It was probably coincidence that a lawsuit claiming a county-sponsored program for Halloween in Lahaina infringed on Hawaiian cultural values was assigned to 2nd Circuit Judge Rhonda Lai Loo. Among the four Circuit Court judges in the Maui district, Loo may be the most sympathetic to issues of Hawaii culture, as a practitioner.
She celebrated her investiture as a judge with a solo hula, underscoring her roots in a family with a history of maintaining Hawaiian cultural practices. Her grandparents raised taro and prepared their daily poi by hand. Family members have been leaders in the Waihee community, where they were a mediating influence - exercising concepts of ho'oponopono - in community conflicts.
It's unfortunate that Loo ruled on a technical point, that plaintiffs lacked standing to represent Hawaiian cultural values in Lahaina town, without considering the crux of the claims that a secular, commercial activity infringed on those values.
It might have been useful for her court to begin to establish boundaries on the claims by requiring claimants to define those cultural values. A determination of what values are threatened is requisite to deciding whether an activity or development - even one with cultural elements - is an infringement. The lawsuit over the Lahaina Halloween event offered no clear connection of the event to claims of injury, beyond a broad and somewhat disingenuous claim of Lahaina being a culturally significant place.
Lahaina today is replete with cultural values, but they are a multicultural melding of people and times.
It's difficult to conceive of the bulk of Lahaina town - including and especially most of the area designated as the Lahaina Historic District - being culturally important only to traditional Hawaiians. Historic artifacts that remain in place - a missionary home, a Chinese fraternal hall, an old prison, remnants of a palace, Japanese Buddhist temples - date to the mid-1800s, long after the Hawaiian monarchy had adopted the moral and cultural standards of American missionaries and abandoned the traditional kapu.
If anything, Historic District structures relate more closely to New England traditions, from where American missionaries and whalers originated.
There is a significant Hawaiian cultural site at Moku'ula, but it remains mostly buried under hard-packed fill while the stream and springs that maintained the Mokuhinia pond are not being restored. Diversion of streams out of Kauaula Valley and adjacent gulches for sugar cane did more damage to the cultural site than any commercial activity since.
In turn, restoration of Moku'ula and the remnants of Mokuhinia would do more to re-establish the traditional cultural value of Lahaina than any barrier to Halloween on Front Street. The late kumu hula Akoni Akana devoted 13 years of his life to Friends of Moku'ula, the effort to restore the refuge of the alii. Notably, the Oahu-raised kumu recognized the cultural value of the county park while working as a cultural adviser to the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, accepting that Hawaiian cultural traditions can coexist with modern commercial exploitation of the islands' resources.
There are Hawaiian cultural traditions threatened by economic, social and political developments in the islands. A serious threat is to the tradition of access and gathering rights, as property owners steeped in Western standards of land rights seek to void the spirit and the letter of Hawaii's access laws. Thirty years ago, Hui Alaloa formed on Molokai to assert traditional rights by exercising those rights. Similarly, Hui Alanui O Makena salvaged remnants of coastal alanui that remained unblocked on Maui by walking the paths.
If cultural traditions are threatened, the threat is less from frivolous commercial events than from a failure to practice the culture and exercise traditional rights.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at hakumoole email@example.com. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.