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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 6, 2003 - Issue 95


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The Maidu Hawaiian Connection
Flash: Nisenans Taking up Hula and Speaking Hawaiian


The only things missing were the soft breeze of the Trade Winds and the sound of waves crashing on the shore. If you closed your eyes and just listened, you would have surely thought you’d been transported to the tropical islands of Hawaii instead of sitting in the shade of cedars and pines at the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center outside of Nevada City. Over 500 people attended the first North Columbia Folklife Festival on July 26, celebrating Hawaii and its California connections. The Center is the hub of culture for the rural San Juan Ridge, that also attracts audience members from afar with unique and stimulating programs.

On a warm Saturday morning, the exquisitely beautiful and moving opening prayers and chants led by Blaine Kamalani Kia set the tone for the Festival. In the words of mistress of ceremonies Sabra Kauka, “Treating each and every person with aloha, love and respect is really what the Hawaiians have to offer the world.” Aloha, love and respect were abundantly evident from beginning to end of the long day, and everyone was smiling and happy to be there-what a treat! Knowing that most of the Hawaiian participants were transplants to California, which has almost as large a Hawaiian population as Hawaii itself, made the performances even more lovely and poignant. The type of dedication to culture that preserves and practices traditions even when transplanted to alien lands is deep and strong and a tribute to the performers and presenters we enjoyed that day.

It is also a dedication shown by the Cultural Center in organizing such a festival. According to festival co-coordinator Sara Greensfelder, “We hope to establish an annual event that will celebrate, and help to preserve and strengthen, the diverse cultural traditions to be found within California. Our vision is to present historical context alongside living traditions, and to build cultural bridges of understanding.”

Kumu (teacher) Blaine Kamalani Kia and the Halau Ka Waikahe Lane Malie a me Kahulaliwai’s hula demonstration confirmed for all present that this was not some Waikiki tourist show. The sinuous grace of the ancient and traditional hulas are a delightful combination of the most dignified, pure expression of culture with something saucy and fun thrown in now and then. What a joy to watch experienced hula dancers and students alike follow in the footsteps of the ancestors, their faces transformed with the pride and spirit carried in the practice of the tradition. For California Indians in the audience it would seem to signal great hope in their cultural future. In spite of the obvious advantages Hawaiians enjoy in cultural transmission-one language, curricular support through the academic systems- it is an enormous inspiration to see the proliferation of true cultural traditions, once on the brink of disappearing. Kumu Kia is clearly an energetic and knowledgeable teacher and organizer. His halau (hula school) has spread from Oahu to Kauai to Sacramento with over 120 students! Having studied under some of the most respected and disciplined kumu hulas, Blaine works to perpetuate the traditions and cultural heritage of the hula art form. This is good news for those of us that enjoy traditional arts as these numbers are bound to create more halaus, dancers and performances!

After the hula performance, Hank Meals spoke to the audience about the early history of Hawaiians-known as Kanakas-in Northern California, with a particular emphasis on intermarriage between Hawaiian and Maidu peoples. Hawaiians came to Northern California in the late 1700s, serving as deck hands for the maritime fur trade. In the 18th century, they were employed in California maritime shipping and whaling operations, and many participated in the Gold Rush. Mr. Meals is a historical consultant and field archaeologist, and current board president of the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center. His research resulted in a study, “Hawaiian History in Northern California” that is full of wonderful stories and anecdotes and has a fabulous bibliography for anyone who wants to dig deeper (available through the Cultural Center.)

Before the lunch break, Saichi Kawahara and the Kapalakiko (Hawaiian for San Francisco) Hawaiian Band performed songs in the mele kui tradition-traditional Hawaiian music spanning the earliest ancient songs to the newly composed. The strains of the Band’s music, ‘ukulele strums and haunting falsettos was accompanied for a few selections by the captivating solo hula, both female and male, of several of the Band members. Particularly moving was the song “Kaulana Na Pua” written by Ellen Keho’ohiwaokalani Wright Pendergast. The song was written in January 1983, protesting the overthrow of Queen Liliokalani and the annexation of Hawaii by the U.S. The song expresses in the most poignant way the spirit of sovereignty and the love for the land of its people.

Vendors sold classic Hawaiian lunch-fare for the lunch break: two scoops of rice with all the trimmings. There was even a shave-ice vendor selling that most typical of all Hawaiian treats. Five members of the Ainahau O Kaleponi Hawaiian Civic Club offered hands-on demonstrations of lei kui melia and na mea lauki -lei-making from flowers and ti leaves; haku kupe`e-using flowers to make bracelets or hair pieces; ka ulana lauhala-plaiting lauhala to make bracelets; and na pa`ani Hawai`i-old Hawaiian games such as "checkers" and top spinning. The Kaleponi Hawaiian Civic Club came all the way from Huntington Beach where they provide Native Hawaiian culture and arts programs to multi-generational families and the public. They preserve and celebrate traditional practices, values, stories, foodways and plant lore through workshops, demonstrations, exhibits and weekend immersion retreats. Festival Coordinator Sara Greensfelder praised the Civic Club for their guidance and participation throughout development and production of the Festival.

