By Rachel Vinciguerra
“Aloha” means hello AND goodbye. Hula is the native dance. And in every movie I’ve ever seen about it there’s an ukulele. That was the extent of my knowledge about Hawaii before I proposed a TiPiT to go there. Maybe it was the early 20th century American ties that drew me in, or the exotic Polynesian food and dance, but I came away with a much fuller understanding of the people, the history and the culture than I could have hoped for when I arrived.
For two and a half weeks I trekked around the island of Oahu bugging people with my questions– and I had a lot. What is the significance of a lei? Why is hula taken so much less seriously on the mainland? How was the monarchy overthrown? What is your responsibility to present Hawaiian culture? Why does everyone holding a campaign sign keep waving at me? The last, I found out, is because of a superstition that if lobbyers do not wave at passerbys their candidate will lose. That’s one mystery solved.
I went any place I could get a tour or the time for an interview, from the state-run Bishop Museum, to the Mormon-owned, Disney World of Hawaiian culture, the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). The PCC is laid out like EPCOT, with different countries represented around a central lagoon. Each derivative Hawaiian culture has thatched houses, relevant activities and representatives to cook the foods, teach the dances and demonstrate their way of life.
I clicked on my audio recorder and began asking questions. Cy Bridges, the Cultural Director of the PCC, took over an hour out of his day to talk to this girl from some school called Ohio Wesleyan. He described how the PCC has grown, and with that growth, certain elements of authenticity have crumbled away. He works at “assuring that we are culturally correct.
As culturally correct as can be,” he emphasized. “Traditionally, the women would be walking around with a wrap around the bottom and not on the top. Of course we’re not gonna do that. So people could debate that’s not cultural.”
He pointed to a faux thatched roof across the path from us, “That is a foreign plastic thatching. Once upon a time we had sugar cane plantations all over the place and we would send the kuru and they would gather sugar cane leaves and that would be our thatching.”
Since then the plantations have closed down and, although he fought for it, the cost to ship authentic sugar cane thatching was too great. “For a cultural person, for me, it took me a while before I got used to that,” he explained. “The buildings and everything are as authentic as can be, however, the number one thing that people remember are not the buildings, not some of the activities they did, it’s the people.”
I will always remember seeing that Samoan man scale a coconut tree, or learning how to dance with poi balls from that woman from Aetorea. In every place I went, the things that stuck with me most were the people telling the stories and the characters in them.
My tour of Iolani Palace was given by an older woman who wove an intricate tale as she led us through the high-ceilinged rooms of the palace. We were invited to King Kalakaua’s ball along with other foreign dignitaries. She presented each room with flourish and described our evening as it would have unfolded before us. Winking at me as she described the dresses we would have worn, she pointed out that our tickets were exact replicas of a “dance card” we would have been given. Because the King loved to dance with every woman at the ball, she told us, we would all keep at least one line on our card blank for him.
At the Mission Houses Museum we sat in the seats of New England Missionaries and watched from the sides of the room as a Hawaiian chieftess came to demand one of the missionaries newborn daughters. In the spirit of compromise, the missionary named her daughter after the chieftess, and got to hold onto her a little longer. We laughed as the guide rolled his eyes at the absurdity of the situation.
These are merely pieces of a much larger puzzle that began to form. And the moments that were described to me by each person I met filled the picture with color. My goal for this TiPit was to find out how they each attempted to present information truthfully and respectfully, and ultimately, what I found can be applied to professionals everywhere.
What I take away from these interviews and research is that, while accuracy is important in history and culture, it is equally important to have people who take ownership of it and are willing to share.
At the end of the day, tourists or locals who want to gain a deeper understanding of Hawaiian history, are going to remember the people they encounter (in the museums or in the stories).
Without creating the spark that will inspire further research, there is no point in providing information at all. But beyond that their responsibility is to embrace the culture as their own and strive to make connections with those who want to learn more, as I did.