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April 27, 2011 - Rick Chatenever
At The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua’s 19th annual Celebration of the Arts over Easter weekend, I found myself thinking about words and their meanings.
It’s not as simple as it sounds.
Take the word coincidence. We think of coincidences as random events that feel like they’re not random — as though there’s some deeper connection between them, just beyond our ability to grasp.
Maybe we’re overdue for a new word.
At the Ritz celebration, the theme this year was E na aumakua, “A call to all things natural.”
According to Clifford Nae‘ole, the chairman of this unique cultural gathering, in Hawaiian culture an aumakua is “the embodiment of a loved one who has transitioned and come back as a form of nature.”
Aumakua lore is full of sharks who have aided swimmers in distress. They can be turtles, or dragon- flies, or dolphins. They were likened in one of the weekend’s workshops to Hawaiian guardian angels. But an aumakua could also be a tree, or a rainbow.
Aumakua were the subject of many art projects happening throughout the Ritz property last Friday and Saturday. They were addressed by speakers contemplating the interconnectedness of nature, or the relationship between Hawaiian spiritual beliefs and Western religion.
Onstage, aumakua came to life as day-glow creatures swimming and flying before the amazed eyes of kids and their parents in a magical black-light puppet show created by Rachel DeBoer.
After attending most of the events, I’m still not sure I can explain aumakua to you. But they are so cool! Like aloha itself, aumakua feels like one of those deeply rooted Hawaiian concepts ripe for the picking by hippies, New-Agers or Western embracers of Eastern spirituality.
On Maui, there’s an annual ocean swim race named the Aumakua. I have a T-shirt from one race with a picture of a spinner dolphin on it, although I had never actually seen one in person. Aumakua seem to have something in common with the departed Japanese ancestors celebrated at O-bon dances each summer.
The Ritz celebration is where you go to learn more about these things. For almost two decades, it has been about all things Hawaiian, marking a line where ancient meets contemporary. It is a gathering place for teachers and practitioners of Hawaiian culture to talk to each other, and for the rest of us to listen and learn, to the extent that we can.
Under Nae‘ole’s visionary guidance, the celebration is a fount of ancient wisdom, a forum for contemporary challenges and a search for a better future. It’s about the Hawaiian approach to these topics — but also an annual reminder that delving deeply into any one culture is to discover its ties to the universal truths running through them all.
Love. Family. Honor. Values. The fact that no matter what language you say it in, life is messy.
Held on Easter weekend — with its own symbols of spring, renewal and rebirth — the Ritz celebration is always marked by gracious hospitality and glaring contradictions. The lavish resort provides an incongruous backdrop to discussions of history’s wrongs done to the first people of these islands in the name of Western “civilization,” and the scars that still remain. The resort itself is an inadvertent reminder of economic inequalities that continue to this day.
It grapples with the question: Is there a place for conscience in an upscale tourist economy? Is the Hawaiian concept of “pono” — doing the right thing for the right reason — valuable as a management strategy? What is owed to what is sometimes called “the host culture”?
There aren’t easy answers to these questions. But you go to the Ritz to ask them. Almost all of the events are free; while they’re there for the hotel guests, the public is warmly invited to attend. I always run into lots of friends there.
Nae‘ole has never shied away from controversy in programming the weekend. Sometimes it’s fun; sometimes it’s challenging. Not all Hawaiians agree with one another … much less with everyone else.
The emphasis this year was on finding common ground. In Friday morning’s opening protocol — with its chants, its traditional clothing and its ancient practices — a lot of young children and people who are Hawaiian in ways other than ethnicity, were welcomed through the entry portals.
That spirit of inclusion continued through the weekend, from keiki halau dancing in the lobby to George Allan demonstrating painting. Kumu hula Charles Ka‘upu was a ubiquitous presence, speaking at workshops or chanting as the men of his halau, Na Kane O Ke Oneloa, left little to the imagination in a sensual hula at the celebration’s signature luau.
Also great were the unscripted connections as you walked through the corridors. A display of historical maps connected the dots of island history, while providing a prologue for a nearby display by Hui O Wa‘a Kaulua, Maui’s Voyaging Society, where knowledgeable teenage girls spoke of their work restoring the 62-foot voyaging canoe Mo‘okiha O Pi‘ilani, which they will sail to the Marquesas in coming months.
The aumakua theme might not have resonated so deeply had my family not scattered our father’s ashes in the ocean nearby, barely a month earlier. Visiting that spot, my wife and I noticed a tree standing above us, strong, alone, braving the elements on a rugged cliff with views of paradise in all directions. The tree was a lot like my dad.
An aumakua? Not so fast. In one workshop, I learned aumakua really belong to Hawaiians alone. It’s a matter of genealogy. You don’t get to pick them — the ancestors do.
And so, I finally realized, aumakua are stories. Stories are how we make sense of our world. We are our stories. And especially in Hawaii, with its powerful oral tradition and nuances of language, stories are an art, too, proudly taking their place among the others celebrated each year at the Ritz.
These thoughts were ricocheting around my brain Easter Sunday morning as I headed past the tree, down to nearby Fleming Beach for a last swim before heading home.
The sky was clear, the water flat. It was one of those glorious west side technicolor mornings when I noticed something moving in the water. Something black. A fin. And then more fins. And then something else, breaking the surface, doing its own Easter morning ascension, 10 feet straight up in the air, gleefully spinning several times before dropping back into the water.
Dolphins! A pod of them, stretching in all directions, maybe a hundred yards offshore. Were they extending an invitation? I swam out from the beach and soon was surrounded.
They moved in twos and threes, and fives and sixes, on one side of me or the other, or below, or behind, or gracefully fanning out ahead. Some were larger than I was, but the contented smiles on their faces, even up close, eye to eye here in their wild realm, left no room for fear.
Back and forth we went, one group disappearing, another taking its place. At one point there was a row of us, five or six, swimming abreast. All smiling.
I don’t know how long I was out there. I don’t know how many of them there were. The spinners were still doing their crazy joyful leaps when I finally headed back to shore.
It was Easter morning at the 19th annual Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua Celebration of the Arts where the theme was E na Aumakua “A call to all things natural” …
That’s how my story begins. A coincidence? I suppose that’s one way to put it. Western minds aren’t well equipped to go searching for aumakua.
But it’s great to be available when they come looking for you.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Celebration of the Arts chairman Clifford Nae‘ole (left) and kumu hula Charles Kaupu at the opening protocol. The Maui News / RICK CHATENEVER photo