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‘Hawaiiana’: By woman who gave meaning to the word

Tom Vendetti’s documentary on Nona Beamer to air Aug. 27 on PBS

This photo of Aunty Nona Beamer, who fought for Hawaiiana and the restoration of her culture, was taken in 1968. — Photo courtesy of Nona Beamer’s family

The new documentary “Hawaiiana,” screening on PBS Hawaii at 9 p.m. Aug. 27, pays homage to revered Hawaiian treasure Aunty Nona Beamer.

Directed by Maui-based filmmaker Tom Vendetti, the documentary employs rare footage and vintage interview material to paint a moving portrait of a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to perpetuating Hawaiian culture.

Among her many accomplishments, Aunty Nona challenged repressive authorities at Kamehameha School in the 1930s, who had forbidden students from dancing hula standing, at a time when only hula noho, sit down style, was allowed. She was the first Native Hawaiian to perform kahiko hula at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall, and later in her life spearheaded the drive to uncover corruption at the Bishop Estate. And it was Aunty Nona who coined the term “Hawaiiana” in 1949, to describe the best of all things Hawaiian and the essence of aloha. All this while raising her two sons, Keola and Kapono Beamer, who became leading lights of contemporary Hawaiian music.

“It’s a gargantuan concept to keep this aloha in the world,” Aunty Nona told Leslie Wilcox in a PBS Hawaii interview. “And that’s what we all have to do in our own hearts, to keep this aloha.”

Born in Honolulu in 1923, and raised on Hawaii island with her parents and her grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer, Aunty Nona moved to Lahaina in 2006, and died in her sleep April 10, 2008.

Aunty Nona Beamer is shown with her favorite ipu. — Photo courtesy of Nona Beamer’s family

While she has been portrayed in previous documentaries, Vendetti has focused on Aunty Nona “telling her own story, along with family members.”

The film includes rare black-and-white footage of her dancing hula as a child, extracts from various interviews, film of the Aloha Music Camp on Kauai, and a scene of Aunty Nona joining Keola Beamer on his classic “The Beauty of Mauna Kea,” accompanied by Moana Beamer dancing hula.

“I thought Tom was the guy to capture mom’s story in her own words,” Keola Beamer explained. “It’s really lovely. Tom has made some wonderful films in the past. I worked previously with him on ‘Tibetan Illusion Destroyer.’ I did the music for that.”

“I was honored to do it,” said Vendetti, who was so impressed, “how an individual could be so committed to the concept of compassion and aloha.”

Among scenes in the film, Aunty Nona details the dramatic story of the chant “E Manono,” relating to the battle of Kuamo’o near Kona in 1819. It was the last battle fought in Hawaii to retain the old ways.

Nona Beamer is shown with her sons, Keola and Kapono, in this photo taken in 1956. Tom Vendetti has a new documentary, “Hawaiiana” about Nona Beamer, which will show Aug. 27 on PBS Hawaii. — IRENE ANDREWS photo

“Mom really loved the ancient Hawaiian battlefield called Kuamo’o,” Keola Beamer said. “After she passed away, we procured the land and placed it in a perpetual easement so it will be protected. It’s where mom got her Hawaiian name from Princess Manono.

“Mom was really about love and helping aloha grow. When we were kids she always reminded us to malama ko aloha, keep your love. That way aloha proceeds you. She worked so hard at keeping that alive. It’s easy to live and practice aloha when your life is going well. It’s more difficult when things are hard. She helped me remember that, and in the darkest times of my life there was still that beautiful light of aloha. It was a gift from my mom. She was a great teacher.”

A visionary and pioneer, Aunty Nona championed Hawaiian culture from her youngest days standing up to Kamehameha School authorities.

The school had an early history of cultural suppression. When the boys school opened, Hawaiian was forbidden and students were punished if they were heard speaking the language.

The Rev. Sereno Bishop, who once lived in Hana and Lahaina and gave prayers at the opening of the boys’ school, was vehemently anti-hula. The dance, he wrote, was “one of the foul florescenses” on the “great poison tree of idolatry.”

In a 1993 Maui News interview, Aunty Nona talked about the harsh conditions of her student days at Kamehameha School.

“The school was not geared towards Hawaiian,” she said. “They suppressed us. I was told when I was 12 years old that Princess Pauahi had it written into her will that we were not to chant and dance. I could not believe that a Hawaiian princess who founded a school for Hawaiians prohibited chanting and dancing.”

She reported how she was told, “there were no redeeming features in the culture, there was nothing worth studying. Our principal said we would never succeed in colleges. Hawaiians belonged in the home taking care of children.”

Kamehameha School’s kapu on standing hula was only ended in 1965.

Aunty Nona also recounts other incidents of prejudice she experienced in her early life. like one on the Mainland that’s shocking.

“It’s a gift from Akua,” Keola Beamer said about his mother’s courageous spirit. “She intuitively knew when to stand up for herself, when to call out bull—-. So many people stand on her shoulders. She had thousands of students. She made our path easier.”

After screening on PBS Hawaii (Spectrum Channels 10, 1010), the documentary will receive national distribution through American Public Television in the fall. “It will be distributed to all the PBS stations, so millions of people can see it,” Vendetti said.

Since childhood, Aunty Nona had been curious about what makes Hawaii different, and why the culture is so special, and the importance of aloha.

“Aloha encompasses all the levels of love,” she said.

When she met Tibet’s spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in 2007, she posed the question: “Love is so common why doesn’t the world get it?” The Dalai Lama advised there are many different levels of love, we just have to keep going forward.

“Never mind what’s gone on, we have to go from now forward,” Aunty Nona said.

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