The postcard perfection of the vista dwarfed the mound in the foreground. A clump of trees stands at its center, a thick rolling hedge surrounds it, providing a barricade against intrusion. The mound is called Honokahua. It is a burial place to hundreds, many hundreds, of people who once lived in this place, centuries ago.
This was the 16th Easter weekend my wife and I have spent at the Ritz, guests at its annual Celebration of the Arts. Sixteen years is enough time to have some history of our own with this unique event whose focus has evolved from a celebration of the visual arts to an exploration of the culture of the descendants of Honokahua.
Accommodations have always been generously provided by the Ritz. But by the end of the weekend, which tests everything you think you know about this place, and this mind space, called “Hawaii,” you realize that the view hasn’t come for free.
Clifford Nae‘ole, the visionary chairman of the Celebration of the Arts, likes to push the envelope.
Guided by the spirit — or spirits — of Honokahua, he balances the three-day schedule mixing creative expression — hands-on arts projects led by scores of Maui artists; musical and hula performances; films; plays — with more reflective pondering, and sometimes heated debate, in panel discussions and educational presentations.
With his own warmth and friendliness setting the tone for the weekend, Clifford shares certain traits with a prominent visitor to our island last year, the 14th Dalai Lama. Hawaiian-style, of course — and Clifford would be the last to make such a claim for himself.
But there seems to be a similar intuition and compassion shaping both men’s decisions. And something between common sense and cosmic sense guiding their moves.
They also share a fearlessness when it comes to confronting political and social realities, which in both the Dalai Lama’s Tibet and Clifford’s Hawaii, have included wrongs and injustices done to their people.
“Ka Mana Leo — Power of the Voice” was the theme of this year’s event. The power of the voice to speak, or sing, or chant, was reflected in many of the performances, educational workshops and presentations.
But it was also about the power of the words that issue forth from those voices, in writing as well as in spoken form, which hold within themselves, seeds of life … and seeds of death.
Coming as it does on Easter weekend, with Good Friday followed by a day of doubt before the day celebrating the miracle of rebirth and resurrection, Celebration of the Arts follows a similar path.
It’s always a challenge. One way or another, in its look at this place called Hawaii and the first people to live here, it forces all its participants to confront ourselves, to question, to seek definitions, to explore where we fit in.
And there are always the contradictions. They begin with the fact that all this talk of real Hawaiian stuff — matters of passion, heart, anger and soul — is taking place in the opulently unreal setting of the Ritz.
For this weekend at least, as Clifford observed, there were more coolers than luggage being checked in. The other 362 days a year, Celebration’s “guests” have more in common with the people who work in places like this.
There’s something subversive about turning the Ritz-Carlton over for one weekend out of the year to what used to be called “the host culture,” until that term was found wanting.
It’s like guerrilla tourism, as though wrongs done in the past might somehow be undone on this weekend of renewal.
But of course, they can’t.
For all the moments of joy and shared aloha at this year’s event, for all the talk about communicating “with passion and compassion,” there was a troubling undertone at some of the panel discussions.
Longtime residents of the islands, many who continue to make valuable contributions to life here, suddenly found themselves victims of their “non-Hawaiianess.”
Journalism was the focus of one panel, the blood quantum law to establish rights to land ownership another. But in both, people drawn to this culture, not as wannabe Hawaiians, but out of respect for the wisdom it can teach about living wisely on the land, honoring elders, creating family bonds that cross racial divides, became targets.
For some on the panels, Hawaiian culture seemed something exclusive, and exclusionary. The others in the room were on the outside, branded with the deepest curse:
They — we —don’t, and never will, “get it.”
Perhaps this was an object lesson in what it must have felt like for Hawaiian children in church or school to be told they couldn’t speak their language, dance their dances, live as their ancestors had for centuries, on their island home.
But it was also a reminder that bullying is still bullying and racism in response to racism is still racism. No matter what language it is spoken in.
A more urgent and profound message came in the screening of the film “Hawaii … Message in the Waves.”
This brilliantly shot BBC production featuring Maui educator and waterman Iokepa Naeole and others, showed beaches of the islands, even the most remote of them in the northwestern archipelago, as repositories for tons of plastic. Not just from our disposable plastic way of life, but from items cast off at sea. These objects are finding their way into the food chain, literally killing albatross chicks, and by extension, life on the planet.
The “Hawaiian” role here was a messenger, as harbinger, perhaps as source, drawing on the ancient wisdom to find wise new ways of living on the planet we all call home.
It was a reminder that during his visit to Maui last year, the Dalai Lama met with kupuna from the Hawaiian community, offering his lesson of compassion in response to injustices, at least as well known in his land as they are here.
Turning the clock back isn’t an option for facing the future for any of us. The economic forces changing life on this island, in many ways for the worse, are hardly restricted to any one culture or ethnicity.
One panelist noted the difference between Hawaiian culture and the culture of Hawaii, whose origins are found all over the planet.
The culture of Hawaii is a multi-ethnic place, marked by mixing, where family geneologies become like the United Nations, and deep knowledge of any one culture is a pathway to knowing all cultures.
The culture of Hawaii has, at least for most of our lifetimes, been about giving and sharing, for realizing what we have in common as members of the same human family.
Without that, there really isn’t much cause for celebration.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking out from a balcony at the The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua
The Maui News / RICK CHATENEVER photo