After lunch, the gathering moved from the outdoor amphitheater to the Schoolhouse to listen to Harry Fonseca, renowned and internationally exhibited artist of Maidu, Hawaiian and Portuguese descent. Harry grew up near Sacramento and attended Sacramento City College and California State University at Sacramento where he studied under Wintu artist Frank LaPena. He became a student of his uncle, Henry Azbill who recounted to Harry the Maidu creation story, which was later to become the subject of a number of his paintings. Harry shared wonderful slides, tracing his personal history of the Maidu Hawaiian experience, starting with his great great grandfather Hakula, his great grandparents, his grandparents, his parents and his siblings. Harry’s family was instrumental in securing the Shingle Springs Rancheria smack dab in the middle of a gated luxury community. Harry shared with us the horror of how uncool he felt when, coming home from school, he heard Hawaiian music coming from his house, indicating that his mother and aunt were inside dancing that weird hula! Since then, he has embraced his Hawaiian roots and the audience was able to enjoy the journey with him. Finally, we were treated to slides of Harry’s work, from his early Coyote series to the Gold and Souls series right up to the current Navajo Blanket series, minimalist knock-outs that were a part of Harry’s August solo exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

Photos, genealogies and text about the Hawaiian Maidu connection were displayed on the Schoolhouse walls and allowed visitors to absorb information that they may have missed during the talks and demonstrations. Carey Camacho, one of the Bay Area’s most talented young Hawaiian musicians, is also the maker of traditional musical instruments such as the ipu heke (double gourd), puniu (knee drum) and pahu hula (large standing drum). Carey presented an instrument making talk and demonstration, followed by Kumu Blaine Kamalani Kia’s hula workshop. Both were received with great interest and enthusiasm. Mike Tomson, a story teller and teacher who spent a number of years growing up on the Micronesian Island of Palau, spoke of traditional navigation methods from the South Pacific- stick charts, star navigation, current navigation - a fascinating overview.

The astounding Hui O Ke Ao Malamalama Dancers from Shingle Springs Rancheria dazzled the audience in the late afternoon. Formed in 1997 by Rick “Kupapalani” Adams, the dance group members consist of descendants from Sacramento Valley Natives and Hawaiians who come over in the 1800’s. There are now 27 family members and associates, most between the ages of 4 and 18, dancing with the group. Shingle Springs Rancheria is a Nisenan Maidu community with deep Hawaiian roots, and located as it is in the middle of a luxury housing development, is a social, cultural and geographic marvel. Hui O Ke Ao Malamalama proved that you don’t have to come from Hawaii to do the hula and have the aloha spirit, it’s in the genes!

Carey Camacho serenaded the audience after the hula performance with his Hawaiian slack key guitar, in a distinctive style of his own. Something in the way the light hearted tones of the instrument work with the plaintive and melodic words transports you straight to the beaches of Hawaii. It was a rich and fitting way to close the program out before dinner.

With a light breeze taking the edge off a very hot day, the audience broke to partake of the Hawaiian feast that had been in the works for two days. The poi (hand carried from the Big Island) was great, the lomi lomi salmon was tops, the kalua pig drew raves from everyone-macaroni salad, a tower of fresh fruit, pineapple upside down cake- there was no end to the food and it was all delicious. People sat on the lawn around the Schoolhouse and enjoyed the cooling off of evening, the delicious food and the good company. San Juan Ridge resident Priscilla Covert, originally from Oahu, served as luau co-coordinator and head cook, while her sons John and Mikey headed up the pig-roasting team. Helpers and onlookers kept them company throughout the day as one pig turned slowly on an ingenious motor-driven spit, and another cooked underground for 12 hours, having been wrapped in leaves, covered with burlap and buried in the early morning with a bed of hot rocks. Not only was all the food delicious, it was ample-no one went away hungry.

Back to the amphitheater in the gathering dusk for last serenades by the Kapalakiko Hawaiian Band, a good night story from Mike Tomson and a moving display of the entire Halau Ka Waikahe Lani Malie, transformed with maile leis and stars in their eyes. Overseeing the entire day as MC and personifying the welcoming warmth of Hawaii was Sabra Kauka , who filled in the gaps with enchanting tales and other bits of cultural knowledge from the Islands. Sabra is a Hawaiian Studies teacher, organizer, hula practitioner, lauhala weaver and tapa maker from Kauai. She demonstrated her skills as a teacher, by leading the whole audience in learning that most unpronounceable of fish names, the humuhumkukunukuapua’a. I doubt anyone that attended will be able to look back on the day without recalling Sabra’s radiant presence. As the last strains of music slowed to a stop, the audience lingered for a moment and then slowly wandered out to their cars and back to a world where there’s more of a gold rush spirit than aloha spirit, fortified by the beauty and spirit they’d enjoyed at the Festival.

For those that made a weekend out of the Festival, artist Judith Lowry of Nevada City threw the party of the year in honor of fellow California Indian artists Harry Fonseca, Frank LaPena and Jean LaMarr. Judith wanted to bring more of her Maidu culture and the gift of Native artistry to her neighbors. Leis and tiki torches mixed with acorns and dentalia to displace the area’s prevailing 49’er mining theme and to bring a wonderful weekend to a close.

For more info about the festival: North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center, 17894 Tyler-Foote Rd., Nevada City, CA 95959, 530-265-2826,

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