Maui Connections

For Hawaiians of old, thank-you wasn’t something you said. It was something you did. It wasn’t until folks from elsewhere arrived on island shores that the Hawaiians learned a word for it.

That was one of the lessons from kumu hula Hokulani Holt at last weekend’s Celebration of the Arts at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. The event marked its 25th anniversary with the theme, “Wahi Mahalo — A Universal Thank You.”

Expressing gratitude was something you did with your actions, explained Hoku, director of Ka Hikina O Ka at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

Ditto for aloha.

“You either got aloha or you don’t got aloha,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. “You either do aloha or you don’t do aloha. Aloha is an action word.”

Punctuated with plenty of island-style humor, the venerable teacher and hula mentor went deeply into words and phrases, peeling back layer after layer of Hawaiianness to get to her culture’s wisdom and heart.

Hers wasn’t the only chicken-skin presentation last weekend. Clifford Nae’ole — the celebration’s well-loved, visionary director — led a session, too, showing the documentary, “Na Wai E Ho’ola I Na Iwi” (Who Will Save the Bones?). The film chronicled activists’ protests after almost a thousand of their ancestors’ bones were unearthed during excavation to build the Ritz in the 1980s.

Amazingly, in that struggle, the Hawaiians prevailed. The emotional film shows why. Dana Hall and Leslie Kuloloio — 25 years younger when the documentary was filmed — are among the passionate, articulate voices in the movie, speaking of the injustice and heartbreak anyone would feel, seeing the 1,000-year-old grave of their ancestors excavated to make room for one more luxury resort.

Candidly sharing his own feelings on the matter, Clifford explained how plans for the resort had been sent back to the drawing board, where it was moved up the hill and transformed from low-rise beachfront to high-rise beach-view, in order to restore the Honokahua burial mound.

The resort was built . . . but the culture found its voice, too, sparking a renaissance in the process.

That’s what the celebration has spent a quarter-century being about: sharing not just the art, history and wisdom of the “host culture,” but its mana and challenges as well.

It offers many pathways into that culture. Practitioners and hearty visitors started Friday morning in the darkness, immersing and cleansing in the ocean, before chanting on the beach, greeting the sunrise with “E Ala E.”

In a colorful opening protocol, traditionally clad groups introduced themselves with stirring chants at the hotel entrance, and then were welcomed in with more chants.

It was the Hawaiian version of “Knock, knock, who’s there? From eons ago until today,” explained Clifford to the transfixed onlookers filling the lobby. Kupuna Merton Kekiwi and “Queenie” Hokoana were honored with this year’s Namahana Awards, named for the late Auntie Lydia Namahana Maioho, recognizing not only contributions to the culture, but a zest for life.

Powerful documentary films preserved history in moving amber: “E ala E,” examined the controversial aftermath of Wailuku River’s 100-year flood last September; “Ho’omau . . . A Story of Perseverance” brought to life an ancient Hawaiian village under attack by South Pacific seafarers; and “Hulu Lehua” chronicled the emotional return from a New Zealand museum of a treasured feathered cape given in welcome to Capt. Cook in 1778 by high chief Kalaniopu’u.

In another provocative presentation, kumu Kapono’ai Molitau explored the sacred energy of pohaku, or stones, illuminating the way forces of nature have always been the wellspring of spirituality in the islands.

Celebration is also an annual chance to reconnect with the ohana that has grown up around the event. Not just Clifford and Hoku, but friends like Iokepa Naeole, kahu Lyons Naone, Lynn Cook, Jocelyn Fujii and Brad Shields, Anu Nagy, Kainoa Horcajo, Shannon Wianecki, Ken Martinez-Burgmaier, Keane Turalde, Karen Fischer, Kyle Ellison, Mike Yasak and scores more.

For all the “aha” moments this year — not to mention all the do-it-yourself art creations guided by many of the state’s best artists and artisans — the biggest hit may have been the new after-hours nightclub created in the Ritz ballrooms, featuring terrific music, dazzling hula and to everyone’s surprise, an open bar.

After many rocky, uncertain years, it was heartening to see the enthusiastic and generous support coming from the property’s new general manager, Mike Kass, and its new ownership for this unique annual cultural gathering — part graduate school, part church, part art class, part hula show, part luau, part party — unlike any other on the island, or the planet.

As Clifford Nae’ole puts it, “Hawaiians acting like Hawaiians: What a concept.”

* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at