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The Hawaiian Renaissance by George S. Kanahele
May 1979
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Just as the artist must have a proper perspective in order to paint, so must we have some kind of perspective in order to understand the Hawaiian Renaissance. Historically, if we look at Hawaiian culture over the long term, it has been in steady decline since 1778. But there have been periods of cultural resurgence during this time. The best example is the movement spearheaded by King Kalakaua both to revive and preserve traditional ways. He brought back the hula, at least to the urban areas, which had been banned and then nearly laid to eternal rest by Victorian morality. He stirred renewed interest in the legends and myths of old Hawaii. He inspired and popularized Hawaiian music, although in this respect he was more of a synthesizer than a purist. (After all, his mentor was Henry Berger.) Indeed, Kalakaua comes close to being a "renaissance man" -- cultured, learned, accomplished, versatile, cosmopolitan, and progressive.

The Kalakaua renaissance was short lived, for after he died, it was just four years before the Hawaiian Kingdom came to an end. The collapse of national sovereignty had an almost fatal effect on Hawaiian cultural integrity. I cannot say how much was lost as a result, for this is a subject that needs a great deal more research and reflection, but it must have been enormous.

It is not until the 1920s that we see a resurgence of Hawaiian activity but of a socio-cultural and political nature. This was the movement led by Prince Jonah Kuhio aimed at rehabilitating Hawaiians through a homesteading scheme, and returning them to the land. As a complement to this program, he also established the Hawaiian Civic Club designed to promote the educational and cultural welfare of native Hawaiians. The results of Kuhio's efforts were, at best, uneven and represent something less than a renaissance.

There have been other individuals who have attempted to stir up interest in preserving and maintaining Hawaiian traditions and arts. In the 1930s, George Mossman, the charismatic founder of Lalani Village, tried almost single handedly to regenerate public interest in Hawaiiana, particularly the language, chant and hula. His Village, consisting of traditional Hawaiian grass huts and even a heiau, all of which he built himself, was probably the first "Hawaiian cultural center." He offered classes in language, chant, hula, crafts and some of the ancient rituals.

Since he was a close friend of my father, I came to know him quite well as a boy. I remember him as a great white kahuna (he didn't look Hawaiian at all) who had a booming voice which seemed to grow louder whenever he spoke Hawaiian.

But he was a tragic figure as neither the public, Hawaiians included, nor Waikiki was ready for what he hoped would be a great cultural awakening. His was a voice in the wilderness that could not be heard above the din of oaths of allegiance to America. For the 1930s and '40s was a period of red-white-and-blue Americanization. Everyone tried to be good Americans which meant that you best submerge any feelings of being non- or un-American. The word "ethnicity" was unheard of. Being different, i.e., being Hawaiian or Japanese or Chinese and so on was not the in-thing to do.

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