For Ishmael W. Stagner, writing his new book, "Kumu Hula, Roots and Branches" (Island Heritage Publishing, $20), was a personal endeavor.
Stagner, 72, a retired Brigham Young University professor, was born into a hula family and was one of the few male hula dancers in 1950s Waikiki, as well as one of the creators of the first male hula groups at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
His mother, Pansy Kaula Akona Stagner, was a kumu hula who performed in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s with the likes of Lena Machado and Hilo Hattie. As a child, Stagner would be backstage while his mother danced, watched over by a circle of cultural practitioners, musicians and dancers.
But it was upon returning home from the mainland to visit his mother during the native Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the ’70s that he began to cherish the knowledge of this circle of friends. He also felt they were due some recognition for all of the struggles and sacrifices they had gone through to keep hula going.
"I was taking my mom to meet with these people to listen to them talk," he said. "They wanted to share. They would sit and tell me about the old days and who taught them. I was able to talk to a lot of these people who most simply wanted to share their stories with me. They were so generous and so open."
The interviews eventually led to his new book, which Island Heritage calls the first comprehensive book on hula written by a native Hawaiian.
"Kumu Hula, Roots and Branches" covers some of hula’s history, gives a general introduction to hula protocol and practices and the five values of Polynesia, and explains hula movements, implements, music, costumes and adornments.
It includes the first-person oral histories of seven contemporary kumu hula: Hattie Laea Nuhi Au, Olana Clark A‘i, Alan Barcarse, Aloha Dalire, Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, Howell "Chinky" Mahoe and Pua Kamealoha Gomes.
Stagner’s 152-page book addresses the informal debate about hula competitions and discusses how hula is evolving and changing as it is practiced globally today, beyond the shores of Hawaii. It is full of colorful photos, as well as illustrations by Brook Kapukuniahi Parker.
Stagner said he wrote the book from the perspective of a hula dancer.
"This is somebody writing from the inside instead of the outside," he said. "It’s not simply a scholarly treatise, but an attempt to teach and influence."
While telling the story of hula, Stagner points out that no one "owns" hula or can claim to be a sole source of knowledge, but that it comes from many teachers throughout history.
If it were up to him, Stagner says the book would have been even more voluminous.
"We wanted to do something that was academically sound and would be useful, but we also wanted people in the middle of Illinois and Idaho and France and Holland who have an interest in hula to read it," he said. "My editors made sure we had something helpful and manageable."
His focus while writing the book was on the next generation of hula dancers. In particular, Stagner said he hopes young native Hawaiians who read it will take pride in their culture.
"We are, to a large extent, the inheritors of the traditions of the Auntie Dotties and Uncle Georges," he said, referring to the late Dottie Thompson and George Na‘ope, co-founders of the Merrie Monarch Festival. "Now we must do our part to impart what we have learned to the next generation of young people. Otherwise, we have people dancing hula and going through the motions without the basic spiritual underpinnings."