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‘Kumu Hula’: New book by Ishmael Stagner

  • Uncle Ish

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 elderly mother during the native Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the ’70s that Stanger, also known as Uncle Ish,  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 would lead to a magazine story and eventually the book. Stanger also tried to get recognition for the elders on an even wider scale, but many of them died before he could do so. He said he felt responsible for making use of all of the information he had gathered from them.

“I was the recipient of all this information that I should share instead of bringing it to the grave,” he said.

Island Heritage is promoting the just-released book as 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, the five values of Polynesia, as well as hula movements, steps, 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 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.

The 152-page book 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.”

While he is still active in the community as an advocate for Hawaiian culture, Stagner is not dancing so much these days as sitting back and enjoying it.

“In the final analysis, I want this to be a book about Hawaiian values and the resilience of the Hawaiian people,” he said. “It’s the values of the Hawaiian people I hope will not be lost as we decide which direction culture is going in the future.”

Ishmael Stagner will be signing “KUMU HULA, Roots and Branches” at Hilo Hattie in the Prince Kuhio Mall from 1 to 2 p.m. Friday, April 29, and Saturday, April 30.

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