Kahoohanohano; 808-572-5615

    Article Courtesy of the Maui Visitors Bureau

    See also:
    - More Maui Articles

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