Growing up on Hawaii island, Pua Ishibashi learned about the Hawaiian culture by living it.
He played Hawaiian music at backyard kanikapila (jam sessions) and prepared and ate Hawaiian food — poi, poke, fish and, for special occasions, pig cooked in an imu (underground oven).
Before he and his uncles went hunting and fishing, they always asked akua (gods) for safety and success and, upon returning, offered thanks to them and to the fish and animals they had killed for food.
KAMEHAMEHA DAY IN HILO
Mokuola island, Hilo
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
>> Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“I was taught to malama aina (care for the land) by not throwing trash out of the car window or into gorges and ravines,” Ishibashi said. “I learned to never judge others because of the color of their skin or where they were from. And even though I was brought up as a Christian, I learned by my family’s example to respect all beliefs, including the ancient ways of my ancestors — to be humble, to watch more than I speak and to be pono (balanced) in body, mind and spirit.”
These are the values and traditions that characterize Hilo’s Kamehameha Festival, which honors the great warrior king who united the Hawaiian islands under one rule. This is the ninth year that Ishibashi has coordinated the celebration at Mokuola islet in Hilo Bay, which features music, hula, arts and crafts, ono (delicious) food, cultural activities and oli (chant) and conch shell-blowing competitions.
“It’s a family-oriented event, and our drug-, alcohol- and tobacco-free policy is strictly enforced,” Ishibashi said. “Guests can bring their own coolers, pitch a tent, set up chairs and participate in songs and dances. They can also pound poi, weave a lau hala bracelet, string a lei, make a coconut frond toy and more.”
This year’s theme is “E Onipaa Kakou” (“to be steadfast, firm, resolute and determined”). Queen Liliu‘okalani often used that phrase to encourage her people to protect, preserve and perpetuate their culture even after she was forced to abdicate in 1893.
Pride of culture and strong connections with the past are evident at the Kamehameha Festival. Several years ago, Ishibashi recalled, the day of the event was hot and sunny. Suddenly, a breeze and a drizzle swept over Mokuola as a halau (hula troupe) was performing. The women seemed to welcome the refreshing rain and to dance more exuberantly as it fell. The weather cleared just as they finished their number.
KAMEHAMEHA’S TIES TO HILO
Kamehameha was born circa 1758 in Kohala on Hawaii island, trained as a warrior in Kau and died in Kona in 1819. What is not as widely known is his great love for and connection to Hilo, which he named after a special braid that was used to secure his canoe there.
As a youth, Kamehameha proved his right to rule the islands by lifting the 3-ton Naha Stone at the Pinao Heiau in Hilo. His war fleet, which he used in battles to gain control of the islands, was built in Hilo and based there from 1796 to 1801.
His son Liholiho (Kamehameha II) was born in Hilo in 1797. That was also the year and place that Kamehameha established the famous Ke Kanawai Mamalahoe (Law of the Splintered Paddle), which ensured everyone could travel throughout the islands without fear of assault. After unifying the islands in 1810, he designated Hilo as the Hawaiian kingdom’s first seat of government.
Kamehameha practiced cultural protocols on Mokuola, once a puuhonua (place of refuge) with a heiau (temple) complex. The islet remains a significant cultural and historical site recognized for its healing powers. The Royal Order of Kamehameha I-Mamalahoa chapter serves as its guardian and puts on the Kamehameha Festival there each year.
Adapted from kamehamehafestival.org
When Ishibashi mentioned this interesting occurrence to their kumu hula (teacher), she told him that the opening chant for the dance was about Aala Honua, a breeze accompanied by a light shower that’s associated with Hilo.
“She reminded me that Aala Honua is often a hoailona (sign) that our ancestors are present and are pleased with our actions,” Ishibashi said. “But whether or not there is Aala Honua, we feel their aloha and believe they are watching over us and enjoying our celebrations of culture.”
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.