Home >> Polynesian Voyaging Society Archives >> Primary Source Documents, 1978 - 1984 >> Kanahele

The Hawaiian Renaissance by George S. Kanahele
May 1979


Having made the case for the Hawaiian Renaissance, let me now try to draw some meaning for you and the people of Hawaii. First, as human beings and, of course, as Hawaiians, we should all be elated that a once rich culture threatened with extinction has been able to survive and now appears to be thriving in spite of the odds against it.

Other cultures in other areas of the world and at different periods in man's history have not been as fortunate. Indeed, the history of man is littered with the carcasses of dead cultures. Thus, from the point of view of the human race, the Hawaiian Renaissance should offer hope to other dying or threatened peoples and cultures that they, too, can survive, if not thrive, in the modern world.

As a matter of fact, what is happening among Hawaiians in Hawaii today is also happening in other states, island groups, and countries all over the world. Cultural revivals are taking place among the Cajuns in Louisiana, the Indians of the north and southwest and other parts of the United States; the Maoris in New Zealand, the Rarotongans in the Cook Islands, and the Chamorros in Guam; the Welsh in Wales; the Bataks in Sumatra; the Filipinos in the Philippines. Wherever there are peoples who feel strongly enough about their identities and legacies, there will usually be strong efforts to preserve and strengthen them. So we're not alone in Hawaii.

Prof. Jon Useem, a sociologist and others who have studied the life cycle of cultures, call the stage we are experiencing a "revival of neo-traditionalism." It means reviving traditional values and practices of a culture, but incorporating new elements. Since each generation brings perforce something new into the world--new perspectives, new forms, new concepts, new words--traditions must accordingly change, no matter how imperceptible it might appear on the surface. In an uncertain world, change is the only thing we can be certain about.

Understand, therefore, that the Renaissance does not mean a literal rebirth of classical Hawaiian traditions, dances, chants and so forth. To believe otherwise is to make a fetish out of tradition. We've lost too much already. Who knows, for example, what a truly traditional, pre-1778 chant sounds like? And even if we did, could any one recreate it exactly? Who would want to anyway? Creative artists are not mindless copycats. They strive to express their own selves and their own time. Consequently, today's chants are not the same as those of 1778. They are different, but yet they still retain some identifiable characteristics that we can call Hawaiian. What precisely are those characteristics, those standards by which we judge what is artistically and culturally honest, are sometimes questionable. Sometimes they lead to arguments. And, God knows, we have a lot of arguments among Hawaiians. Maybe that, too, is evidence of dynamic culture. I don't know.

At any rate, while we try to insist on certain standards of cultural integrity and authenticity, we must realize the historical reality of inevitable change. Thus, in our efforts to rediscover our roots, to reaffirm our heritage, to revive our past, we cannot always be too clear about precisely what we are rediscovering, reaffirming, or reviving. It may well be that much, if not most, of what we are reviving is new traditions that look like old traditions.

One of the most intriguing questions about the Renaissance has to do with the spillover effect into economic and political activities of Hawaiians. There is an assumption that ethnic consciousness does have an effect on the economic behavior of minorities. For example, the Community Development Corporation Program which is funded by the U.S. Office of Economic Development assumes that the new cultural awakening of the blacks, Chicanos, Indians and others had led to greater racial consciousness and that this is a modern counterpart to the Protestant ethic which motivated capitalism and the nationalism of earlier generations. Consequently, the program has deliberately designed its activities so as to exploit that feeling for economic development among minorities in AMerica.

It is difficult to trace causal relationships, but certainly one by product of the Renaissance was the organization in 1974 of the Hawaiian Businessmen's Association, still another Renaissance organization, the first of its kind in Hawaiian history. WE know that the conventional stereotype of the Hawaiians has been that they are not business-oriented. We're too undisciplined, lazy or generous. Incidentally, the word "manuahi" (or free) which is not found in the Hawaiian dictionary, is supposed to be the name of a 19th century Hawaiian businessman who presumably gained a reputation for giving his profits away.

In any case, that stereotype is being challenged today by the HBA and its members, many of whom are relatively young and successful. They represent a new generation of Hawaiians who are entering business in increasing numbers. Many have college degrees and have advanced into management positions in both small and large companies. And several are owners of their own firms or chief executives of corporations. Much of this is documented in the Association's monthly publication.

I think it is the influence of the Renaissance when HBA members try to make business culturally relevant. For example, in selecting candidates for their annual award of the outstanding Hawaiian businessman of the year, they look for someone who not only has a good balance sheet but who also exhibits the spirit of Aloha. We may be seeing the emergence of a "Hawaiian" businessman model, someone who can be successful in business yet still be generous, warm, considerate and caring. It's hard to find better evidence than the HBA's selection of Joe Kealoha, a 39-year old millionaire and Kamehameha graduate, as the outstanding Hawaiian businessman of the year.

Has the Renaissance influenced the political thinking and behavior of Hawaiians? No question. Kaho'olawe couldn't have happened in the 1950s or even the 1960s. The Renaissance was the incubator for a lot of the sympathetic feelings that the issue received from among Hawaiians, especially young Hawaiians, and non-Hawaiians alike. The protest songs written by young composers for Kaho'olawe were part and parcel of the resurgence of Hawaiian music. The rhetoric of aloha aina symbolized the whole movement of going back to the source, listening to our kupuna, finding our roots.

Nor could the so-called "Hawaiian package" of amendments have been adopted by the delegates of the Constitutional Convention and then accepted by the voters of Hawaii had the Renaissance not created the right climate. This is not to detract in any way from the efforts of individuals and groups who were directly involved in their formulation and adoption. But they could not have succeeded without knowing--or at least--perceiving that there was a reservoir of Hawaiian support. True, not all Hawaiians supported all of the amendments, but the vast majority apparently did and for those who might have wavered but voted affirmatively, their Hawaiian consciousness, shaped and strengthened by the Renaissance, made the difference, as it did in my case.

When I asked John Waihe'e, a delegate and leader of the Constitutional Convention, whether the Renaissance was a factor in the passage of the Hawaiian package, he said," It was more than a factor; it was the glue that kept the package together." He continued, "You cannot understand how it all happened without understanding the Renaissance." Out of the hundreds of proposals in all the committees, the Hawaiian proposals were the only proposals that passed unanimously our of committee. And when they were voted upon in the full assembly, the vote was almost unanimous.

The Con Con produced some significant things for Hawaiians: the Office of Hawaii Affairs, the various provisions relating to Hawaiian Home Lands, Hawaiian traditional rights, education and lands. (Incidentally one proposal calling for an elected Hawaiian King and Queen succumbed in committee.) This is certainly the most significant political legislation for Hawaiians since 1920. And, depending on how the package is implemented over the next few years, it could have enormous political implications.

PAGE 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
Primary Source Documents 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | PVSA home

© Kamehameha Schools. Statements of copyright, privacy and disclaimer.