The Hokule‘a has come full circle, returning to Hilo for the first time since 2014, where the legendary double- hulled canoe set out on its worldwide tour, this time to be honored at the Merrie Monarch Festival.
The original crew members of the maiden 1976 voyage to Tahiti were honored in song and dance at Wednesday’s Hoike performance. The crew were presented with special canoe paddles, and the mele for the evening featured themes of voyaging.
Honoring the Hokule‘a crew, the embodiment of Polynesian navigating skill, at the Merrie Monarch Festival, the annual showcase of the world’s best hula dancers, brings together two icons of Hawaiian culture.
Festival president Luana Kawelu invited the Hokule‘a’s original crew to be honorees at this year’s Hoike after witnessing their worldwide voyage, which concluded on Oahu in June.
“When I saw them land last summer, I was just so overwhelmed with pride at what they accomplished, sailing around the world,” said Kawelu, “and so, my tears were dropping, so proud. You don’t need to have the Hawaiian blood to be proud. Everyone in Hawaii was proud of their accomplishments.”
Among the crew members honored were Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson, Shorty Bertelmann, Buffalo Keaulana, John Kruse, Billy Richards, Kimo Hugho, Snake Ah Hee, Kainoa Lee, Kimo Lyman, Gordon Pi‘ianai‘a, Penny Rawlins, Maka‘ala Yates and Dr. Ben Young.
“Being together with my brothers and sisters from the 1976 Voyage and to hear the names of our fellow crew members who have passed away was such an overwhelming, emotional and humbling experience,” Thompson said in an email.
“To have these two great legacies of renaissance come together in the global center of Hawaiian culture, chant and dance was so powerful,” Thompson said.
The Hokule‘a was welcomed Monday morning with a formal homecoming ceremony at the Grand Naniloa Hotel pier in Hilo, where it will remain until April 28 as part of its “Mahalo, Hawaii Sail.” From April 28 to May 10, the Hokule‘a is scheduled to be moored at Kawaihae Harbor.
Some of the crew members shared their memories at a “talk story” session at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center on Thursday afternoon, along with a video clip of the original 1976 voyage.
The launch of the Hokule‘a (“star of gladness”) was a renaissance of sorts for Hawaiian culture during the ’70s, when activists were working to save Kahoolawe from military bombing and pushing for more Hawaiian history in the school curriculum.
Richards credited Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug for being the leader who brought the Hokule‘a crew together and opened the door to reconnecting them to the past. Richards called him “the light.”
Following the Miss Aloha Hula performance Thursday, the competition continues with group kahiko on Friday and group auana, followed by an announcement of the winners, on Saturday going into early Sunday morning.
At least one halau, Ka Leo o Laka i ka Hikina o ka La of Honolulu, is honoring the Hokule‘a with its number on Saturday. Kumu Kaleo Trinidad said growing up, the story of the Hokule‘a was an inspiration for his whole family and a source of pride and ownership in his Hawaiian identity.
“It is a tremendous honor for us to be performing songs that speak to the tremendous seafaring legacy of our Hawaiian and Polynesian ancestors at the Merrie Monarch Festival,” said kumu Kaleo Trinidad in an email. “Hokule‘a began as a dream and has become a living icon and testament of Hawaiian skill and knowledge reflecting positively on all aspects of our island traditions.”
People from around the world embraced the Hokule‘a’s “Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage” as part of an international dialogue on living sustainably.
In 2014, Trinidad’s halau wowed the Merrie Monarch audience with an intricately choreographed auana telling of the Hokule‘a’s 1992 sail from Hawaii to Raiatea, the Society Islands, Rarotonga and Cook Islands.
At that time it was a tribute to the Hokule‘a’s upcoming worldwide voyage. It struck a chord with the audience and netted the top, combined score, winning the overall title that year. The halau competed again in 2015, then took a break. So it was fitting to bring back another performance about the Hokule‘a this year.
Trinidad and his halau have been following the Hokule‘a’s voyages over the years with fascination and pride. He and a few members of the halau personally greeted the Hokule‘a with hula and chant at a few landfalls.
The main mele (song) the halau will perform to — “Kaulana ka Inoa E Hokule‘a E” — was composed by Chad Takatsugi for the return ceremony in June 2017. It is intermingled with three other mele by Randie Kamuela Fong, Hokule‘a adviser and Kamehameha Schools cultural affairs vice president.
These mele highlight various landfalls, honoring communities that greeted the Hokule‘a, including New Zealand, where it was named by a revered elder; South Africa, where it was greeted by Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu; and Rapa Nui, Easter Island.
“I hope that our audiences are as proud of the accomplishments of Hokule‘a and her crew as much as we are,” said Trinidad. “We lift up this lei of honor to her crew past and present.”