In years past, hula students would make pilgrimages into ohia forests on Hawaii’s Big Island to gather blossoms and leaves from the trees to adorn dancers’ lei, hair, hands and feet for the world’s most prestigious hula competition.
They would also pay respects to Laka, the goddess of hula, and seek inspiration.
But at this year’s upcoming Merrie Monarch Festival, the red and yellow blossoms that normally adorn dancers will be missing.
That’s because many competitors are heeding calls to avoid the flowers so they don’t spread a fungus that’s killing the tress that grow them. Scientists are worried what’s known as rapid ohia death will wipe out the backbone of Hawaii’s native forests and watersheds — the islands’ source of fresh water.
“It doesn’t grow anywhere else in world,” said Sam Ohu Gon III, senior scientist and cultural adviser for the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. “If it goes extinct here, that’s it globally. It’s gone.”
For now, the disease is only on the Big Island. But with thousands of people descending upon the usually sleepy Big Island town of Hilo for the festival that starts March 27, some fear people could unintentionally spread the fungus to other islands.
People going into the forests to harvest the blossoms and leaves could spread the disease through sticky spores of the fungus that can travel on vehicles, tools and shoes.
Scientists don’t want to tell festival organizers and participants what to do about an important cultural practice. The flowers are said to be Laka’s physical representation and an important symbol of hula.
“We’re all mainland haoles,” said J.B. Friday, University of Hawaii forester, using a word meaning white person to refer to the three scientists leading the effort to battle the disease. “We’re not going to tell Hawaiians what to do.”
And so members of a rapid ohia death working group set out to conduct outreach in an effort to educate about the disease, while being sensitive to the flower’s iconic presence at the festival.
Competitors spend all year or longer planning their moves and selecting the foliage that will help tell the story of the mele, or song. “Often restrictions on cultural actions are looked at as oppression,” Gon said.
Many participants have been receptive to avoiding ohia lehua, an unprecedented move in the festival’s 53-year history.
One group, Halau Hiiakainamakalehua, of Honolulu, won’t be using any ohia — or anything that comes from the forests.
“For me, the competition is less important than losing one of our biggest hula resources,” said one of the group’s leaders, Robert Kaupu. “We’re trying to send a message: don’t go in the forest now.”
Maui’s Pukalani Hula Hale has been preparing for two years to make a festival comeback after a 13-year absence.
The group’s soloist will wear ohia lehua in her lei when she performs a kahiko —the most ancient form of hula — to vie for the title of Miss Aloha Hula. But the blossoms will come from Maui, where the disease hasn’t been found.
“We would always use from our island,” said the group’s leader Hiilei Maxwell-Jean.
Some participants say that everyone should refrain from using it, regardless of where it’s gathered from.
“In solidarity, we should all show our togetherness in showing that we understand what’s going on,” said Kamaka Kukona, of Maui’s Halau O Ka Hanu Lehua. “Right now safety is taking precedence over our decorative purposes.”
Organizers are leaving it up to the groups to decide whether or not to use ohia, said festival director Luana Kawelu.
Because participants must submit their lists of adornments well in advance, judges are being instructed not to penalize groups that substitute ohia, she said.
“That floored me when I learned that,” said Christy Martin, of the university’s Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species.
Such an extraordinary allowance gives her hope their outreach worked. “It really made me understand that these kumu are true leaders,” she said, using the Hawaiian word for teacher. “They’re taking this issue seriously.”
Hawaiians have long depended on ohia cosmologically, artistically and medicinally, said Kalena Silva, a professor of Hawaiian studies at the university’s Hilo campus.
Silva suggested observing a period of prohibition, noting that there have been periods when fishing in certain areas was prohibited to allow for the replenishment of stocks. Silva said it’s worth a halt to its use for such a precious cultural symbol.
“To me, it feels like we’re about to lose a member of the family,” he said. “We’re keenly aware of the fragility of our ohia forests now.”